Book review – Dreaming the Bear by Mimi Thebo

Dreaming The Bear by Mimi TheboSometimes a book can sneak into your consciousness, and warm the parts of you that you hadn’t even realised were cold.

So it is with Mimi Thebo’s Dreaming the Bear, a story beset with snow and wilderness but very much rooted in contemporary life.

Darcy is a British girl displaced by the careers of her parents to live far from the shopping malls she’s most at home in. Instead she’s struggling to get to grips with life in the winter of Yellowstone National Park America.

We meet Darcy when she’s recovering from a bout of pneumonia and is trying to build up her strength though daily walks recommended by her doctor. Everyone is busy, so she goes alone, grumbling inwardly about boredom, tiredness and missing everything she’s left behind in England. As frustration takes hold she decides to climb a steep hill, something she’s been warned against as her lungs are still “crinkly and wet” from her illness.

Continue reading

How to write children’s books

Sunshine snail cr Judy DarleyI’ve decided to treat myself to a special gift by signing up to Rachel Carter’s Children’s Book workshop at Bristol Folk House.

Taking place on Saturday 12th March 2016, Children’s Book in a Day promises inspiring exercises that will help you explore aspects of writing “such as character, setting and plot.”

Ethan's Voice coverRachel Carter is the author of children’s novel Ethan’s Voice, about a boy who cannot speak. I was keen to discover more about the course teacher, so got in touch with Rachel to find out what drives her own writing.

“I was always drawn to creative writing as a child,” she says. “When I was twelve, I was chosen to be sent on a residential writing course in a big old house for a week. I think that experience sowed a seed.”

Rachel grew up surrounded by animals and fields on a Somerset smallholding. “There was lots of space and time to reflect. I worked in publishing for years, including children’s non-fiction publishing. I decided instead of editing other people’s work my heart lay in creative writing and I was drawn to writing for children because it felt like such a flexible medium…a really broad genre.”

She admits that writing for children is challenging. “I think it’s harder than writing for adults because you have to tailor your language and so on to the age of the children you’re targeting. It’s very competitive and hard to make a living just from being a writer. There is a lot of rewriting involved as with any form of writing.”

Rachel CarterThe best things, Rachel suggests, are “being able to lock yourself away, or sit in a cafe, and focus on creating something you really want to create; meeting children who genuinely love what you have written, and going into schools to do author visits.”

The course is designed to provide the tools needed to start writing your children’s book. “It’s a combination of discussion, imparted advice and inspirational creative writing exercises,” says Rachel, who is also available for school author visits, talks and workshops. “It covers character, plot, setting, the ages and stages and the industry/getting published side of things. It is a fun, uplifting day that uses pictures and objects, and guided exercises to prompt the imagination.”

Sounds wonderful to me.

Children’s Book in a Day at Bristol Folk House is on Saturday 12th March 2016. Taking part costs from £18.10 to £25.90. Find out how to book your place at www.bristolfolkhouse.co.uk.

How to write fantasy fiction for children

The Snowbirds by Jim FitzsimmonsEver fancied writing fantasy fiction for children? In today’s guest post Jim Fitzsimmons, author of The Snowbirds, tells us why writing fantasy stories is really no different to any other kind of writing, “because there are certain elements which are common to every genre of fiction.”

Have the idea

First of all you have to have an idea, and this can come from anywhere, a chance remark, something which happens while you are out walking, an interesting news item, or even someone you know or meet. It is important that you keep your eyes and ears open.

You need to try and think of something that hasn’t been done before if you can. This is obviously proving more and more difficult, but you can sometimes get around it by taking a familiar theme and looking at it from a different angle. I find fairy stories and traditional folk tales from around the world are an immense source of inspiration.

My inspiration for The Snowbirds came from a holiday in Sweden where I visited an Ice Fair. On the final day when the sculptures were completed, candles were lit in each of them and that night the flickering flames seemed to bring the statues to life.

Develop your plot

For my novel I took the art of  ice sculpture, set it in Japan where there is a wonderful annual Ice Sculpture festival in Sapporo. I combined this with the character of Jack Frost and linked him to the Russian character of Grandfather Frost to create an adventure involving two ice sculptures that come to life.

