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The real inspiration for Elisabeth and the Box of Colours


Self Portrait in a Straw Hat by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

My third book for Barrington Stoke’s super-readable Little Gems series is Elisabeth and the Box of Colours. Like the other two books I have written for Barrington Stoke, it is inspired by a real-life character from history – in this case, the French artist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, who was born in Paris in 1755.

Élisabeth loved drawing from a very early age: she described herself as having ‘an inborn passion for art’. She went away to a convent boarding school aged 6, and while there, she often found herself in trouble for drawing. In her memoirs, she wrote:

During that time I scrawled on everything at all seasons; my copy-books, and even my schoolmates’, I decorated with marginal drawings of heads, some full-face, others in profile; on the walls of the dormitory I drew faces and landscapes with coloured chalks. So it may easily be imagined how often I was condemned to bread and water. I made use of my leisure moments outdoors in tracing any figures on the ground that happened to come into my head.

Her father, Louis Vigée, was an artist and encouraged Élisabeth’s love of drawing. Seeing a drawing she had made at the age of only seven or eight years old, he reportedly exclaimed: ‘You will be a painter, child, if ever there was one!’

My story takes particular inspiration from Élisabeth’s childhood, including her close relationship with her father. I have made a few changes to Élisabeth’s real story: in my version, Louis dies when Élisabeth is away at school, whereas in real life, he died around a year after she left school, when she was 12 years old. However, just like in my story, her sadness and grief affected her very deeply, leaving her unable to draw for a while. ‘So heartbroken was I that it was long before I felt able to take to my crayons again’ she wrote later. But after a little time, she returned to making art, as a way to help herself cope with her ‘sad thoughts’.

With help and encouragement from her father’s friends, Élisabeth continued to pursue a career as an artist. She set up her own studio by the age of 15, by which time she was painting portraits professionally. Although she was young and had no formal training, she quickly became very successful. She painted many of the most important people in Paris, and even became one of the very few female members of the French Royal Academy.

In 1778, she was invited to the Palace of Versailles to paint Queen Marie Antoinette. She soon became one of the queen’s favourite painters, as well as her friend. In total, she painted over 30 portraits of the queen, including many of the images of her that are the most familiar and recognisable to us today. Among these were an image of Marie Antoinette in a straw hat and a plain white muslin dress (1783) – which has become probably the most famous image of the French queen. At the time, the portrait was considered highly controversial because of the informal, simple style in which the queen was dressed: she was criticised for appearing in a public portait ‘wearing a chambermaid’s dust cloth’ and even accused of mocking the dignity of the French throne.

Another of Élisabeth’s most famous paintings of the queen was Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787) which showed the queen at home at the Palace of Versailles surrounded by her children. The painting was intended to help improve the queen’s image, by making her seem more relatable to ordinary people, and show her in a sympathetic light.

MA-Lebrun 1280px-Marie_Antoinette_and_her_Children_by_Élisabeth_Vigée-Lebrun


But in spite of such efforts, just two years later, Queen Marie Antoinette and the rest of the royal family were arrested during the French Revolution. Élisabeth and her daughter Julie escaped from Paris, and travelled around Europe, living in Italy, Russia and Germany. Élisabeth continued to work as a portrait artist, painting many of Europe’s most important people, as well as painting landscapes and history scenes. Today, her work can be found in art galleries and museums all over the world.

Towards the end of her life, Élisabeth returned to France, and when she was in her 80s she published her memoirs (Souveniers). It was the intriguing and vivid recollections from her childhood that are included in the first part of these memoirs which helped to inform my story, Elisabeth and the Box of Colours. Here’s a little more about my version of Élisabeth’s story, which has been gorgeously illustrated by Rebecca Cobb.

elisabethElisabeth loves to paint, just like her papa. She spends hours making her own pictures of everything she sees – and the more colourful, the better!

But when she goes away to school, she finds herself in a world of grey: grey buildings, grey uniforms, grey rooms. She misses Papa and all the colours of home. And one winter morning, she gets some terrible news that makes her days darker than ever before. Will Elisabeth be able to find the colour and joy in her life again?

