Blog Tour: You’re Safe with Me by Chitra Soundar illustrated by Poonam Mistry

I’m delighted to be hosting this stop on the blog tour for You’re Safe with Me, a stunning picture book which celebrates the wonder of nature. I think we can all remember being frightened of thunder storms when we were little and this story captures that feeling and how a little bit of comfort and wisdom can allay our fears.  The beautiful, intricate illustrations will mesmerise young readers and the poetic narrative will calm their minds, making this a perfect bedtime story.

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You’re Safe with Me by Chitra Soundar & Poonam Mistry

When the moon rises high and the stars twinkle, it is bedtime for the baby animals of the Indian forest. But tonight, when the skies turn dark and the night grows stormy, the little ones can’t sleep. SWISH-SWISH! CRACK-TRACK! FLASH-SNAP! goes the storm. Only Mama Elephant with her words of wisdom can reassure them. “You’re safe with me.”

 

You’re Safe with Me is written by Chitra Soundar, an Indian-born British writer and storyteller who is inspired by the rich epics and folktales of India. She has published over 30 well-loved picture books in India and the UK.  The story is stunningly interpreted with artwork by Poonam Mistry who is a UK-based illustrator of Indian heritage. Her work is heavily influenced by nature, folklore and traditional Indian art.

Today, author Chitra Soundar will be sharing her insights and inspiration for You’re Safe with Me.  Welcome to the blog! The story is a wonderful celebration of nature and nurture.  Can you tell us the inspiration and influences behind it? This story was inspired by my training as a storyteller. I wanted to tell a story about thunderstorms – that’s both real and poetic. I wanted to evoke the beauty of nature and at the same put little children at ease about thunderstorms. Secondly I wanted to have an elephant in the story – I love watching elephants. Their gentle nature, their family relationships and how they look after their young makes them ideal storytellers too. These two things came together to bring this story to life.

The narrative text and artwork come together seamlessly; how did you work with the illustrator to make this happen? You might not be aware but writers and illustrators are not always introduced to each other while they’re working. This is because a picture book text is re-imagined by an illustrator. Poonam read the story and came up with the illustrations with some guidance from the publisher. She then incorporated my text into the pictures as if they were moulded together. So hats off to Poonam Mistry for this!

‘You’re safe with me’ makes a wonderful bedtime story. What were your favourite bedtime stories when you were young? I’m not sure we were read to during bedtime. Growing up in India, bedtime was random and late. We also lived in a tiny apartment with our grandparents, aunt and uncle. So I slept on the living room floor on a straw mat, next to my grandmother and listened to the radio. Sometimes she’d tell us stories after the lights were switched off and they were mostly stories from the epics or trickster folktales.

The story has the feel of a folktale; what do you think children can learn from folktales? Folktales carry universal truths. As a child I was heavily influenced by folktales – from ghost stories to trickster tales, most stories that were told were passed down orally. As an oral storyteller, I find that some stories have travelled the world and are available in many different cultures in different forms and shapes. Children learn about truth and justice, what’s right and wrong and more importantly life lessons from folktales. Whether they are Aesop fables or Anansi stories or Native American tales, Mulla stories or Panchatantra stories from India, folktales give us a funny view of the world and puts a lesson in it for those who can find it.

Of all the many books you’ve written which are you most proud of and why? That perhaps is the hardest question to ask any writer! Every book has achieved a milestone in my life as a writer and storyteller. I’m proud of You’re Safe With Me because it was an original story that came from my experience as a storyteller and I believed in the story. It waited over two years for a publisher to find it. But it has been worth the wait. And more importantly my two nephews have an advance copy and want to read it over and over again. And that to me, is my proudest moment of all.

Thank you Chitra for your inspiring words and we wish you every success with You’re Safe With Me!

Find out more www.lantanapublishing.com, www.chitrasoundar.comwww.poonam-mistry.com

Don’t forget to check out the rest of the blog tour!

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Blog Tour: Nimesh the Adventurer by Ranjit Singh illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini

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I’m thrilled to be hosting today’s stop on the blog tour for fantastic picture book Nimesh the Adventurer, a debut for author Ranjit Singh who is a British children’s book author of East Indian heritage. Nimesh the Adventurer is a wonderful story about a little boy with a BIG imagination. Featuring striking illustrations by Mehrdokht Amini, the story begins when the school day has finished and it’s time for Nimesh to walk home from school.  But this is no ordinary walk home – for there are dragons and sharks and all manner of adventures to be had by little Nimesh, bringing the world around him to life in the most fantastical way!  It’s a wonderful celebration of the places our imagination can take us, and how magical the world can be through a child’s eyes.nimesh 1

It’s with great pleasure I am talking to Mehrdokht Amini today, an Iranian-born illustrator who has won the Children’s Africana Best Book Award and been nominated for a Kate Greenaway Medal. Her illustrations bring Nimesh and his adventures virtually leaping off the page!

