Great books for great readers

Bodleian Children’s Books – new imprint, lovely books

Just as I am getting back into the swing of reviewing children’s books, two beautiful titles came my way and I am delighted to give them space on Childtastic Books.

The Bodleian Library in Oxford has just launched a new imprint – Bodleian Children’s Books – with the aim of finding and republishing classic children’s books as well as publishing newly commissioned books. The two titles it has chosen to launch the imprint in September 2015 are Penguin’s Way and Whale’s Way, both written US author Johanna Johnston and illustrated by Caldecott Prize winner Leonard Weisgard. (Images to come!)

The two books share a similar illustrative style and narrative. Johanna Johnston’s text is informative yet poetic. Take, for example, this short paragraph from Penguin’s Way:

They begin to choose partners. Two by two, they stand near each other and sing. They sing strange, echoing songs of love.’

and this, from Whale’s Way:

‘But the cows and their calves are rocked gently in the cradle of the water.’

These are both non-fiction books but the information is conveyed in a way that reads like a story, with an arc that is particularly evident in Penguin’s Way which covers a year in the life of an emperor penguin. I can imagine reading these to lovers of both fiction and non-fiction and can’t wait to introduce them to the children in my school library.

Weisgard’s drawings are beautiful and captivating, combining sponge-like backgrounds with sharp lines and colours. These books would look equally good on a coffee table as in a child’s book case but, unlike many coffee-table books, they aren’t just pleasing to the eye; the words are soothing and beautiful. As an avid avoider of nature programmes (I can’t bear seeing animals tear each other apart), this is a lovely alternative and these books are, I am sure, set to become classics once again.

Bodleian Children’s Books is not aiming to become a major player in children’s publishing, with a modest proposal to publish at least two titles per season. But the quality of the books on their list means that they deserve to make a good impression on the market.

Please note that while I was sent copies of the books to review, my opinion is entirely unbiased.

Leave a comment »

It’s been a while…

Hello readers,

I am so sorry that it has taken me such a long time to post on here. I think my last post was in May, which is the longest I have gone without saying anything. But I have, I hope, a valid excuse.

Yesterday I posted off two spiral-bound copies of my dissertation, and therefore completed my last piece of work for my MA in Children’s Literature with Roehampton University. It was the culmination of three years’ study and I must admit that, even though I spent the best part of a year preparing for and writing it, I found it as exhausting as my undergraduate Finals at Oxford nearly 20 years ago.

The cover page for my story...

The cover page for my story…

I chose to do the Creative Dissertation, rather than the Academic Dissertation, which involves writing a piece of work aimed at a child or young adult audience. It had to be 15,000 words long and accompanied by a critical self-analysis of my own work, linking it to the world of children’s literature.

My piece of work was a long short story called Beyond the Grave, a ghost story based on the Victorian and Gothic traditions. At first I wrote it for middle range readers – those who are confident readers but not yet stepping into young adult fiction. However, after around 20 versions (and nearly as many nervous breakdowns! ;-) ) it progressed into something quite different and became, I believe, more of a young adult piece.

While I have had many sleepless nights, I really enjoyed writing the longest piece of continuous prose I have ever attempted. The work won’t stop there either – I want to develop the story into something longer – a complete novel or at least a novella. I will work to do this once some time has passed as I feel the need to regain my sanity. In the meantime, I really hope I pass the MA!

From now on I will be posting more regularly on here and take up where I left off. Thanks for your patience and I hope you’re all enjoying the summer!


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!

Leave a comment »

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!



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 606 other followers