‘A small, elegant triumph’ – The Times, Children’s Book of the Week

‘Beautifully told in spare, resonant words… A transporting little tale’ – The Guardian

‘Absolutely gorgeous. Pure, wondrous joy … What an inspiring gem of a book’ – author Liz Hyder

A ‘modern-day Madeline… offering hope and encouragment’ – The Times, Ten Brilliant New Children’s Books to Enjoy on World Book Day

Buy it now from Waterstones, or Amazon

Find out more about the real stories that helped to inspire my other books for the Little Gems series – Rose’s Dress of Dreams and Sophie Takes to the Sky

Check out my list of more brilliant children’s books about art and artists

Stephen Fry’s Edwardian Secrets


If you follow me on social media, you might have spotted something exciting I shared back in August. Earlier this year I was one of the guests on Stephen Fry’s brand new podcast for Audible, Edwardian Secrets!

Here’s a bit more about the series:

Powered flight. Votes for women. Human sexuality. Mass migration. The psychology of dreams. The magic of the movies. Spies and detectives. Welcome to Stephen Fry’s Edwardian Secrets.

Perhaps thanks to TV period dramas, the popular imagination may picture the Edwardian era as an idyllic window between the wars, a time of manners and tea on the lawn. But below the surface lies a frenetic and often bizarre age where scientific leaps forward went hand in hand with belief in fairies, and secrets of sex, lies and murder simmered.

Across 12 episodes, in this sequel to his Victorian Secrets, Stephen Fry uncovers some of the startling and unexpected hidden histories of the Edwardians.

It was so much fun to be involved, and to put some of the endless research I did for the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Taylor & Rose Secret Agents to good use, talking about everything from the fascinating world of 1900s children’s literature to (of course) Edwardian lady detectives.

If  you’d like to have a listen, check it out on Audible here.

The story behind A Dancer’s Dream


After being published last month, it’s been so lovely to see A Dancer’s Dream being read and enjoyed. Today I thought I’d share some of the story behind this book, which actually began its life as a short story with a different title — Casse-Noisette, or otherwise, ‘The Nutcracker’.

This story, which first appeared in the anthology Winter Magic, took inspiration from Tchaikovsky’s much-loved ballet ‘The Nutcracker’ which itself has a complex backstory. The ballet which we all know today was originally inspired by a story called ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’ written by the German writer ETA Hoffman in 1816, which had subsequently been adapted by the French writer Alexandre Dumas in 1844 as ‘Histoire d’un casse-noisette’. A Russian doll-within-Russian-doll of inspirations, if you will!

The idea of writing about ‘The Nutcracker’ first came to me when I was asked to write a story for Abi Elphinstone’s anthology Winter Magic which was being published by Simon & Schuster. This new collection would bring together a host of wintery, festive stories, glittering with snowy and frosty magic. I knew at once that I wanted my story to be historical, and my first idea was that I might write about the frost-fairs that used to take place on the River Thames, back when winters were so cold that the whole river would freeze completely solid, and fairs would take place out on the ice. But when I mentioned this to the team at Simon & Schuster, they told me that another writer (the brilliant Emma Carroll) was already working on a frost-fair story! So it was back to the drawing board…

I began thinking about my favourite things about winter and Christmastime. There were lots of possibilities, but one tradition that I immediately thought of was going to the pantomime, the ballet, or the theatre, which we always did at Christmas when I was growing up. I especially loved ballet, so seeing ‘The Nutcracker’ was a particular festive treat – for me, the spellbinding story of Clara’s adventure on Christmas Eve, complete with its ballets of snowflakes and dancing sweets, really did seem to capture all the magic of this time of year.

I decided to find out a little more about the history of the ballet, and its origins. In particular, I began reading about the very first performance of ‘The Nutcracker’ which took place just before Christmas in 1892, in the famous Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, Russia. Immediately, I became very interested – because there were some surprising things to discover. Considering it’s now one of the most famous and beloved ballets in the world, ‘The Nutcracker’ didn’t actually get off to a very promising start.