Welcome to the blog! And congratulations on the publication of Nimesh the Adventurer. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to illustrate this story. Many thanks for having me here! I spent the best moments of my childhood in a small garden in a small city surrounded by glorious mountains in a far away land. I used to imagine that behind the mountains there was a magical land where fairies and jinns lived. Years passed by and I never set foot in the magical land behind the mountains. I grew up and learned that adults have more serious matters to deal with. That is, until the day I decided to become a children’s book illustrator. Once again I found myself in the parallel world of dreams and magic and now I had an excuse to be there. So I guess the reason I became a book illustrator is the sheer enjoyment I get from living in the world of fantasy. I still like to think that maybe somewhere in the darkest place in the world a dragon is fast asleep in a cave or maybe fairies are flapping their wings around my head right now.

As for how I came to illustrate Nimesh the Adventurer, this is my second collaboration with Lantana. I had worked on another book with them, which is called Chicken in The Kitchen in 2013, which won Best Book at the Children’s Africana Book Awards and was nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal. So when Alice Curry the founder of Lantana contacted me to do this book for them, I was overjoyed by the possibility of working with them again.

The illustrations are striking; a mix of media, wonderful colour and pattern. Can you tell us about the methods you used? Thank you! For this book I tried to explore new techniques and adopt my style to match the playful mood of the story. It was really exciting because for years I had worked solely with digital software and this project allowed me to discover new ways of expressing myself through hand painting and collage. I have to thank Lantana for letting me explore the boundaries that I hadn’t crossed before.

As for my method, let me explain it through one of the pictures of the book. After brooding over the overall composition in my mind for some time, I started with some quick sketching with a UNI PIN pen just to make sure the composition worked for the spread. This is usually the most important part of the work for me because it is the foundation of the work and the basic ideas and overall composition is hardly changed in the next stages.

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Then I started to work on each element of the picture separately and scanned the whole thing into digital files. image2.jpgSometimes I shoot some photos or use my own photo archive for some details. Looking at some related pictures and doing an intense research also helps me to come up with ideas. For this spread I looked at lots of images from the Indian and Persian miniatures.

 

After taking all the materials into Photoshop I assembled them and finalised the sketch and then sent it to my editor for approval. image5.jpgAfter approval I started all over again going through each element on separate layers in Photoshop.image6.jpgIn a detailed picture like this one sometimes I have to work on twenty to thirty layers, which is a complex process. But I also have to add here that after the approval of the sketch the rest of the process is really fun to do. image7.jpg

What an incredible process. Thank you for your sharing this with us! Nimesh the Adventurer is Ranjit Singh’s debut picture book. It must have been exciting to work on this with him and also quite a responsibility.  Do you have a particular process when you are illustrating another author’s work? I don’t have a particular process but I prefer not to meet the author before the sketching stage because I worry about being influenced by the way the writer imagines the story. Once a picture is formed in my mind, whether it is coming from the writer/editor or my own, it is difficult for me to shake it off so I would rather feel free to imagine the story as I like in this stage. Occasionally I have worked with authors who have tried to control the visual aspects of the work and I have found it a bit difficult. In the case of Nimesh I really felt at ease with Ranjit and although we discussed some imagery through the editors we trusted in each other’s ability from the start.

Do you have a favourite scene in the story? Mine is the princess scene. I had a vivid picture in my mind for this spread from the beginning and the fact that its orientation is different from the rest of the images makes it more interesting for me.

I love your dedication at the beginning to all the “little ones with big imaginations”! How important is it to celebrate and encourage this in children? I think that childhood is a stage for imagination to flourish because children still don’t know about the laws of nature and fantasising about their surroundings often satisfies their curiosity. In a child’s mind it is easy to make a ladder and go to the moon, get into a serious discussion with a toy, and wait for the arrival of Santa. Sadly we lose this ability gradually when we start to learn about the facts of life and the law of causality.  In my view this period of imagination and fantasy is vital for a child’s mental development because the richer and more colourful it is the more creative the child becomes later in life. Books play a pivotal role in enriching this period of life for children.

I couldn’t agree more and I wish you every success with Nimesh the Adventurer! Thank you for sharing your inspiration and insight with us today.

