Follow the Yellow

Archive of ‘children’s books’ category

On the radio



In the studio! Me (with mic for head), Tanya, Alex and Laura

As you know, last week my children’s book radio show, Down the Rabbit Hole, took to the airwaves on Resonance 104.4FM! You can listen to it here:

Down The Rabbit Hole – 18th February 2014 by Resonance Fm on Mixcloud

The idea for Down the Rabbit Hole originally came about following the recent discussions about the lack of proper coverage of children’s books in the media. Even though children’s books account for almost a fourth of all book sales in the UK, they receive only a tiny proportion of media coverage compared to books for adults. That has always seemed extraordinary to me – not just because so many families are interested in children’s books, but also because they are such rich artworks in their own right – and just as worthy of ‘proper’ discussion as adult literature.

The opportunity to do the show came about when arts radio station Resonance FM offered up one of their Clear Spot sessions, which are set aside for experimenting with new programme ideas. I’m a big fan of Resonance, who have a hugely diverse and interesting programme, and they seemed the ideal home for a deeper discussion of children’s literature.

I had envisioned the show as being a bit like BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, but exclusively for children’s books, so my first job was to find a panel to discuss a selection of books with me. Happily, I was lucky enough to find four brilliant and enthusiastic speakers to be involved –Tanya Byrne, Melissa Cox, Laura Dockrill and Alex T Smith.

Next up, we needed an interesting selection of new children’s and teenage books to discuss. These are the titles we talked about in detail in the programme:

  • Meet the Parents by Peter Bently and Sara Ogilvie (Simon & Schuster)
  • Squishy McFluff: The Invisible Cat by Pip Jones and Ella Okstad (Faber Children’s Books) – check out the trailer we played on the show here
  • Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault (Walker Books)
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (Macmillan Children’s Books)
  • The Worst Witch series by Jill Murphy (Puffin Books)

Feature items were provided by Nikesh Shukla, who gamely became our ‘roving reporter’ and interviewed graphic novelists the Etherington Brothers in Bristol; the Hot Key Books team, who gave us a peep behind the scenes into children’s publishing; and agent extraordinaire Louise Lamont, who offered up her tips on how aspiring children’s writers and illustrators could attract an agent’s attention (with added Antonio Banderas).

I was also lucky enough to have contributions from the likes of Philip Ardagh, Liz Pichon, Tom Moorhouse and James Dawson, who generously shared their thoughts on ‘the book they would give to their 10-year-old self’ as part of the campaign to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.

Recording the show was a bit nerve-racking – I’d done one ‘down the line’ radio interview before, but never set foot in a proper recording studio, and I was feeling a bit anxious as we sat in a Southwark cafe chatting before the pre-recording session. Thankfully I had an exceptional bunch of speakers at my side and Resonance were welcoming and made the technical side super easy for us. The recording session ended up being really good fun and we could happily have gone on for another hour, chatting about our favourite spreads from Jane, the Fox and Me, listening to Laura read from her new book Darcy Burdock: Hi So Much, talking about why The Worst Witch is so brilliant, and discussing what books we’d have given to our 10-year-old selves.

Louise having her 'Evita' moment: the panel getting ready in the studio

Louise having her ‘Evita’ moment: the panel getting ready in the studio

It was far more nerve-wracking listening to the broadcast when it went out on Tuesday night – but hearing all the generous and supportive feedback from listeners on Twitter was absolutely brilliant. The hugely positive response to the show on Tuesday (and again on Wednesday morning when the show was repeated) proved to me without any doubt that there’s an appetite for more discussion of children’s books of this kind – not just from authors, illustrators and the industry, but also amongst teachers, librarians, parents and the general public. It was lovely to see tweets like these ones:


There have been some great blog posts about the show, including these lovely ones from author Susie Day, and blog Good for Your Soul. I also love this one from Louise about taking part, in which she describes me as ‘the Mickey Rooney of children’s books in the media’ (I think that’s a compliment?)

Huge thanks to everyone who took part in the show, to Resonance, and to everyone who tuned in. We hope to find a way to continue the show, so if you enjoyed it do share your feedback by leaving a comment or tweeting with the hashtag #DownTheRabbitHole.