For one thing, Tchaikovsky wasn’t initially very keen on writing a ballet based on the Nutcracker story. It was the choreographer, Petipa, who was set on the choice of the subject matter, and who devised a synopsis. Reluctantly, Tchiakovksy set to work, but then tragedy struck when he heard the news of the death of his beloved sister, Sasha. ‘Today… I feel the absolute impossibility of depicting in music the “Sugarplum Fairy,”‘ Tchiakovsky wrote. In spite of his grief and sadness, he continued to work, perhaps even putting something of his lost sister into the character of Clara, and weaving in his own memories of childhood family Christmases.

Konstantin Ivanov's original sketch for the set of The Nutcracker

Konstantin Ivanov’s original sketch for the set of The Nutcracker

Meanwhile, as rehearsals for the new ballet began, choreographer Petipa also experienced a tragedy when his 15-year-old daughter Evgenia died of cancer. Shortly afterwards he fell ill himself, forcing him to take leave for the rest of the season. His assistant had to step in and take charge of ‘The Nutcracker’ in his place.

Finally, when the ballet was at last performed for an audience including the Tsar of Russia, the reviews were mixed. ‘The Nutcracker’ was not immediately popular, and even got some negative responses from critics. Some of the dancers were criticised, others felt it was merely a ‘spectacle’ rather than a true ballet. It wasn’t until some years later that it grew in popularity, before eventually becoming the favourite Christmas ballet we know today.

Lydia Rubtsova, Stanislava Belinskaya and Vassily Stukolkin in the original production of The Nutcracker

Lydia Rubtsova, Stanislava Belinskaya and Vassily Stukolkin in the original production of The Nutcracker

One of the other things that caught my attention about this first staging of ‘The Nutcracker’ is that lots of the parts in the ballet were played by child dancers – including the lead roles of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, which were played by pupils from the Imperial Ballet School. Children performing in ballet productions was not new – Petipa had included children’s dances in almost all of his ballets. However, it was very unusual to cast young dancers in leading roles. Clara, the girl at the centre of the story was played by a young dancer called Stanislava Belinskaya, who was just 12 years old at the time.

I was immediately interested in Stanislava. She was the first to play this incredibly famous and important role – and yet we know little about her. After this moment in the spotlight, she seems to fade away from dance history. Interestingly, one of her friends and classmates who wasn’t chosen to dance in the first production of ‘The Nutcracker’ went on to become one of the most famous dancers of all the time – the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova.

Thinking about Stanislava (or ‘Stana’ as I decided to call her, which is the shortened form of her name) – and her classmate Anna – and what life might have been like for them at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg at the end of the 19th century – soon sparked my imagination. I wanted to explore some of my favourite things about The Nutcracker ballet – the magical dream sequences, the cosy scenes of a family celebrating together at Christmas-time – and weave them together with some of the real history, including Tchiakovsky’s story. I imagined a home and a family for Stana – including her own beloved sister who was unwell – as well as trying to conjur up how it might have felt for her as a young dancer to step out onto the grand stage and perform in such an important role.

The finished story was first published in Winter Magic and a little while later, the team at Simon & Schuster said they’d like to turn it into an illustrated book (following on from Abi Elphinstone’s story ‘The Snow Dragon’ which had already been transformed into a gorgeous illustrated story with artwork by Fiona Woodcock. I was especially thrilled to hear they’d asked one of my very favourite illustrators, Lizzy Stewart, to illustrate it.

It was amazing to see the story turned into the beautiful A Dancer’s Dream. Lizzy’s artwork perfectly brings to life snowy St Petersburg and the glittering Mariinsky Theatre. What a joy!


Check out my Pinterest board  if you’d like to see some more images that helped to inspire this story

Or if you like ballet stories, check out my list of ballet-inspired children’s books over on


dreamIn snow- covered St. Petersberg, young dancer Stana’s dreams have finally come true – she has been chosen to play the lead role in Tchaikovsky’s new ballet, The Nutcracker. But with all eyes on her, can Stana overcome her nerves and dance like she’s never danced before…?