For me it is very important that I work out the plot as much as I can, even before I start, because I personally need a strong framework to keep me focused. This doesn’t mean that you can’t deviate from it if you suddenly have a brainwave, but it saves a lot of wasted time sitting at the computer wondering what is going to happen next. Plus I always strive for a strong beginning, middle and ending.

Shoji, the protagonist of The Snowbirds by Jim Fitzsimmons

Shoji, the protagonist of The Snowbirds by Jim Fitzsimmons

Create your characters

It’s difficult to say which comes first, character or plot – it can be either or both. Of course, you need to decide where your story will take place. This can be an imaginary world, inhabited by weird and wonderful characters in which case you can let your imagination run riot, or you can set the story in a more realistic and down to earth place and let the magic unfold. This has the advantage of heightening the magical fantasy element by contrast.

When creating characters of any sort it is important to make them as realistic and interesting as you can. They must be believable in order for the readers to want to know what happens to them. A good idea is to write down as much as you can about each one. Not just what they are like in appearance, but also their likes and dislikes. You may not use all of this in your story but it will help you to identify more easily with your characters as your story unfolds.

The world of The Snowbirds by Jim Fitzsimmons

The world of The Snowbirds by Jim Fitzsimmons

Know your world

If you’re writing about dragons, fairies, witches or any other of the usual fantasy characters, you must be clear about the world you are writing about. This is why I tend to stick to magic happening in the real world.  It’s the one I know best and you can always add magic to it.

If you’re creating a total fantasy world you’ll need to make plenty of notes about the characters, where they live and their purpose. That’s why some fantasy books include a map of that world so that children can get a good idea of where things are in relation to each other, and if the characters set out on a quest, it can show the path of their journey.

Consider the age of your readers

When you start on your plot or storyline it is important that you think carefully about the sort of story you want to write and the audience you’re aiming for. It’s no good creating a really complicated plot with lots of twists and turns for very young children as most will find it hard to cope with.

Most plots are concerned with the characters having a problem and trying to find a way to solve it. In The Snowbirds the  problem for Jack Frost is deciding which of the two snowbirds carved by rivals Shoji and Orochi will make the best companion for his Grandfather Frost, and he devises a cunning plan to send them both on a journey to the North Pole, during which the true character of each snowbird is revealed as they react to various meetings and situations.

The basic formula for most stories is to decide:-

Who your story is about;
What happens to them;
Where it happens to them;
Why it happens;
How your characters respond.

The quest of The Snowbirds by Jim Fitzsimmons

Introduce conflict

Your plot can involve your characters embarking on a quest to find something, or they can be transported to a different world where they have to overcome an evil tyrant or monster. Or you can create a beautiful world where everything is wonderful only to have it destroyed by the arrival of someone or something.

In each of these situations there’s an element of conflict and drama to keep readers interested. Th conflict can be between your protagonist and other characters, with themselves or with their surroundings.

In The Snowbirds there’s conflict between Shoji and Orochi at the beginning when they’re rivals in the ice carving competition, and there is conflict between the two Snowbirds as they travel on their journey.

The major point of any story is how the conflicts are resolved.

Surprise your readers

Finally, try and think of the unexpected. A neat twist at the end of your story will really add to your readers’ enjoyment. I hope I achieved this with The Snowbirds but you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is.

It’s important also to remember that you’ll probably need to re-write your story several times. For me a great way of checking to see whether the story works is to read it out loud to a friend. You’ll find as you read it that some parts are great, but other parts might sound a bit clunky or laboured. I usually have a bright marker pen to underline those parts and I re-write them later.

Also try and read it to a group of children and gauge their response. You can tell immediately whether they are interested or not.

Above all don’t be afraid to get rid of any characters or situations that simply don’t work. In the end it will make for a far better tale.

Artwork from The Snowbirds by Jim Fitzsimmons

Author bio

Jim FitzsimmonsFormer primary school teacher Jim Fitzsimmons started writing educational books in 1987 for Scholastic – Bright Ideas Series. He subsequently co-wrote books for Hodder Headline Home Learning series, The Blueprints series for Nelson Thornes, and wrote other educational books for Ladybird, Folens, and Harper Collins.

Jim began writing children’s fantasy fiction about three years ago and decided to self publish using Troubador. He lives in the Northern Lake District near the Scottish Borders with two cocker spaniels named Casper and Fergus, and enjoys writing, and painting watercolours.