Down the Rabbit Hole


Just a quick post about something rather exciting that’s coming up next week. I’ll be producing and hosting a special one-off radio programme all about children’s books on Resonance FM – Down the Rabbit Hole.

The programme features four brilliant panellists, who’ll be joining me to talk about some of the best new children’s and teenage books – Tanya Byrne, Laura Dockrill and Alex T Smith, plus Waterstones Children’s New Titles buyer (and all-round children’s book guru) Melissa Cox.

As well as talking about some great  books, the programme will also feature everything from author interviews to tips for aspiring children’s writers, to a peek behind the scenes in children’s publishing – and even hopefully a few Alice in Wonderland-themed songs along the way!

You can listen to the show on Tuesday 18 February at 8.00pm on 104.4FM or online at and it will also be repeated on Wednesday 19 February at 9.00am.

If you do have a listen, I would love to hear what you think. We’re planning to continue the discussions on Twitter after the show so please do join in and tweet me your feedback using the hashtag #downtherabbithole.

[Image via Pinterest]

Busy days

I’ve not been very good at posting here regularly in recent months, but that’s no great surprise given that it’s been such a jam-packed autumn.

Things got off to a pretty good start at the end of August, when I was lucky enough to chair a great children’s book event at Waterstones Piccadilly – Seeing the World Differently. This panel discussion featured three incredible authors: Carnegie Medal winner Sally Gardner, acclaimed teen author Laura Jarratt, and R J Palacio, the author of the award-winning Wonder. Meeting them and chatting with them about their work – in particular how they’ve approached the subject of difference – was a real privilege. The event was written up by Sister Spooky and Armadillo Magazine.


With Tanya Byrne and Lauren Kate at Waterstones Piccadilly

In fact, one way or another I seem to have spent quite a lot of time at Waterstones Piccadilly this autumn – and not just roaming the shelves to look at lovely new books I want to buy. It’s where I interviewed Queen of Teen Maureen Johnson for Booktrust, had the chance to meet one of my all-time author heroines, the legendary Susan Cooper; and attended an inspiring event with David Levithan. More recently I was back in front of the audience, trying not to fall off the  high stool and cracking bad jokes, chairing an event entitled UK vs US : is any subject taboo in YA literature? with young adult authors Tanya Byrne and Lauren Kate. The event was written up by a few bloggers, including Nosegraze (voila, le très unflattering photo) and Mira Ink.

In October I whizzed over to Bath for the Bath Children’s Literature Festival, where Malorie Blackman was appearing in her capacity as Children’s Laureate. I also went along to the autumn London Film and Comic Con for a special event to announce one of Malorie’s major Children’s Laureate projects – the UK’s first ever Young Adult Literature Convention, which will take place at London Film and Comic Con next year. It’s been really exciting working on plans for the YA Lit Con (follow #YALC on Twitter for all the latest) and I’m even more excited about the event itself, coming up in July 2014.

Children’s Book Week took place in October: I wrote and edited this year’s Booktrust Best Book Guide, which was sent to all UK schools in their Children’s Book Week packs. This year, to celebrate Children’s Book Week Booktrust also published their list of the 100 best children’s books from the last 100 years, and I blogged about just how excruciatingly difficult it was to take part in the selection process. Booktrust then invited people to vote on their favourite books on the list, and the winner (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) was announced on Monday. I made this EXTREMELY SILLY video to celebrate the top ten winners:

A real autumn highlight for me was a trip up to visit Seven Stories in Newcastle. Seven Stories is such an incredible place. I could happily spend hours in the bookshop alone, but on our trip we managed to fit in not only a tour of the fascinating Judith Kerr and Enid Blyton exhibitions, but also a trip to the Seven Stories archive, a short drive away, where we were lucky enough to be shown some original artwork and manuscripts from Seven Stories collections by the archivist – from Edward Ardizzone illustrations to manuscripts from the likes of Enid Blyton and Philip Pullman.

The Fantastic Five (and some strange woman introducing them)

The Fantastic Five (and some strange woman introducing them)

Another highlight of my autumn has been working with the inimitable Laura Dockrill, in her role as Booktrust’s writer in residence over the last six months. Laura’s Women on Top (WOT!) event which took place in September was hands down, the most fun book event I’ve ever organised. Laura wanted to do something to change perceptions of children’s books, and showcase just how dynamic, creative, innovative and exciting children’s literature can be, so we teamed up with Red Bull Studios to host an event with a difference. Laura was joined by Malorie, Caitlin Moran, Dawn O’Porter and Mel Giedroyc (she of Great British Bake Off fame) for an incredibly lively and inspirational panel discussion.