Illustrated by Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize winner, Lizzy Stewart, this sumptuous and magical retelling of The Nutcracker will transport you on a journey far beyond the page.

Buy it now from Waterstones | The Hive | Amazon


Five Favourite Children’s Books Set in Venice

To celebrate the publication of Villains in Venice, I thought I’d share some recommendations of other children’s books set in the city. Reading other works of fiction set in a particular place is one of my favourite ways to research the settings for my books – so whether you’re planning a trip to Venice and want the perfect reading material to take along, or simply plan to travel there in your imagination, here are a few suggestions:

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke

thieflordIn modern-day Venice, brothers Prosper and Boniface are on the run. There’s a detective on their tail, and they’re hiding among the canals and alleyways of the city.  Soon they are taken in by a gang of street children and their leader, the mysterious Thief Lord, and find shelter in an old, abandoned cinema.But that’s just the beginning of an extrordinary adventure involving a beautiful merry-go-round with magical powers… This enchanting Venetian fantasy is perfect for readers looking for a story of mystery and magic.

Unveiling Venus by Sophia Bennett

Unveiling-Venus-finalIn the sequel to Following Ophelia, a historical YA novel inspired by the Pre-Raphealite painters, we rejoin heroine Mary, formerly a maid, now reinvented as glamorous artist’s model Persephone Lavelle. Setting out from Victorian London to Venice with her friend Kitty, she hopes to escape scandal and gossip. But when she encounters a mysterious masked young man on the Grand Canal, there’s trouble in store… Complete with bohemian artists, Venetian masked balls, and of course, plenty of romance, this is a delightful young adult novel, which will transport you back in time to 19th century Venice.

The Undrowned Child by Michelle Lovric

undrownedAuthor Michelle Lovric has written several books set in Venice, but I’d especially recommend this unusual critically-acclaimed fantasy, which takes place in the same period as Villains in Venice. This is the story of Teo, a young girl who has always longed to visit Venice. But when she finally gets her wish, all kinds of strange things begin to happen to her. Teo is quickly subsumed into a remarkable secret world of ghosts, talking statues, librarians that turn into cats, mermaids that run underground printing presses… and terrible danger. With the help of a Venetian boy, Renzo, and a mysterious book entitled The Key to the Secret City, she soon discovers that she alone has the power to save the floating city from the sinister ‘Traitor’.

Stravagaza: City of Masks by Mary Hoffman

cityofmasksThe first book in Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza series introduces us to Lucien – a teenage boy who is dealing with a serious illness.  Lucien’s life takes an unexpected turn when an old Italian notebook transports him from his sick-bed to Belezza – a city rather like the Venice of the 16th Century. There he meets Arianna, a girl dressed as a boy who is risking everything in the hope of being chosen as one of the Duchessa’s ‘mandoliers’ and learns that he has become a stravagante – a kind of time traveller. He is soon immersed in the intriguing world of Belezza, becoming a mandolier himself and even saving the Duchessa from an assassination attempt. But what will be the consequences of his remarkable adventures for his life back home? Whilst it isn’t set in Venice itself but an ‘alternate’ version, this engaging fantasy story is full of fascinating detail inspired by the city’s real history.

The Mask of Aribella by Anna Hoghton

maskofaribellaIn this charming magical adventure for young readers, Aribella is the daughter of a lace-maker, growing up on the island of Burano in the Venice lagoon. But Aribella has a deadly and dangerous secret – when she gets angry, sparks shoot from her fingertips! She knows she mustn’t let anyone know about her strange magical powers, yet when dark spectres rise from the lagoon, her abilities save her life. Soon, she has been discovered by the Cannovaci – a society of masked, magical warriors, who have sworn to protect Venice against the dark spirits that menace the city.


villainssmallFinally, of course, I have to mention Villains in Venice itself!

Set in 1912, the third book in the Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series follows intrepid young secret agents Sophie Taylor and Lil Rose to Venice on a new mission for the British Secret Service Bureau. But there are villains lurking amongst the city’s piazzas, canals and crumbling palaces, and in the shadows an old enemy lies in wait…


What are your favourite children’s books set in Venice? I’d love to hear any other suggestions in the comments!

