Great books for great readers

Performing stories – a different way to look at structure and narrative

For the last four weeks, I’ve been participating in a fantastic course run by the Oxford Playhouse on storytelling with storyteller, actor and director Polly Tisdall. It’s been one of the best things that I have done as a writer and as a novice performer.

We have primarily used fairy and folk tales to learn how to perform stories to an audience, and then within this to consider how to adapt them for different audiences. This was fascinating as it tied in with my Masters course on Children’s Literature, where we looked in great detail at traditional fairy tales. We didn’t just restrict ourselves to the more familiar tales such as Cinderella, Snow White, etc, but looked at stories from other cultures too to expand a possible repertoire. Polly told us a lovely tale called The Girl Who Married the Moon and I’ve since used this with three Key Stage 1 classes at my school, and not one group was bored. In fact, I have had requests for repeat performances! Result!

What has been invaluable to my story building and story writing is a technique Polly taught us on how to learn our stories for performance, which is done primarily through storyboarding. You take a – hopefully – large piece of paper (eg A3) and in one colour you draw the main ‘scenes’ from the story you want to tell. Then, you choose another colour and write down the emotions. Next, you move on to key  language and words you want to use (in a different colour) before writing down an opening and closing sentence. You end up with something that looks like this (but undoubtedly better drawn than my poor illustrations!):

Sam storyboard

Dontcha just love the drawings?!

Of course this probably makes no sense to you but it should – hopefully –  make sense to  me before I go into a performance. The idea is you get a book full of these drawings and scribblings that you can take with you as your portfolio. It’s a cool way of seeing the main aspects of a story, and therefore stripping its structure to the bare bones. You can also add the sort of music that would go well with it and write a blurb to sell it.

Holly was impressed with this and wanted to give it a go, so she came up with this, based on Goldilocks:

Holly storyboard

Sorry – my WordPress site is acting up on me tonight and I can’t rotate it!

Holly then told me her story based on this board and came up with her own ending, in which the three bears ate their porridge out at the shopping mall, got back, found Goldilocks and, under the urging of Baby Bear, roasted Goldilocks over a roaring fire.

Tomorrow is the last day of our course and I will be sad to finish. We are going to perform our stories to each other and to a small group of families and friends, if we wish to do so. I am stuck between a funny but very LONG Grimm Brothers Story about The Boy Who Set Out to Learn Fear and a West African folk tale called Too Much Talk. I guess only tomorrow will tell but one thing I know for certain – I want to carry on being a storyteller!


Are Dads really dustbins?!

Today I had the pleasure of reading Dustbin Dad  by Peter Bently and Russell Ayto to my library group of Year 2s.

picture courtesy of

What it’s about:

The moral in this hilarious story is: never leave food on your plates (or anywhere else visible) if you have a determined dad in the house. If you do, you might encounter all sorts of problems, as the dad in this book discovers when he greedily scours the house for anything remotely edible. Including the dubious vet-prescribed anti-wimp potion for the family’s scaredy-cat.

Sam’s review (and that of Year 2):

We all have a fondness for Peter Bently after he visited St Michael’s Primary School (where I work as Librarian) on World Book Day 2015. His picture books went down a storm with all years and his Knightmare series has been permanently on loan, with children coming in every week to demand if they have been returned. There is a queue now forming for them! I think extra copies are in order…

Anyway, when I announced we were reading this book today, everyone gathered excitedly on the steps of our courtyard garden to hear the tale. Before starting, I asked the children if they knew what a Dustbin Dad was – and they did! It seems there are quite a few members of the species in houses in Oxford (at least), mopping up everyone’s leftovers, so the premise of this book was not new to these children. They did however, adore hearing all the yucky details of partly eaten sandwiches, pies, tomatoes, egg whites, etc that the titular character chomped on happily. And the sound effects of burping were particularly popular (and worryingly accurate). They liked identifying forthcoming rhymes (particularly one that rhymes with ‘tum’ – I will let your imagination work that out) and became totally enthralled with the impending disaster near the end of the book.

As soon as I had finished, they were already asking if they could borrow the book so I’d better get this on the system – quick!

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Pop! Goes Childtastic

Nearly a week ago, I excitedly revealed that I was doing an impromptu pop-up shop in Oxford’s antiques market and received some lovely and supportive comments, tweets and retweets. You guys are the best!

The night before the market stall was spent desperately trying to get together some business cards (I think my guillotine is now dead) and pack up boxes of books according to reading age and interest. Holly designed some lovely posters for me to put up and Carl pulled together some name cards for the table. Luckily it didn’t take too long so we could go to bed in plenty of time for an early start.