Find out more at www.lantanapublishing.com. With thanks to Lantana Publishing for inviting me to participate in this blog tour.  Hear more about this wonderful story on the rest of the blog tour:

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Blog tour: Kaya’s Heart Song by Diwa Tharan Sanders & Nerina Canzi

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Kaya’s Heart Song by Diwa Tharan Sanders and Nerina Canzi 

Kaya is looking for her heart song – the song that happy hearts sing. Her search takes her on a journey deep into the jungle where a broken down carousel waits for a very special song to make it turn again…

I’m thrilled to be hosting this stop on the blog tour for Kaya’s Heart Song by Diwa Tharan Sanders, illustrated by Nerina Canzi. This beautifully illustrated and joyous story focuses on Kaya’s adventure to find her heart song and share her magical journey with all around her! I’m talking to the author Diwa Tharan Sanders, a Malaysian author of Indian-Filipino heritage. At a young age, Diwa discovered that writing gave her the freedom to be as bold, funny or as clever as she dared. As an adult, Diwa finds newfound freedom in using heart and spirit to capture the minds and imaginations of young readers everywhere.

Congratulations on your beautiful story Kaya’s Heart SongTell us about your inspiration for writing it.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book that delivered an inspirational message in a manner that children could related to. I also felt that in order to do so, I had to tap into my own inner child to tell a story that was either from experience or close to my heart. Kaya’s Heart Song is a reflection of both these things. At the time of writing, I was going through a re-birth of careers, if you like. I had moved out of the city, left the 9-to-5 grind and suddenly found myself with the time and space to do everything and also nothing. Having this luxury and freedom was in itself a journey of self-discovery and so when I started writing this story (it’s actually the fourth in a series of other stories I had written about Kaya), I poured what I was experiencing at the time into it. And through this process of discovering my own heart song, Kaya’s Heart Song came to form. Because I was living on a beautiful tropical island and spending my time in amongst trees and nature these elements were naturally reflected in my book.

The story is centred on the ideas of mindfulness and how to get to a place of self-awareness. Why did you want to write about this for children? It’s interesting that the idea of mindfulness is the centre of my book as that was not my original intention. I wanted to tell a story of being true to your heart and following the beat of your own drum. And in that process and I suppose as I fell into my own heart’s desires in order to write the book, this story about mindfulness revealed itself. I think it’s wonderful for children to have an awareness of being mindful because it’s important for everyone to make a conscious choice to slow down, take a breath and just allow – anything and everything to be. Anything cultivated from a young age, usually continues as we grow and so learning about mindfulness – whether its about being able to acknowledge how you’re feelings in the present moment, observing the present moment in silence, or pausing to take a few deep breaths – are all powerful tools that keep us grounded, balanced and more connected to ourselves.

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The magical elephant carousel is beautiful! Is there significance in choosing elephants for the children to ride on? I’m glad you think so! I love it too, Nerina did a wonderful job. Well, I chose to include elephants because I love them. We have elephants in Malaysia and to me, they symbolise strength, wisdom and protection. Carousels have always reminded me of my childhood; they’re fun, magical and whimsical. So marrying these two seemed like an appropriate way to introduce elements that reminded me of the joys of being a young child, while keeping an Asian relevance to the story.

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Your story is brought to life with amazing illustrations. Tell us about working with an illustrator. I cannot begin to tell you how much I love Nerina’s illustrations. As a first-time author, I feel incredibly lucky to have been paired with such an amazing illustrator. Nerina truly brought magic to my words through her illustrations. The process was very smooth and such a delight, to be honest. Once we had Kaya’s character nailed down, every single drawing that I saw after was truly so spot on, so beautiful and so special. I was in tears when I saw the first few illustrations, because she captured the essence of Kaya and the story so perfectly, I couldn’t have dreamed it better myself. I loved working with Nerina and although we haven’t even met in person (yet!) I feel like I’ve built a connection with her through this process.

I noticed in the dedication you mention your father and reading. Can you tell us about the stories you enjoyed as a child? Wow, this question is taking me a long way back! Well, I spent most of my formative years in Boston, Massachusetts so I guess my favourite books are flavoured by growing up there.

I enjoyed reading stories about characters that were uncommon or not people, who were curious and courageous and anything that was set in nature and had adventure, magic or human relationships (although I didn’t really understand them at that age) in them. Some of my favourite stories growing up in Boston include Curious George, Bread and Jam for Frances, The Little House, Strega Nona and Where The Wild Things Are.

It’s wonderful to hear the story behind Kaya’s Heart Song and your inspiration and experience as a writer.  Thank you and we wish you every success with Kaya!