Book review – The Snowbirds by Jim Fitzsimmons

The Snowbirds by Jim FitzsimmonsThis splendid book for children aged 7+ feels ideal for this time of year. Filled with shimmering descriptions of rural Japan in deepest winter, the beginning focuses on Shoji and his rival, a bullying older boy called Orochi, who compete to create the most beautiful carvings in an ice and snow sculpting competition.

It’s clear from the offset that Shoji is a kind-hearted lad who “always tried to do the right thing, even if it didn’t always work out that way.”

These early chapters of The Snowbirds offer a wonderful sense of realism, neatly grounding us in the world of the novel, especially through the sections in which Shoji’s father teaches him to carve. Family and friendship is a central theme in the book, with Shoji’s mother, father and little sister Emiko working hard to help overcome a catastrophe during the contest, and the Snow King listening respectfully to the advice of his grandson Jack Frost.

Both Orochi and Shoji create exquisite Snowbirds, which Jack Frost tells his grandfather about, knowing he is seeking a companion. The scene in which Jack Frost brings the birds to life is breathtaking – truly magical – and the characters of the birds is immediately evident, with brave, considerate Suno mirroring the traits of his maker, Shoji, while arrogant selfish Aisu is just like the unpleasant Orochi. Continue reading

Book reviews – Thoroughly modern Miffy

Miffy activity booksHow do you take a beloved character and her endeavours and update them for a modern audience? In the case of poet and author Tony Mitton’s work on Miffy, it seems the answer is with great respect, grace and subtlety.

Of all the children’s books I’ve encountered, the Miffy books by Dutch artist Dick Bruna have embodied the genre with the greatest restraint – by which I mean that he invented something good, and ran with it.

The Miffy original artwork is key here, with simple shapes, bold colours and sharp outlines – not unlike the later work of Matisse who so inspired Bruna – just take a peek at the legendary ‘Miffy At The Gallery’ to see what I mean!

Miffy at the Gallery

The text is far from secondary, but works in seamless harmony with the images, with clean, straightforward ideas and words telling uncomplicated yet pleasing stories about adventures any child can relate to.

Tony’s work on the new releases from Miffy’s UK publisher Simon and Schuster has ensured a tightness of phrase and clarity of language that modern children will enjoy – with plenty of questions included to ensure that reading these books is an interactive experience.

Two of the releases in particular hold interactivity at their centre – Miffy Draws: a wipe clean book (complete with a special Miffy pen!), and Miffy Outdoors, a sticker scene book with 50 individual stickers using Dick Bruna’s artwork. Both encourage children to get involved creating the scenes Miffy explores, and think about their own favourite pastimes.

Miffy Draws sunny and snowy

I think they’re great fun, and work beautifully with Tony’s prose – “Miffy is sailing on the sea! What can you add to the picture? Maybe you could draw a friendly whale or a quacking duck.”

It’s the perfect balance of informative and open to prompt kids to use their imaginations and thoroughly engage. I have a sense these will become treasured family heirlooms, packed with children’s early artwork – and the sweet stickers, which include a gorgeous one of Miffy in a bright yellow tent, are bound to be collectors’ items in years to come. But only if no one peels a single sticker, and where’s the fun in that?

Miffy stickers

They books are wonderful gifts for children, artists, or anyone with an enduring fondness for the little white rabbit with an inquisitive nature.

Miffy Draws and Miffy Outdoors are both available to buy from Amazon.

Find out how you can win a family trip to Amsterdam and Utrecht.

Win a trip to the home of Miffy

Tony Mitton meets MiffyRemember Miffy? The white rabbit from Utrecht, near Amsterdam, embarked on a mass of adventures in 1955 thanks to illustrator, graphic designer and writer Dick Bruna. And now, prompted by her UK publisher Simon and Schuster, she’s setting out again, ready to enthrall a brand new generation.

How could they resist? I’m not sure I can. From Miffy At The Gallery (pictured below) to Miffy At The Zoo, this is one curious and cultural bunny. With her 60th anniversary on the horizon, award-winning poet Tony Mitton has produced updated text modern readers will enjoy. The new books promise to interest children in a wide range of activities, while pleasing adults too.

