Great books for great readers

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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Inspiring ideas and a great feature

I was browsing on Twitter tonight when I came across a link to a Guardian feature on footballers choosing their favourite books – as a child and an adult. You can read them here.

This is fantastic fodder for young children, especially boys, who might be reluctant at picking up books. What I found especially inspiring was the number of non-fiction titles in there for the adult reads. This really does help to show that it’s not just hefty fictional tomes that count as ‘proper’ reading but biographies, political essays, and travel writing, too. There are novels in there too but there’s a great mixture of subjects which shows just how broad reading is.

The children’s choices were interesting to note. Many were well established classics, such as Dr Seuss, Harry Potter, The Gruffalo, etc, which many children will probably have encountered at school at least, if not at home.

I like the idea of showing how reading choices progress with age, though I am probably an example of someone who progressed and now is enjoying regressing to children’s books! So I wanted to put it out to you, lovely readers – what was your favourite book when you were young and what is it now? (If like me you struggle to have one favourite, just choose one of many!)

For me, my childhood pick would have to  be Richard Scarry,  in particular the tale of The Teeny Tiny Woman.

For my adult choice, I remember being blown away by Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. Funnily enough, I’ve never returned to read this, worried that the magic wouldn’t be there a second time. The first and only time I read it I remember feeling impatient to read it whenever I could, but then dreading the end when I knew the story would be over and I would feel bereft.

I’ve asked Holly her favourites and she said as a little child, then she would have chosen The Twins at St Clares. Now, her favourite is a newish book out called Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens as she’s into crime fiction.

So, please DO share your favourites. I’d love to hear them.

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What a wonderful World Book Day 2015!

I am sitting here, writing this, and feeling exhausted and exhilarated. We’ve just had a brilliant World Book Day at St Michael’s Primary School, thanks to the fantastic Peter Bently and his fun and informative brand of humour. Key Stage 2 pupils (years 3-6) were treated to a cornucopia (what a lovely, big word) of funny jokes and facts about medieval life, linked to Peter’s hilarious series Knightmare!. (Review to come soon.) Of course the fact that much of it focused on medieval gardrobes (poo closets where clothes were kept, as folk believed the smell would repel the moths) captured the children’s imagination and sense of humour as two hapless characters had the unenviable job of trying to climb a guard robe tower. Peter then invited the children to be his squires or pages to help him don his suit of armour … and everyone was desperate to have a go.

Please, sire, let me be your squire!

Please, sire, let me be your squire!

All Peter could do was stand there while we tried to attach the various parts…

WBD 2015 036

Is this a foot I see before me? (By the way, I am in the embarrassing stripy PJ bottoms, a la jester mode.)

It took four of us to fasten the leg armor!

It took four of us to fasten the leg armour!

After that, we heard about how difficult it was for knights to ride and fight, wearing the equivalent of two men’s body weight on their body. And how they sometimes had to be hoisted onto horseback with ropes!. Luckily Peter managed to get onto this horse without too much trouble.

What horses used to be used for in ye olde school gymnasiums. Honest...

What horses used to be used for in ye olde school gymnasiums. Honest…

After a morning of jesting and jousting, we moved into Key Stage 1 for some picture book fun. The children, predictably, LOVED The Great Dog Bottom Swap (you can read our review here) and the Reception teacher could barely suppress her giggles as she held up the book.

Not quite sure what Peter was doing here - I think gnawing a pretend bone. But it certainly tickled Kylie's funny bones!

Not quite sure what Peter was doing here – I think gnawing a pretend bone. But it certainly tickled Kylie’s funny bones!

At the end of the day, we had our official library opening and Peter cut the ribbon with proper scissors, otherwise we might have been there all day with the child-safe ones.

Cutting the ribbon...

Cutting the ribbon…

And then we had tea, cakes, and book selling and signing. The queues were phenomenal. WBD 2015 111 At 4pm it was time to pack Peter into a taxi and back to Devon. But the buzz in the school carried on well past his departure. I am sure tomorrow I will be reading more of Peter’s books to the children! I will leave you with some pictures of the artwork children have been doing to prepare for Peter’s visit. The library feels cosy and official now! Happy World Book Day!

Our medieval display boards...

Our medieval display boards…

Cardboard castles and fairy lights

Cardboard castles and fairy lights

If you look carefully you can see a glimpse of Puss in Boots.

If you look carefully you can see a glimpse of Puss in Boots.

A medieval cardboard shield, decorated with decoupage. Genuine article.

A medieval cardboard shield, decorated with decoupage. Genuine article.

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Sorry for the hiatus

I know. It’s really not good enough. After the blogathon of Advent in December I have been remiss in keeping Childtastic up to date but there have been some good reasons, including starting the blog for St Michael’s School Library, where I am the librarian. Please do check it out as I’ve been putting up posts on that gradually, including book reviews and book-related activities (most recently, making Supertatoes and Evil Peas in honour of Sue Hendra’s fantastic picture book Supertato).

Regardless, I have a fair amount of content to load onto Childtastic soon, such as a review on young adult ghost stories (of which I have been reading A LOT recently because of my MA dissertation), general posts on children’s literature (there has been a lot in the news lately to comment on) and a write-up of a fantastic workshop I attended last week at the Oxford Playhouse on storytelling and ghost stories. It was BRILLIANT! And it gave me ideas on how to story map my own novel, which I am writing for my MA. I’ve just heard that I can now proceed onto the final stage, so it’s six months now of hard work as I pull together my story (more anon). I’ve been doing some fascinating research though lately, taking me around graveyards, so I’ve become a bit of a ghoul in my spare time.