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For more information please visit www.lantanapublishing.com

With thanks to Lantana Publishing for inviting me to participate in this blog tour! Discover the rest of the tour on these brilliant blogs:

 

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Blog tour: The Eye of the North – Sinead O’Hart

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Today is my stop on the blog tour for Sinéad O’Hart’s debut book The Eye of the North.  I’m delighted to welcome Sinéad for a bookchat about this fantastic fantasy middle grade novel and the inspiration behind her writing.  You can read my full review of The Eye of the North here.

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Sinéad lives in Ireland with her husband and daughter. She has had many jobs in her life including working as a butcher and a bookseller.  Sinéad has a degree in Medieval Studies, a PhD in Old and Middle English Language and Literature and can read Middle English with perfect fluency!

Welcome to the blog Sinéad and congratulations on the publication of your debut novel. I loved it! Thank you so much! I’m very glad to hear that. 

Tell us about the inspiration behind The Eye of the North. The inspiration behind The Eye of the North goes back a long way. Almost twenty years ago now, I was working in a job I didn’t like very much, and whenever my mind wandered I found myself thinking about a girl – wait for it – working in a job she didn’t like. The differences between that fictional girl (her name was Emma Marvell) and me were many, though; Emma worked in an office which catalogued and stored artefacts and samples from the mythical and legendary creatures of the world, which were sent in by a team of roving explorers. My job wasn’t a fraction so interesting. In Emma’s story, she receives a strange sample one day from an explorer who was last seen in Tromsø, Norway, which gives the impression that he has witnessed the killing of an extremely endangered, and officially mythical, creature – but Emma knows he’s lying. She sets off to get to the truth of what’s going on. I had such great plans for that story, but it never got written. However, the core of it – mythical creatures at the north of the world, valiant scientists struggling to protect them, a girl and a stowaway boy she meets on her journey – have stayed the same. When I came to write The Eye of the North, the story flowed out of my head almost fully formed.

You’ve created an amazing cast of both real and magical creatures. It must be hard not to get carried away when writing about mythical beasts! Do you find it easier to write about human or fantasy characters and how do you go about this? That is such a fascinating question – thank you for asking! It is a bit hard not to pile on the description when you’re talking about a particularly fearsome mythical creature, or to give your not-quite-human baddies all the evil powers you can think of, but I don’t know if I find it harder to write about them than I do about my human characters. I guess fantasy characters have ‘baggage’ – we expect the Yeti, for example, to do Yeti-ish things, if that makes sense, so it already has a character before an author starts writing – or you create them from scratch, so you can decide the parameters of what they can do. Of course, your mythical characters can be written against type, and can do unexpected things, but I think in general I find human characters more complicated, as there can be more layers to them. Certainly, that was true in this book, even though I loved creating some of the fantasy characters, particularly the Northwitch.

Thing is a particularly interesting chap – a bit of a rogue, but a heart of gold. Where did the idea for him come from? I think Thing emerged as a natural foil to Emmeline, and his character was built around that. Emmeline is logical and rational; Thing is impulsive and a bit scatty. Emmeline is guarded and can appear cold at first, because her feelings are so deeply held; Thing wears his heart on his sleeve and with him, what you see is what you get (not including, of course, the secret pain he hides from everyone, including himself). Emmeline is not, shall we say, a people person; Thing thrives on spectacle and makes connections easily, for the most part. I loved their interaction, and how they complemented one another. On the surface they seem very different, but in truth they are quite alike, as both are searching for some version of family, and they are both quite lonely, in their own way.

The plot is full of twists and turns, keeping the reader on the edge of their seat. How did you go about writing the many threads running through it – are you a ‘planner’ or does it evolve naturally? The Eye of the North, perhaps because it had percolated in my head for so many years, largely wrote itself. I didn’t plan it, and I would normally be a planner when it comes to writing – but in this case, the story just flowed. There were scenes, particularly near the end, where I didn’t know how a situation was going to resolve itself until I wrote it, and that surprised me. I knew where I wanted the story to end up, and I knew what fate I wanted for Emmeline and Thing, but as to how they were going to get there… well. I pretty much worked that out as I went, which I know isn’t at all helpful! Of course, the story was edited repeatedly and some plot strands were made stronger or more clear, some were excised completely, and a whole character (a baddie) was removed, so it wasn’t as effortless as I’m making it sound.

The Eye of the North is a fantasy novel. Do you plan to stick with this genre and are you working on anything at present? I love fantasy – mostly because I love mythical creatures, and have always done – so I will certainly try to tell more stories featuring our beloved fantastical beasts in the future. I also love stories in which a ‘normal’ world intersects with or is somehow interrupted by another reality, one in which unexplained things might happen, so that’s something I’d like to explore in future work. I love creating worlds like our own where someone has a power or talent which is outside the normal range of human ability – I have a future work-in-progress like this one on the back burner. As for what I’m working on: I’ve finished a second book, which isn’t a sequel to The Eye of the North, and it involves a girl and her pet tarantula and a boy and his pet mouse who are inexplicably linked across time and space, and who must work together to stop a terrible villain. It’s with my editors at the moment, and while I’m waiting for their feedback I’m making a start into a sequel to The Eye of the North – just in case anybody wants one.