I am not a morning person, as all my friends and family will tell you, so getting to Gloucester Green in Oxford for 7.45am was not the best part of the day. However, I was so excited, I didn’t really mind. There was a nice buzz in the air as people set up their stalls and I was lucky enough to get a pitch opposite two major cafes and alongside market regulars, one of whom – Peter – had been selling his antiques at the market for over 25 years and had a very loyal following of collectors, some of whom visits him every year from the USA, bearing gifts. He looked after me, ensuring I had everything I needed and lending me some plastic boxes to sit on (no chairs were provided). The man to his left was selling good, used guitars, and the man to my right antique maps, which interested a lot of people.

The day started off quite slowly, though I did sell my first book at 9am for £3! There was a slow trickle of people but by 11am it looked like I would be lucky to get back what I had spent on hiring the stall (£38 including insurance). I had been careful to arrange the stall as attractively as possible with what little I had, in terms of décor and display materials, and this is what it looked like:

Childtastic book stall

Childtastic book stall!

Actually, the decorations proved nearly as popular as the books, and I sold my little solar-powered flower early on in the day to a solar-powered-toy collector!

Luckily, as the day went on, I had more families come along and look at the books. Most of my clients were parents or grandparents or adults buying for friends’ children and were often glad of some advice on what might go down well. I had one mum and her daughter, who was dyslexic and wanted to read but didn’t like the sort of books published by specialist publishers. There were two Spanish families – one completely Spanish from Valencia, who wanted a fun English book for their daughter who had read Diary of a Wimpy Kid in translation (I recommended Tom Gates), and the other was a bilingual family who liked two of my Spanish picture books. I also got to practice my Spanish giving tourist advice to two Colombian language students who were on a day trip to Oxford from Brighton!

By the end of the day, I had recouped my stall fee and made a tiny profit (enough for a cup of tea and piece of cake). But I thoroughly enjoyed the experience! I really love the buzz that comes with dealing with people (even the more eccentric types) and the challenge of creating a ‘brand’ that people want to buy from. Unfortunately it looks like this might only be something I do on the odd occasion as, according to the other market stallholders, books are tricky items to make a living from. Going down the specialist route – ie only selling children’s books – was the best way forward for me to make any sort of success out of it because people value specialisms. I’d like to give it another go in the summer as I still have a lot of stock. I will also have a chance to work on my presentation materials and hopefully have a bigger client base (it was a quiet day, relatively speaking, for the market).

It was a great experience though, and taught me a lot about selling. These were the other things I discovered:

1. If there is a resident eccentric, they WILL make a beeline for your stall.
2. They will sit ALL DAY opposite your stall all day muttering about Iraq, Kuwait and the IRA while potential clients give them a wide berth.
3. It’s no use de-frizzing your hair before you go. It will blossom like a tumbleweed in minutes.
4. Thermal fleecy tights don’t keep out the cold (note, gentlemen).
5. You do meet some lovely people amongst the stallholders who will help you find your feet and give you valuable advice.
6. It’s good fun, even if you only make enough to break even!

Thank you all for your kind support and interest!


Childtastic goes pop-up!

Dear Readers,

I am very excited because tomorrow I am having my very first pop-up book stall! And it will be called Childtastic Books. :-)

It’s all come about very suddenly, although I have been thinking about doing this for a while. Over the last two years, I have amassed a fairly large amount of children’s books which I am keen to pass on to other enthusiastic readers. So I asked about the possibility of having a stall in Oxford’s outdoor Thursday market – usually an antiques one, but tomorrow it’s also hosting a popular Farmers’ Market. I was told that my stall had been booked, leaving me in a bit of a panic about getting everything ready in time! I have now separated my books into picture books, small picture books, fiction for 7+, fiction for 9+ and teen fiction, with another box for non-fiction. There will also be a box for parents too, to browse.

There will be fairy lights (I hope) strewn around the stall, and I am happy to also advise anyone who wants suggestions of good books to read or buy, for themselves or others. I had lots of other ideas to try out, had I had the time, but it will be good anyway to see how things go, and hopefully chat to customers and other market stallholders. The only downside is the time – I need to be there by 8am at the latest! But it will be worth it, I am sure, if only for the experience.

If you are in or near Oxford tomorrow and fancy popping by to say ‘hi’ I would love to meet you! I think the market generally runs from 9am-3pm(ish) and there are lots of other interesting stalls. Let’s just hope the rain and wind hold off!

I will write an update of how it all went – perhaps with a picture or two!

