The alternative half-term reading list – fantastic kids’ books from self-published authors

You may be aware of the growing movement of ‘independent authors’, taking advantage of changes in technology to self-publish their work. Famous examples include E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Grey) and Andy Weir (The Martian), but there are also a number of children’s authors getting in on the act too. Here I share five of the best children’s books from my fellow independent authors.

Diary of a Sixth Grade Ninja - Marcus Emerson

Well, this one’s actually a series (10 of them so far). These adventures follow Chase Cooper, the uncool new kid in school, whose situation changes drastically when he is recruited into a ninja clan. Chase chronicles the crazy adventures that ensue in the hope of warning other kids against becoming a ninja themselves.

Shadow Jumper - J.M. Forster

This debut book won the Wishing Shelf Awards for independently published children’s books in 2014. The hero, Jack, has an allergy to sunshine which keeps him confined indoors by day. But at night, Jack takes to the roofs to ‘shadow jump’. As Jack’s condition worsens, his scientist father, the only person who can help, suddenly disappears. But can Jack find him?

Eeek! The Runaway Alien - Karen Inglis

Karen is a highly recommended author to get reluctant boys reading and Eeek! is a case in point. Charlie Spruit is surprised to find an alien on his doorstep one morning. He is even more surprised when he finds out the reason why - this football-mad alien has come to watch the World Cup. Though Charlie tries to keep ‘Eeek’s’ presence secret, his obnoxious neighbour soon finds out. And he has plans for Eeek. Highly accessible language and a fast pace will keep even the biggest book-phobes reading to the end.

The Monster That Ate My Socks - A.J. Cosmo

Do your socks seem to keep disappearing? Mine too. In this book for younger readers, A.J. Cosmo may just have the answer to where they go. When a little boy gets tired of his mum accusing him of losing his socks and finds a half-chewed sock in the laundry basket, he decides it’s time to find out what’s really happening. He tries to trap the monster and this is where things get interesting.

Nelson Beats the Odds - Ronnie Sidney II

Based on Ronnie’s own experiences as a child in special education in the US, this graphic novel stars a young boy who finds out he is to be removed from his mainstream class. Embarrassed by his move into special education, Nelson tries to keep it from people. But he soon realises this is not the way to deal with it and that he has far greater potential than he thought.

Have you read any of the above? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Want to find out more about my books? Then sign up to my mailing list to get your free ‘Pete’s Time-Travelling Underpants’ ebook.

Legendary Ladies: The women history forgot, No. 1 Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace, mathematician and the first computer programmer (1815-1852)

Writing about determined and independently-minded girls in my first book has given me a greater appreciation of female role models. I am amazed at how many fantastic female role-models (living and dead) there are and even more amazed at how little we talk about them. Every fortnight, I will be trying to do my best to improve the situation by sharing with you the life and works of great women from the past who deserve to be much better known. My first ‘legendary lady’ is Ada Lovelace, a Victorian pioneer of computing.

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Ada Byron, aged four
Image source: Public domain, Creative Commons

Interesting facts to share with little legendary ladies (and little legendary gentlemen too):

  • Ada was the daughter of a famous, 19th-century celebrity, the poet Lord Byron. He died when she was eight and she never really knew him.
  • Although airplanes hadn’t been invented at this time, she was fascinated by flying and wrote a book about it called ‘Flyology’ when she was only twelve. In the book she drew a plan for a steam-driven, flying horse!
  • When Ada grew up, she became a mathematician at a time when only men did this.
  • She wrote the first ever computer programme, the instructions which tell a computer what to do, 100 years before modern computers were invented.
  • Ada wrote about her belief that one day computers could be used to create things like music and art. Everyone else told her she was mad and that all that computers could do was calculate numbers!
  • Ada Lovelace is the inspiration for the heroine of the 'Goth Girl’ series of books, Ada Goth.

A bit more about Ada Lovelace

We all know Lord Byron. Most of our modern lives now depend on computers. Yet few of us know the poet’s only legitimate daughter and the world’s first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace. Poor Ada's life would make a cracking period drama. The daughter of an unhinged A-list celebrity absentee father, starved of a bitter mother's attention, crippled by illness as a child and dogged by scandal throughout her life, Ada still made significant, though little recognised, contributions to the scientific world and then died young.

Ada, the girl scientist 

Ada never knew her father, who left England four months after her birth, having been granted a ‘Deed of Separation’ by his wife. It is said that Byron was bitterly disappointed that Ada was not the “glorious boy” for which he had hoped. As it turned out, though, Ada went on to excel far beyond most boys in the exclusively male world of mathematics. Her mother, Anne, encouraged her to study mathematics and scientific subjects as a way to avoid Ada falling into the ‘insanity’ of her father. Anne also tried to teach young Ada ’self-control’ by making her stay in her bedroom alone. Perhaps it was this enforced solitude that ignited Ada's creative spark and her dreams of flight. At the age of twelve she wrote a book on the subject called ‘Flyology’, which she illustrated with a plan for a steam-driven flying horse. Her research into the potential for flight and plans to build herself a pair of wings were cut short at the age of fourteen when she was temporarily paralysed following a bout of measles. It was during her slow recovery that she became absorbed in mathematics.