Miffy at the Gallery

In case you were wondering, that’s Tony pictured at the top of this post, shaking hands with his new muse – Tony’s the one on the left 🙂

Dick Bruna at work

Dick Bruna at work

To celebrate, Waterstones is running a competition to win a weekend in Amsterdam for a family of four. The prize includes a day trip to Miffy’s home town of Utrecht to find out more about Dick Bruna, the Dutch artist who invented the fluffy adventurer to entertain his young son while on a rainy seaside holiday. He ended up writing and illustrating 32 books about the perky rabbit.

The competition runs throughout August and is open to Waterstones loyalty card members only (you can sign up for a loyalty card in any Waterstones branch or online at www.waterstonescard.com).

The winning entry will receive flights from a UK airport for a family of four, two nights in a hotel in Amsterdam, plus rail tickets to Utrecht and free entry to the Dick Bruna exhibition.

Find the full competition details here. I think it sounds well worth entering – and a great excuse to jump back into the colourful world of Miffy.

Hop by next week to read my review of the latest Miffy titles to hit the shelves.

A Moomin festive show

Finn Family MoomintrollThis Christmas I’m accompanying my middle nephew to see Moominland Midwinter at the egg Theatre in Bath. I know of these creatures, of course, but have never watched the TV series, nor read the tales, so when I found the book Finn Family Moomintroll in my local Oxfam Bookshop, I decided I’d better do my homework and gain an insight into author Tove Jansson’s characters.

The novel begins with the whole moomin family and all their lodgers (who include Snufkin, a worldy-wise scarecrow-like creature, and Sniff, who looks a bit like a kangaroo and is afraid of everything, prepare for hibernation by feasting on pine-needles and snuggling up in bed.

When they wake the long Moomin winter (as long as Finland’s winter, I’m guessing), is over and Moomintroll and his friends head out to explore and have adventures, often prompted by mistakes made with a goblin’s hat (which, they found on a mountaintop), and other things that wash up on the seashore, including an old boat that they sail to a smaller island than the one they live on, encounter hundreds of Hattifatteners’ (who, incidentally, can neither hear nor talk), survive a storm and then have a jolly morning of beachcombing.

There is a dreamy, fantastical feel to Tove’s writing that means you drift along with the characters and accept everything that happens to them. Comfortingly, whatever scrapes they get into are easily solved, sometimes simply by the day ending and the sun setting.

I’m intrigued to see how Tove’s stories will be adapted for the stage, but know from the pay’s description that it will include puppets and a ‘specially-written soundtrack.’

The story seems rather different to the one I’ve read, but features Moomintroll waking early from hibernation to discover a world of snow populated by a variety of curious characters,

It has potential to be absolutely magical – I can’t wait!

Children’s books for adult minds – part 2

Children's Books Post2Last week I posted reviews of four of my favourite books for children and teens – the kind of writing that, in my experience, appeals to adults and young people alike. Here are four more that top my list.

If you have any suggestions for YA or children’s books you think should make it into my library, or fond memories of the ones I’ve already included, let me know by clicking on the Leave A Reply button. Thanks!

Ninety-nine Dragons by Barbara SleighNinety-nine Dragons by Barbara Sleigh

As a small child I REALLY wanted a pet dragon, so my discovery of Barbara Sleigh’s gentle adventure tale gave me a voyeuristic thrill.

On a hot summer’s night (back in the days when Britain still had summers), Ben and Beth can’t get to sleep so their dad suggests counting sheep. So far, so ordinary. But Ben chooses to count dragons instead, which is fine except that the smallest, 99th dragon, doesn’t quite make it over the gate, and then they work out that the sheep and the dragons must be in the same place, and that dragons love nothing better to eat than sheep.

The only thing for it is to each count the other jumping over a gate and go to warn to the sheep…

My Sister Sif by Ruth ParkMy Sister Sif by Ruth Park

This teen novel is a more grown up version of the mermaid stories I grew up on, which is possibly why I found it so entrancing. Add to that an exotic location and a waft of ecology and I was utterly transported.

And then there are the Menehune, and the wildlife, and feisty Riko whose sister Sif of the title is more sea-dweller than land. It simultaneously fuelled my love of wildlife, travel and (though I would not have wanted to admit it as a teenager) fairy tales.

There’s plenty of drama as Riko fights to save both the tropical wonderland she grew up in, and the family (which includes a few dolphins) she adores from the encroaches of the modern world, but in the end the real threat comes from love.