Afterwards, the audience of specially invited guests from the arts and media world had the chance to enjoy pizza and cocktails, look at books and hit the dancefloor to the sounds of a DJ set from BBC Radio One’s Gemma Cairney. I’m pretty proud that we managed to pull off a children’s book event which ended with the guests on the dancefloor throwing shapes to The Spice Girls’ Wannabe. It was a brilliant evening and I still can’t quite decide what my favourite part was, but I think it was Mel and Caitlin reciting the opening lines of Little Women

After all that I’m quite relieved December is here – roll on Christmas parties, mulled wine and (with any luck) time for a rest!

Interview with Sally Gardner: Winner of the 2013 Carnegie Medal



This interview was first published on the Book Trust website

Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon is the winner of the 2013 CILIP Carnegie Medal. I talked to her about winning this prestigious prize.

‘I really was amazingly surprised that it was published at all,’ confesses author Sally Gardner, of her Carnegie-winning book Maggot Moon. ‘I thought I had gone over the bar with it.’

Maggot Moon is certainly a powerful and unusual story: the tale of unlikely young hero Standish, who stands up to a sinister dictatorship whilst around him, his friends and family ‘disappear’. Dark, chilling and hard-hitting, the Carnegie judges described it as ‘a powerful depiction of an utterly convincing and frightening dystopia… a real tour de force, without a hint of sentimentality.’

Since it’s publication last autumn as one of the first titles from new children’s publisher Hot Key Books, Maggot Moon has been a phenomenal success, receiving widespread acclaim from reviewers, and scooping the children’s category of the Costa Book Awards. Yet Gardner is still taken aback by the book’s runaway success. ‘I really can’t believe it,’ she says, of joining a list of previous Carnegie winners that includes such greats as Noel Streatfeild, Arthur Ransome and CS Lewis. ‘I’m so thrilled. I always feel very insecure [as a writer] and this is the biggest endorsement you could have. It’s such a strong shortlist too: I looked at it, and I thought “that’s it, then – I won’t win.” I’m still slightly in shock.’

Gardner is not perhaps someone who grew up aspiring to win one of the UK’s most prestigious literary prizes. She attended numerous schools as a child, and was branded as ‘unteachable’ before eventually being diagnosed at the age of 12 as being severely dyslexic. Today, Gardner is an avid spokesperson for dyslexia, which she sees as a gift, not a learning disability.  Both her dyslexia and her background in visual arts – at 18 she won a scholarship to St. Martin’s Central School of Art – have profoundly influenced her writing: ‘When I see a story, I see it all in images. It’s usually wordless. Only when I start writing do I give it that layer,’ she explains.

After her time at St Martin’s, where she received a First Class degree, she went on to become a successful theatre designer and then an opera costume designer. Her time in theatre was particularly instructive: ‘It was the most stunning university to go to,’ she explains. ‘There’s nothing like seeing a play die, or seeing an audience get bored. I worked up north at Newcastle and I did a lot with a company called Stagecoach who took shows off to mining communities, where they’d never seen theatre before. If you had a bad show, you didn’t make it past bingo. I think lots more writers should see that happen: it makes you understand when you’re doing well with a story, and when you’re going to lose people.’

Gardner published her first book in 1993, beginning an impressive career as both writer and illustrator. Her first full-length novel, I, Coriander won the Nestle Children’s Book Prize Gold Award in 2005, and her next novel, The Red Necklace, was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Book Prize.  This year, she is unusual in having not one, but two books in the running for the Carnegie Medal – her young adult novel The Double Shadow also made the longlist.

Maggot Moon definitely has a relationship with The Double Shadow,’ Gardner explains. ‘I had done so much research into the history [of World War II] when I was writing The Double Shadow, and I became really fascinated by what happened in the Battle of Britain. Really, what saved London was not so much the unbearable bravery of its people, which is undeniable, but that the wind changed and Goering didn’t send over the last of the bomber boys – much to Hitler’s utter, utter fury. There’s no doubt in my mind – though I’m sure other people would disagree, because it’s one of those great arguments you can have as a historian – that London could have been a Dresden, but we were saved by the wind changing. The question I really wanted to ask is: if it hadn’t changed, if Goering did send over those bombers, would we finally have given up? And if we had capitulated, would we have been as bad as other countries? My sense of it was yes, we would have been.’