You’ve been writing since you were young. What keeps you motivated to write and do you have any tips for aspiring writers out there? Motivation to write can be hard to come by – particularly since I became a parent! Finding time, finding ‘headspace’, and finding inspiration can all come under pressure when you’re busy, but it always comes back to this, for me: I can’t not write. If I don’t write for a while, I find the itch to start again always kicks in and I can’t help but think about characters and plots while I’m doing the washing-up or hosting conversations between characters in my head while pushing the pram, or whatever it might be. Sometimes I have time to write but I really don’t want to, and in those moments I sometimes push through and write anyway, but more often than not I give myself a break. Your brain needs rest, too. And writing isn’t always about putting words on a page: thinking and daydreaming and plotting and brainstorming and designing your characters are all important and can be part of the process – though it’s important to find the balance, and make sure you’re getting the words down, too, as often as you can.

As for tips for aspiring writers: read, read, read as much as you can, both because you’re hungry for stories and because you want to learn. Every story you consume teaches you something about creating them. When you write, don’t hold back; write whatever’s in your heart and head, and don’t worry about what people might think of it. Express yourself and be proud of the uniqueness of what you’re creating – because even if it feels like you’re not writing anything terribly ‘new’, your voice and your experience will make it new. And then, if you want to write for publication, my advice is to develop patience and resilience, because it takes a long time, and you will have many knock-backs on the way. I have been rejected by almost every major publisher in the UK and the US, and you’ve got to wear that like a badge of honour! Also, learning to take criticism and separating yourself from your work is important, and probably the hardest aspect of the job for me. But if it’s what you want, never give up. Never let anyone make you believe you can’t do it. People like me – very ordinary people – are doing it every day of the week. If we can, so can you.

Thank you so much for some wonderful words of inspiration and the exciting news there could one day be a sequel and good luck with The Eye of the North!

Thank you to Stripes Publishing for sending me a review copy of this book and for the pleasure of hosting this stop on the blog tour.   Check out the rest of the blog tour for more brilliant bookish chat!

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Bookchat: Jo Simmons author of I Swapped my Brother on the Internet!

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I’m very pleased to welcome author Jo Simmons to the blog today! Jo’s latest book ‘I Swapped My Brother on the Internet!’ is her first book for Bloomsbury. Read my full review here.

Jo began her life as a journalist and her first fiction series for children, Pip Street, was inspired by her own kids’ love of funny fiction.Jo Simmons Author PicMore books followed and in addition to children’s fiction, Jo has co-written several non-fiction books for adults.  She lives in Brighton with her family and her dog.

Welcome to the blog Jo! Congratulations on the publication of your latest book! Tell us about the inspiration for the story. Back in about 2014, a friend of mine told me how her daughter was being grumpy one evening and said she wished there was a website where she could swap her mum and get a better one. It was that classic light-bulb moment. What a great idea! I knew I wanted to write that story, but with brothers, partly because I have two sons but also because I wanted to keep the drama between and about children.

9781408877753How did you decide on who Jonny would receive as a swap? Were there lots of characters in mind – I can imagine the possibilities must have been endless!! (Henry the Eighth’s ghost was particularly funny!)  I decided each failed swap had to teach Jonny something about his actual brother, Ted, and about himself, too. Gradually, Jonny would work out that Ted was the only brother he could ever have and the best one, too, for all his flaws. I also love writing daft characters, so I wanted there to be a good mix of oddballs and impossible people, to make the comedy more left field. So there’s a merboy and the boy raised by meerkats. I think I was reading Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel at the time, and loving it, so Henry VIII plays a big part, too!

It’s a very funny take on sibling rivalry – do you have siblings and if so, would you ever be tempted to swap them?! I have an older brother. He definitely bossed me about and teased me when we were little. The time he squashed a Dairylea Triangle against my forehead in front of our friends has gone down in family legend. I was also very loyal to him, though, and we have a great bond today. I dedicated the book to him and no, I wouldn’t be tempted to swap him. I also have two sons and, when writing the story, I was watching the older one pulling away from his little brother. He had started secondary school and was becoming more grown up and, as a result, more critical of his little sibling. Ted and Jonny mirror, to some extent, what was happening at home with my two boys.