Until my next post, here’s a photo of children’s author Kenneth Grahame’s grave, who of course is most famous for his beloved story The Wind in the Willows. He’s buried here in Oxford, in Holywell Cemetery, which is a lovely place to wander – sort of wild but inspiring. Well, it is if you’re like me and love graveyards! ;-)

Have a great weekend!

Kenneth Grahame's grave in Holywell Cemetery, Oxford.

Kenneth Grahame’s grave in Holywell Cemetery, Oxford.

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Blog Tour: Adventures of the Steampunk Pirates, by Gareth P Jones

Childtastic Books is pleased to be part of the Gareth Jones Blog Tour!

His latest book, Adventures of the Steampunk Pirates: The Leaky Battery Sets Sail, was published on 2 February 2015 and, as well as our review of the book, Gareth Jones has written a piece for us called ‘Gareth Talks Funny’. Enjoy! 

Please note that while I was sent a review copy of this book, the reviews represented in this book are entirely my own.


What it’s about:

The Steampunk Pirates are searching the seven seas for gold, causing chaos and comedy wherever they go. However, it’s not plain sailing; the evil Iron Duke has his sights set on a generous reward from the King in exchange for capturing the robotic seamen. Will he deliver them dead or alive or can they ride out the storm?

Sam’s review

Gareth P Jones has garnered a well deserved reputation for crazy comedy through his Ninja Meerkat series, and the Steampunk Pirates books look set to follow suit. There are jokes aplenty on each page, driving the story forward at a manic pace. Children who love pirate stories and lots of laughs will adore this book, and it appeals to both boys and girls alike, with the sole human on board Captain Clockheart’s boat, Pendle, being a girl disguised as a boy.

The illustrations match the zaniness of the narration well and will draw even reluctant readers into the story. The Steampunk Pirates has had a promising start and the seas look calm for future success.

As part of this blog tour, Gareth has shared with us how and why he writes funny books. Read and enjoy his tips and secrets!


I think books should be funny. Even ones that are sad or scary or exciting should have something funny in them, because life is funny and even the sad or scary or exciting days should involve something that makes you laugh.

When I came up with the idea for The Adventures of The Steampunk Pirates it was important to me to make these books funny as well as exciting, interesting and fun to read.

But humour is a subjective thing. People find different things funny so it’s important to include different kinds of jokes. These are some of the ways in which I have tried to make the series funny:


The Steampunk Pirates are steam powered. This means that whenever they gorge themselves on wood and coal, they let out all kinds of revolting smells and noises.  You wouldn’t want to be stuck in their dining cabin while they tucked into a bowl of Old Tinder’s spicy woodchip stew. Also, the pirates are made out of iron, so there are more than a few rusty nuts and bolts along the way… and the occasional squeaky bottom. Of course, the godfather of gross-out humour is Roald Dahl and I remember The Twits making me laugh out loud at its vivid descriptions of those wonderfully grotesque characters.


Wordplay and puns are never going to be the favourite of those trying to sell your foreign rights but I can’t resist them. My Ninja Meerkats series was full of silly names such as Claire Verclogs (a philosopher), Hans Free (a unicyclist) and the Delhi Llama (a llama from Delhi). You can blame Norton Juster for this. In his classic, The Phantom Tollbooth, characters jump to an island called conclusions, there’s a Watch Dog that has a large watch attached to him and people quite literally get stuck in the Doldrums.


When I was writing the Ninja Meerkats, my favourite character was Bruce. Not because he is super strong and can knock a door off its hinges (although that was handy), but because he isn’t the sharpest pencil in box. A character who doesn’t fully understand what’s going on will usually be funnier than one who is firing on all cylinders. The Steampunk Pirates are certainly not doing that. They are malfunctioning machines and that makes them unpredictable … and hopefully funny. One of the funniest characters ever created is William Brown from the Just William books. I had them on tape read by Kenneth Williams. Richmal Crompton’s William is not only funny for the ideas and schemes he comes up with. He is funny because of the way he expresses himself. Which brings us on to…


This is the biggest one for me. I love writing scenes with funny characters having silly arguments and getting wound up with each other. Some of my favourite chapters in this new series are those involving the King, the Iron Duke and poor old Admiral Fussington. As the Steampunk Pirates thwart their attempts to bring them to justice, it opens up plenty of opportunities for them to say funny things. There are loads of great books with funny dialogue but one that sticks in my mind is The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross because it demonstrates how a book can have an exciting plot, great characters and still be packed with loads of laugh-out-loud dialogue.

Funny books require various types of humour as you never know who will find what funny. Quite often, I put things in just because they make me laugh even though I know it’s only going to be me that finds them funny. For example, in the second Steampunk Pirates book, there is a bit where the Dread Captain Inkybeard (who keeps a squid called Nancy on his head because he needs the ink to die his beard black) is talking to a man called Chas (who is painted gold, tied to the front of a ship, and has just admitted to eating seaweed) when he calls him “a gold-plated seaweed muncher.” I’m not sure why, but it makes me smile every time I read it. I realise you are probably reading this thinking, What’s funny about that? Or maybe you’re thinking, Gosh, that last sentence was really long. I hope he doesn’t overuse brackets like this in his books. Or maybe you’re thinking, Is this going to end with a neatly made point that links to the opening paragraph or maybe something a bit more profound such as how the most tragic situations often generate the biggest laughs? Or is it just going to suddenly end on this question?

The Adventures of the Steampunk Pirates: The Leaky Battery Sets Sail was published by Stripes on February 2nd 2015.

Watch the trailer here:

Gareth’s website:


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