If you enjoyed this list then do also check out my other Taylor & Rose inspired booklists:

The real inspiration for Sophie Takes to the Sky

Sophie Blanchard shown in an 1859 engraving by Jules Porreau

My second book for Barrington Stoke’s super-readable Little Gems series, Sophie Takes to the Sky, is inspired by a real-life heroine from history – Sophie Blanchard, who is often described as the world’s first female aeronaut. She was the first woman to work as a professional balloonist, and she became famous all over Europe for her amazing exploits.

Born near La Rochelle in France in 1778, Sophie was reportedly a very nervous child, who was frightened of loud noises and too afraid even to ride in a horse-drawn carriage. When I first read about her, I was fascinated by how this easily-scared and timid young girl could have gone on to become an intrepid pioneer of aviation – which gave me the central idea for my book.

Not much is known about Sophie Blanchard’s real-life childhood, although historians think that she probably had her first ride in a hot-air balloon aged around sixteen (for the purposes of my story, I imagined a secret ballooning adventure which could have happened when she was even younger!) However, when she married Jean-Pierre Blanchard, the world’s first professional balloonist, she joined him in his ballooning career, and from this time onwards, there is lots more detail about her adventures.

Sophie began joining Jean-Pierre on balloon flights in 1804, and described the feeling of flying as ‘an incomparable sensation’. Although not the first woman to fly in a hot air balloon, she was certainly groundbreaking, becoming the first woman to pilot a balloon herself, and the first to make ballooning her career.

The couple continued to fly together until 1809, when her husband died after suffering a heart attack and falling from his balloon. After his death, Sophie continued to work as a balloonist, giving displays all around Europe, which frequently drew huge crowds. She entertained the Emperor Napoleon, and later King Louis XVIII, who appointed her his ‘Official Aeronaut’.  She became known for her daring night-time flights, for letting fireworks off from her balloon, and for intrepid adventures like flying her balloon through storms, or even over the Alps, where it was so cold that icicles formed on her hands and face!

But ballooning was very dangerous. Sophie was in several accidents, and eventually died in 1819 when her balloon caught fire at the Tivoli Gardens in Paris. After she died, a memorial was erected above her grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery. The story of her death was recounted throughout Europe, and can be found referenced in the writings of Jules Vernes, Fyodor Dostoevksy and Charles Dickens among others. Today, she is remembered as a pioneer of aviation and a bold adventurer.

Here’s a little more about my story, in which I’ve imagined what Sophie’s childhood might have been like.

sophieSophie Takes to the Sky by Katherine Woodfine, illustrated by Briony May Smith

Scaredy-Cat Sophie is afraid of everything! So when a balloonist comes to the town fair, Sophie is left behind while everyone else goes to watch him fly in his marvellous balloon. She’s far too frightened of the crowds, the commotion and even riding in a horse-drawn carriage.

But Sophie longs to watch the hot-air balloon sail across the blue sky. If she could just be brave enough to face her fears, who knows where her journey might take her …

A touching tale for young readers of learning to overcome anxiety and follow your dreams.

Illustrated by Briony May Smith, this is a reimagining of the childhood of Sophie Blanchard, one of the world’s first female aeronauts.

‘A super-readable story, imbued with wonder’- Imogen Russell Williams, The Guardian

‘A wonderful adventure for a little girl who overcomes all her fears… a charming story that will encourage all readers to be brave’ – Julia Eccleshare, LoveReading4Kids

‘A touching story of courage and self-belief’ – Fiona Noble, The Bookseller

‘The true story of balloonist Sophie Blanchard is beautifully retold… this special book reminds us that huge bravery and great feats often begin with little steps’ – Children’s Books Ireland, Mind Yourself reading guide.

Buy it now from Waterstones, or Amazon

Find out more about the real-life heroines that have inspired my other Little Gems titles: Rose’s Dress of Dreams and Elisabeth and the Box of Colours