The Owl Service by Alan GarnerThe Owl Service by Alan Garner

I only discovered this book towards the end of last year, when a friend mentioned the impact it had made on her as a child.

Reading it as an adult I found myself gleaning tips on how to enthral readers, offering just enough information to keep them hooked without giving the game away.

Following the discovery of a set of crockery patterned with owls that seem to disappear at whim, Alison, Roger and Gwyn find themselves locked into the equally mysterious patterns of an age-old feud that threatens to destroy them all.

Owls, plates, ancient legends and the glorious Welsh countryside… How could you resist?

The Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughreanThe Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean 

The tale begins with Paul Roux, nicknamed Pepper, reaching his 14th birthday – a momentous event considering he’s been told since birth that he would die before this date. But when his birthday arrives with Pepper Roux intact, he flees and begins a series of adventures, hiding in other people’s lives.

It’s a wonderfully imaginative journey that requires the reader to leave their grown up skepticism at the door and accept Geraldine’s reminder that: “People see what they expect to see. Don’t they? Or do they see what they choose?”

Read more of this review.

Discover the first four books on my ‘Children’s books for adult minds’ list.

Children’s books for adult minds – part 1

Children's books post1I had originally intended this to be a post about the top few books I remember meaning a lot to me growing up, and a handful I’ve discovered in more recent years. However, scouring my bookshelves I re-discovered too many to whittle them down to any fewer than eight.

The idea for this post came from a discussion I had at a party recently, when I explained I was in the midst of writing one book for teens and one for adults, and had just completed one for adults with a child protagonist. It made us laugh, but the thought stayed with me that long before so-called ‘crossover novels’, there were many books my parents had introduced to me, or that I discovered by myself, that were written so beautifully they seemed to transcend age-appropriateness and just appeal to everyone. Clever.

Here are the first four that remain favourites for me. Four more will follow next week.

Halfling coverHalfling by Rebecca Lloyd

Danny Broadaxe is an ordinary 11-year-old boy, but his life is anything but ordinary. Since the death of his mother in a car accident that also put his father in a wheel chair, Danny has been trying to take care of his dad while dealing with his grief on top of the usual trials of school and life.

His story, however, is far from bleak, Rebecca Lloyd’s delicate touch ensures that a genuine love resonates between Danny and his dad, while a thirst for knowledge about the natural world keeps Danny enthralled in the discoveries he makes all around him. And then he discovers a secret one of the neighbours has been hiding.

Read more of this review.

Shine by Jill Paton WalshShine by Jill Paton Walsh

It’s so long since I read this book, yet it made such an impression on me I can replay most of in my mind. Pattie and her family have to move to another planet as Earth goes cold and an unnamed disaster looms. They’re each allowed to bring one book, and everyone is horrified when they discover Pattie brought an empty notebook. Such a waste! But months later… but that would be spoiling the surprise.

This beautiful, poetic little book shares the experiences of the families as they seek ways to survive on the planet that Pattie, as the youngest child (other than the babies) names Shine.  It’s a gentle adventure full of curious challenges (the trees here need to be split rather than hewed and lamplight seeps through their translucent planks) with gorgeous illustrations by Sue Smith. Perhaps that’s partly why the scenes are still so vivid in my mind today.

BTW, it seems that since I got my copy way back when, the book has been reissued with its original title, The Green Book.

The Ordinary Princess by MM KayeThe Ordinary Princess by MM Kaye

I utterly adored this book as a child. The idea of a run-of-the-mill heroine (Amy – rather than Amethyst) trouncing around climbing trees, pretending to be a kitchen maid and eschewing all the usual traits of being a princess was refreshingly different to the perfect, beautiful images of perfect princesses (“with “long golden hair and blue eyes” and “extremely dull” to quote Amy’s mate Peregrine) I’d been presented with up until then.

 

 

Double Vision by Diana HendryDouble Vision by Diana Hendry

Two sisters, one aged 8, the other 15, rampage through a 1960s summer by the sea seeing the world around them in two very different ways. Eliza, the elder, is in love, entranced by Beatnik Jake who lodges in the attic of her friend/foe Jo.

Lily, the younger, is more concerned with nightmares, curses and a shrunken head. Through it all sweeps the oldest sister Rosa, as haughty as she is glamorous, until she too falls in love.

I re-read this book recently and actually I found I enjoyed it more as an adult.