Children often ask for something funny to read when they’re choosing a book. Why do you think humour in books for children is important? For so many reasons! Laughing comes naturally to kids so they’re really up for funny fiction; they get it! It can also tempt reluctant readers in and persuade them that reading isn’t boring or worthy. It works for reluctant parents, too. I always preferred reading funny books to my children at bedtime, after a long day. We’d do the voices and snort at the jokes and it was a lovely bonding experience. Funny fiction tends to have an energy and anarchy to it, too, which I think children relate to. It can still deal with issues important to youngsters, from fear of change to friendship troubles, but does it with a light touch. Finally, funny fiction tends to include a triad of delights – funny characters, funny language and funny situations – that entertain young readers and can put a fire under their own creative writing, too, showing them what’s possible when you’re writing for laughs.

You have written a number of books for children and also nonfiction for adults and worked as a journalist. How does the writing process and experience differ when writing for children? I find writing fiction the hardest. There is a lot that goes into even just a 10,000 word book. Dreaming up the characters, creating a decent plot, making sure it clips along – it’s surprisingly tricky. But I love writing for children above all else, especially funny fiction. There is license to be silly and imaginative, to push the bounds of possibility and create really joyful, daft characters, often based on people you know, but considerably exaggerated. It’s just great, great fun.

It must have been fun seeing your characters brought to life through illustration – tell us about working with an illustrator.  I’ve never met Nathan who illustrated I Swapped My Brother On The Internet, but we do chat together over email. My editor and I drew up a shortlist of possible scenes to be illustrated then he got to work, but it was super exciting seeing his first roughs and how he had interpreted the characters. That leap from description to illustration is thrilling, and good illustrators like Nathan always bring more to each character than the writer can alone, adding little quirky details that just make the story fly.

Are you planning on any more adventures for Jonny or working on something different? Not for Jonny, but I do have a new book out with Bloomsbury in August 2018, featuring a boy called Danny and an amazing discovery he makes on a tiny Scottish island. It’s called The Dodo Made Me Do It.

Thank you Jo for participating in bookchat! I can’t wait to read all about Danny and his adventures.banner new

 

With thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for arranging this bookchat!

Bookchat: Mark Powers, author of Spy Toys!

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Have you met the Spy Toys?! If not, Christmas might be a great time to introduce them to your children!!  There’s Dan, the super-strong teddy bear, Arabella, the doll with a serious temper, and Flax, the gadget-crazy robot rabbit.  Originally unwanted, now they’re part of a top-secret agency whose job it is to save the world – of course! In their latest hilarious and thrilling adventure Spy Toys: Out of Control, the trio do battle with a deadly unicorn and even a slightly jumbled up jigsaw. Complete with state of the art gadgets and daring deeds, brilliantly brought to life  by Tim Wesson’s fantastic illustrations, the Spy Toys series would be a fantastic addition to any young reader’s bookshelf!

Today, author Mark Powers joins me for a bookchat and shares some of the inspiration behind the adventures. Welcome to the blog Mark!

Congratulations on the publication of the second in the Spy Toys series! Tell us about the inspiration behind the stories. Thank you! I’d had the three main characters – a teddy bear, a rabbit and a rag doll – in my head for quite a while. I imagined them sharing a flat and bickering a bit like characters in a sitcom. Then I saw Marvel’s first Avengers film and it struck me it would be fun to turn this trio of toys into a crime-fighting team, to give each special powers and action scenes that would allow them to fire off snappy one-liners at the bad guys. I like writing about teams and how clashing personalities can sometimes get in the way of solving problems.

The Spy Toys stories are full of fun and it feels like you’re having great fun as a writer with the characters and the humour throughout.  Has your experience of writing them been as enjoyable as it seems?! It’s been enormous fun. I get a real kick out of writing for these characters. The fact they’re not human means I can push the slapstick a lot further than I’d normally be allowed in children’s fiction. There’s a cartoony aspect to it. If a major character in a regular children’s book got their head chopped off, it would be a pretty horrific thing. If it happens to one of the SPY TOYS, they can just have it reattached with a screwdriver at the end of the scene.

What were your childhood experiences of writing and reading and how have they helped inform your creativity? I loved reading and writing. In primary school I would often read fairly adult stuff like Ray Bradbury and Douglas Adams. When I got to comprehensive school, my friend Richard and I used to write and record comedy sketches on tape using BBC sound effects records. We did that for a good few years and it was fantastic practice at comedy writing. So much so, in fact, that by the time I was in the school 6th form, I was earning money regularly by writing material for comedy shows on Radio 4 and Radio 2.