Another view of the Antique Market

Antiques market on Thursdays in Oxford. Image courtesy of


A ghost of a talk

I have a confession to make. I like being scared, terrified and intrigued. In books – I hasten to add – and films. Not with gore and nastiness, but clever suspense and tension generated from a good story. Perhaps worryingly I have an affinity with the Gothic, graveyards and ghosts – generally, it looks like with the letter G. Which is peculiar. But there you are…

So it was with excitement that I attended a talk on writing ghost stories, featuring Jonathan Stroud and Dave Shelton, as part of the Oxford Literary Festival. There was a good mix of older children and adults in the audience and we were treated to an hour of revelations, tips and anecdotes by these two masters of the ghost genre in the contrastingly old and modern buildings of Corpus Christi college.

How it all started

Both authors cited MR James as having a major influence on their work but their paths to writing a ghost story were quite different. Dave Shelton decided he wanted to try writing a book for older children and was attracted to the ghost story genre, although originally he wanted to write a funny book about ghosts – a sort of ‘Guide to Haunting’ for the newly dead. However, he discovered that it was difficult to combine humour with being genuinely terrifying, which is why he abandoned the laughs in favour of the chills in his clever collection of ghost stories (wrapped up in an overall ghost story) – Thirteen Chairs.

Jonathan Stroud was interested in writing ghost stories from a very young age, and proved this to us  by showing us the very first book he wrote and illustrated at the age of 12. Later on in life, he returned to the idea of ghost stories with the creation of the Lockwood & Co stories (of which there are two currently and more in the pipeline). The idea came to him as a scene of two kids wearing modern clothes, having a normal teen conversation and knocking on the door to a house where they were supposed to find and dispose of a ghost.

At this point, Jonathan pulled out a special Lockwood & Co ghost-hunting kit and asked for a volunteer from the audience to get kitted-up. The fortunate boy got to wear a special belt (complete with vital ghost-protection items such as iron filings, a magnesium flare, a salt bomb and thermal underwear! (which the boy did not wear except as a scarf around his neck. He did wear some pretty cool sunglasses and wielded a sword though.)

They then opened the floor to questions, which came thick and fast.

Humour – how do you use it in ghost stories?

Both authors said it was terribly difficult to achieve a good balance between terror and comedy as laughs can undercut the necessary tension of the genre. Most people read ghost stories to be scared, and if the humour interferes too much then this effect is lost, although Dave Shelton said that it can be a useful tool in creating the necessary relief after a build-up of tension in a story, as there is usually a narrative rhythm or flow. Jonathan Stroud agreed, saying that the shadows in a story can be made even darker with the inclusion of lighter material.

Plotting and sub-plotting

One very impressive girl asked for advice on how to create subplots in stories, saying that she managed fine with creating and structuring a main plot but struggled with the smaller stories that naturally occur within a narrative. Both Dave and Jonathan expressed their envy at her organized and sensible approach, saying that they had the opposite problem!

Jonathan said that he felt writing was like a battle between two sides of the brain. The first is the organized part, which looks for structure and order. The second is the more creative side, which is more random and disorganized. The act of writing involves bringing these two sides together successfully which is hard to achieve. Dave agreed but added that this keeps writing interesting, as subplots often arise as a result of experimenting with writing and seeing what happens as you go.

Writing in a child’s voice

One adult asked if the authors found it difficult writing as a child when they were fully grown adults. Jonathan replied that he doesn’t think about it too much – if he worried about trying to imitate a child’s voice his writing would probably end up sounding forced and unnatural. Instead, he said he aims for the narrative voice he would have liked as a 12-year-old and then balances that with the voice an adult aged 30 might like to read.

How scary is too scary?

This was the question I wanted to ask! But someone else asked it which was a relief as I was feeling rather shy. Basically we wanted to know how scary you can get when writing for children – surely going full-out a la Stephen King is really a bad idea? Jonathan said that he feels it’s down to personal taste as a writer. Scariness and horror can be achieved without gore and excessive details as successful scary writing is more about ratcheting up the suspense through details and sounds rather than a huge wodge of description.

Dave said that he didn’t classify his writing as horror even though his partner commented on the amount of blood in the first half of Thirteen Chairs! He felt the stories were quite restrained in some ways. When he goes into primary schools to do workshops, he often bases them on ghost stories for the older children but doesn’t read out his own material. However, what the children read back to him is often worse than anything he writes, such as stabbings of teachers (often the class ones!), which shows that we as adults perhaps worry too much about what children are capable of reading.

What terrifies you?

This was the last question of the afternoon and brought different responses. Dave said that what he fears most are bad things happening to the people he loves. Additionally, as he came to writing relatively late, he worries that he won’t have enough time to get out everything he wants to write about. Jonathan’s first fear made us laugh – the inside of melons – but admitted that writing is actually pretty terrifying. The act of putting your own words onto paper and knowing someone will read these and might not like them is scary but, with practice, you become more thick-skinned and confident.

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