When Gardner first started writing Maggot Moon, it was more closely related to the events of World War II, but she later decided to make it deliberately less specific and more open-ended. ‘I realised that all these wars are universal stories of struggle. It sounds really pompous – and I don’t want to be pompous – but I wanted it to be a story about any conflict, in any part of the world.’

Asked about why she thinks this book has captured so many readers, Gardner suggests that it’s hero Standish that is really the key: ‘I think it’s Standish’s voice that makes it stand out. It’s really like how I think, so I thought it might not be up anyone else’s street. I just wrote him as he came – I never thought he was dyslexic, I just thought he saw the world like I see the world. I think it’s about using very simple language to convey, underneath, very complex ideas. It has a sort of lullaby quality, like a nursery rhyme. The language stays light and simple, but actually what he’s saying is dark and profoundly difficult.’ Gardner adds: ‘there’s this thing that happens sometimes with books – they hit the moment. And I think I’ve just been immensely lucky to have hit the moment with Maggot Moon.’

Although the book has frequently been described as a dystopia, Gardner herself doesn’t see it as such. ‘I see it as a sort of “what if?” history,’ she explains. ‘I see it as a question. But it does have what a lot of dystopias have at their heart – fairy story. It’s about going into the dark, dark wood. It doesn’t have a happy ever after.’

For Gardner, the book is ultimately about making readers think: ‘I wanted it to be a story about how we must be vigilant, and ask questions, and not accept lies… A kid at a school asked me if there’s a message in the book, and I said: “NO! There’s absolutely no message at all!” You can smell messages a mile off. I don’t want the book to give you a message: I want you to do the thinking.’

Asking provocative questions is central to Gardner’s conception of what young adult writing should be. ‘For me, with YA, the “Y” stands for “why are you doing this?” and the “A” is for “attempted answer. Adults often think they know the answers, but with young adults, it’s about asking the questions, and looking for different possibilities.’

At the announcement event at the National History Museum, Gardner gave a passionate and inspiring speech about the importance of such opportunities to ask questions and think imaginatively within education. She explains: ‘I’d like to see us not testing children into failure. I’m sick to death of it. Our greatest resource is the imagination of our young people, and we seem to crush it before it even begins to flower. I find that so heartbreaking. I believe teachers and librarians should be free to instill a life-long love of learning without being policed by an outdated curriculum.’

Gardner is hugely enthusiastic about the role of the Carnegie Greenaway shadowing scheme in providing such opportunities for imagination and debate amongst young readers. The scheme sees children in schools all over the country read the shortlisted books, following the judging process. ‘It’s amazing – utterly gobsmacking,’ she says. ‘My book is like Marmite, which I love – some of the reviews say “I loathe this book! It’s stupid…” or others “I love this book!”

She admits that she was at first worried that many of the children said they were confused by the story, but ultimately came to feel that provoking discussion could only be a positive outcome. ‘A boy came up to me and said “I’ve been arguing with my friend about the end – I think there should be a sequel, but he says there can’t be, because they’re dead,”’ she relates with relish. ‘”And I don’t think they are, and I want to know which of us is right. You could put an end to this argument because you wrote the book.” I said: “I can’t put an end to your argument. It’s up to you to work out what happened, not me to tell you.” And he went: “Oh Miss! We’re going to be going round forever, then!”’

Having won the Carnegie Medal, what is next for Sally Gardner? ‘I’ve got another book coming out in November with Orion, called Tinder,’ she tells me. ‘It’si’m based on the Hans Christian Andersen Tinder Box story, but it’s young adult. It’s being illustrated by David Roberts, with wonderful, dark drawings. I’m also doing two more books in the Wings and Co series and I’m going to do another book for Hot Key – I’m keeping quiet about it at the moment, but I’m very excited about it. It isn’t anything like Maggot Moon, but then hopefully I’ve never done a repeat of something I’ve done before. I always want to create something new.’