The books include great illustrations by Tim Wesson. Did you always plan to have the stories illustrated and how do you work with Tim to bring the characters to life?It was always the plan to have illustrations. I had input and approval over how the characters looked but really the main liaison with Tim was done by the editor and designer at Bloomsbury. When I first started to write children’s books I imagined they’d be meetings with writer, illustrator, designer and editor sitting around a table (with cakes, preferably) and thrashing out between us what we wanted the illustrations to be. In reality, things are much more rarefied and most communication is via email.

The Spy Toys characters each have their own unique personality; I love the idea of the bear who hugs too hard and even the slightly less amiable rough and tough sunshine doll!! How do you go about creating the characters featured in the books?In any story, but particularly with comedy, you need contrasting character types. So a placid teddy bear, a spiky rag doll and a nerdy rabbit seemed a good combination. Again, I was lucky in having three non-human central characters. Kid heroes in books can be a bit bland and it’s the sidekick or supporting characters who tend to be the really funny ones. With SPY TOYS I have three fairly dysfunctional characters centre stage, so it’s easy to set them bickering with each other or anyone else they encounter.

Spy Toys has been described as James Bond meets Toy Story. If you could be any character – good or bad – in a spy story who would it be and why?! It might be fun to be a super-villain of the type you get in Bond films. To come up with some dastardly plan. Maybe I’d create a machine that zaps people if they talk during a film or open sweet wrappers noisily.

What can we expect in the next Spy Toys mission ‘Undercover’?! I can’t wait to see who the villain is – how will you top the dastardly unicorn?!! Oh, the usual mix of action, adventure, laughs, high emotion and petty squabbling. Glad you liked John the Unicorn! He was a lot of fun to write. In Undercover we meet diminutive child genius April Spume, who’s leader of a SPECTRE-like evil organisation of super-intelligent kids (called SIKBAG!) In this book, our three heroes go undercover in an ordinary primary school. The first book concentrated on Dan the teddy bear, the second on Arabella the rag doll, so in this third the main focus is on Flax, the ex-police rabbit. Slightly to my surprise, he’s shaping up to be the most popular character of the three.

Thank you Mark! I’m looking forward to reading Spy Toys: Undercover!

 

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Find out more at www.spytoysbooks.co and www.timwesson.co.uk.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for sending me this book to review and organising this bookchat!

 

 

 

 

 

Bookchat: A.F Harrold, poet and author

banner newThe last time I saw A F Harrold, he was performing poetry to a classroom full of utterly enraptured children at the Bookchat Roadshow.  It was absolutely brilliant to see how much the children enjoyed the poems and the performer!  I’m delighted he is joining us today to talk about his new book, Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space (review available here, illustrated by Joe Todd Stanton) and all things writing. Thank you for participating Mr Harrold!

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A F Harrold performing poetry

Congratulations on the publication of Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space! It’s fun, full of quirky characters and a great mix of sci-fi and sleuthing . Can you tell us about the inspiration behind it? Hi Victoria. Greta comes from a combination of things I typed and things I mistyped. Back in the first Fizzlebert Stump book one of the books Fizz borrows from the library was called The Great Zargo of somewhere or other. It sounded a good sort of science fictiony sort of thing Fizz might enjoy, and when I came, a few years later, to start thinking about a new series the name popped back into my mind. I type quite quickly, but because of the ways in which my fingers move there are a few words I’m forever typing wrong and having to go back and correct… one of these is ‘great’, which, if I’m typing at a gallop, always comes out ‘greta’. And so Greta was born, inside the spelling mistake that appears inside the book!

I’ve always read science fiction, and always loved science fiction, but I’d never really written any (The Song From Somewhere Else probably counts, but that’s about it), and this seemed a bit odd. So I wanted to write some. And I wanted it to be funny. Because funny books are a Good Thing. And so, after a lot of sitting around and staring into the air, several baths, and quite a few biscuits, Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space was born.

Throughout the story there are footnotes (or more appropriately sidenotes) adding interesting anecdotes to the narrative which I loved; why did you decide to include these?  Who doesn’t love footnotes? They’re a way of having ‘a bit more’ without getting in the way of the story. They’re especially useful for (a) comedy (because you add in extra jokes) or (b) academic articles about herring pickling in 18th century Sweden (because you can cite your sources). Fortunately, as far as I can see, no one has mistaken Greta Zargo for an academic article about herring pickling in 18th century Sweden.

There are some wonderful and quirky characters in the story. I particularly loved Greta’s eccentric Aunt. Where do you draw inspiration from for your characters? And I have to say, how do you decide on the fantastic names you’ve given them?! Characters just walk into scenes as I type and if they’re at all interesting then they stay. There are occasionally very boring ones who turn up, but I’m ruthless in deleting them at the first opportunity, unless they’re boring in a funny way. That might sound a bit odd, but it’s true, the best characters walk in and surprise me. I don’t know what they’re going to say to Greta when she questions them and I listen to their answers as I type them. This is the most exciting bit about writing these books, I think, is finding out about the inhabitants of Upper Lowerbridge at the same time as the reader.

Where do their names come from? I blame the parents.

Being married to huge fan of cake, I can very well imagine the consternation if cake was stolen from my household. Can you tell us- 1) do you eat cake? 2) if so, what is your favourite? 3) if not, why not? (And what do you have with tea if not cake?!) (1) Yes, I eat cake if the opportunity arises. (2) I’m going to say Battenberg, because it has just the right amount of marzipan. (3) I said I do, so I don’t have to answer this one.

The sci-fi elements in the story are great and often times, very amusing – even with the inevitable destruction of planets going on – the Bar-Tarry-Tuffians spring to mind! Did this involve any scientific research – I’m thinking of the impressive references to hyper spatial physics, measuring of light years and so on?! I don’t remember doing any particular research before writing any of the outer space chapters, other than a lifetime of reading and watching sci-fi and sci-fact books and programmes.

That lifetime of experience has been composting inside my head for long enough that some of it made sense when mixed up and spilt onto the page. It’s fascinating to look back and remember when I was a kid we knew of no other planets outside our solar system, and now there are thousands of exo-planets known. And as our techniques and our instruments become better we’re finder smaller and more Earth-like planets out there, even around nearby stars. I don’t doubt that on some of these worlds life has arisen, and maybe even what we would call ‘intelligent’ life.

The gaps between the stars are so immense though, that it would take many lifetimes for people to travel between and so one of the ways it has been suggested we explore the galaxy is by making self-replicating robots, like the ones in the book. Because these robots don’t grow old like we do, they could spend the centuries travelling between planets without dying or going mad. And when they get there, if they have the ability to make more copies of themselves they can then send those out to other star systems.

These self-replicating machines are called Von Neumann probes, and I don’t remember where I first heard about them. But they’re not my idea, just something that made its way into the book because it made sense. The lesson of this is – those useless bits of information you once learnt might turn out to be useful after all, so never turn them away… let them live in your head – one day they might become a book.

When you’re writing fiction, do words come more easily than when you’re writing poetry? Do you have a specific process for each form of writing? I try not to think too much about it, either sort of writing. I just try to get on with it, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t and it feels like your banging an empty head against a brick wall of blank paper, then that just means it’s time to go have another bath.

When we last met at the Bookchat Roadshow, you had some wonderful advice for the audience regards encouraging children’s creativity. You said that whatever their means of expression – writing, art, poetry, drama – we should encourage children to express themselves in the way that’s best for them.  Who has given you the greatest encouragement for your work and what motivates you to keep writing? What motivates me to keep writing? That’s an odd question. I don’t know what else to do. I think it’s as simple as that. I don’t write every day and I don’t write an awful lot, but if I go any length of time without making something (and the making is usually with words in one way or another) then I feel antsy and irritable and unfulfilled and awkward and sad. I would make things with words (poems, stories, songs…) even if no one wanted to read them, even if no one was paying me to do it. Maybe not the books I’m writing right now, but who knows? (After all, I spent many years writing things that no one paid me for, before I ever had a book published.)

As for who has encouraged me… there’s such a long list, but a few I would like to mention include my editors at Bloomsbury, Kate and Hannah and Zöe, who have helped make the books we’ve published better than they would have been if I’d been doing it on my own. Part of their job is to send me back to my desk when what I’ve given them hasn’t been good enough, or funny enough, or right enough. And the fact they think I can do better makes me try harder and make the books better. Also my partner, Iszi, who suggested I try writing stories for kids, instead of just poems, in the first place. And more abstractly, out there in the world of children’s writing, many authors whose books I read or who I meet at events – they inspire me, by making Good Things themselves and showing that it can be done.

And finally, two very special sets of people – the kids I meet when I visit schools… the fact that some of them have been reading my books and seem to enjoy them makes the effort that sometimes went into making the books seem worthwhile – and secondly, the illustrators who get given my words and who make the books look so beautiful (Sarah Horne, Emily Gravett, Levi Pinfold, Chris Riddell and, for Greta Joe Todd-Stanton)… seeing what they do, the magic they work… oh it makes me want to do good, for them. I don’t want them wasting their time on any old rubbish!

So lots of people encourage and inspire me and my work.

Thank you so much for taking the time to join us and share the inspiration behind your work. 

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Read my review of Greta Zargo here.

Find out more at www.afharroldkids.com and www.joetoddstanton.com

With thanks to Bloomsbury Books for organising this interview.

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