Ada becomes fascinated with computers

In her late-teens her tutor, the now celebrated Scottish scientist Mary Somerville (another exceptional woman of the time), introduced Ada to Charles Babbage, nowadays known as the ‘father of computers’. He had built a prototype for a mechanical calculator called the ‘Difference Engine’. Ada was intrigued by the ‘Engine’ and over the years she became a zealous advocate and follower of Babbage’s work. Later, when Babbage began work on a more advanced machine, an early computer called the ‘Analytical Engine’, Ada became completely fascinated and visited Babbage regularly. She also undertook much of her own research around the subject and received instruction from Babbage. When a young engineer and future Italian Prime Minister, Luigi Menabrea, wrote about the ‘Analytical Engine’ for the Italian scientific community, Ada undertook to translate it to help popularise Babbage’s ideas in England.

analyticalmachine_babbage_london

Model of the 'Analytical Engine', Science Museum, London
Image credit: Bruno Barral (ByB), CC BY-SA 2.5

Ada, the world's first computer programmer

Ada’s translation was not the most important part of this work. It is her own notes which she then added to the translation of the treatise from which her renown in computing circles stems. Amongst the notes she included an example of mathematical instructions, or an algorithm, which the ‘Analytical Engine’, once completed, could use to calculate complex numbers called ‘Bernoulli numbers’. The ‘Analytical Engine’ was never completed and so Ada’s algorithm could not be put to the test. However, her algorithm is now recognised as the first ever computer programme. She also proposed in the notes that such a machine could, in future, even be used to create art and music. This suggestion was scorned by many at the time, including her friend Babbage. The import of Ada’s visionary words was not realised for another hundred years when fellow computing pioneer Alan Turing saw them and quoted them in his seminal paper, ”Computing Machinery and Intelligence”.

ada_lovelace

Portrait of Ada Lovelace, by Margaret Sarah Carpenter
Image source: Public domain, Creative Commons

Ada's struggles with scandal

Sadly, as was often the case for independently-minded women of education in the nineteenth-century, Ada’s life was mostly an unhappy one. Her mother’s bitterness against her father coloured their relationship and she continued to treat Ada poorly throughout her short life. Ada married a fellow aristocrat, William, the 8th Baron King and later Earl of Lovelace, and had three children. However, her friendships with other men, mostly fellow mathematicians and science enthusiasts, were a regular source of scandal. This was made worse by her fame as the daughter of Lord Byron, who had known much scandal himself while alive. In fact, rumours continued to abound about his odd and shocking behaviour even after his death. Ada also got herself into substantial debts from gambling, something women simply didn’t do in those days. She had joined a syndicate and built a mathematical model to help with placing large bets, but the model had eventually failed her. Her relationship with her husband was strained as a result and he is said to have abandoned her deathbed when she told him some secret that remains a mystery to this day. Ada died of cancer, still in debt and deprived by her mother of contact with friends. She was the same age as her famous father had been at his death - thirty-six.

Though very sad, Ada’s story has still found its way into children’s literature in the form of Christopher Riddell's ‘Goth Girl’ series. The heroine, Ada Goth, and her friend, William Cabbage, are modelled on Lovelace and Babbage.

5 fantastic Christmas book gifts for kids 7-plus

Following my earlier post on great picture books for Christmas, I now turn my attention to older readers. I have purposely avoided the obvious bestsellers, like David Walliams, Wimpy Kid and Tom Gates as, although they are good, you don’t need me to tell you about them. Instead, I’ve picked out a range of books from the very silly to the thought-provoking. You should be able to find something for every kind of reader aged 7-12 here.

The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown

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Image Copyright: Little, Brown Books

This book is the first chapter book from picture book creator, Peter Brown. It tells the story of robot Roz who finds herself stranded on an island and learns to adapt to its surroundings. A heart-warming adventure that also raises questions about the role of technology in our society.

Murder Most Unladylike: Mistletoe and Murder, by Robin Stevens

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Image Copyright: Puffin Books

The latest adventure in this series sees heroines Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong spending Christmas in Cambridge. Their cosy holiday is interrupted when there is a fatal accident at Maudlin College…or is it an accident? The Murder Most Unladylike series is great for those who love old-fashioned boarding school books with a bloodthirsty edge.

Doodle Adventures: The Search for the Slimy Space Slugs!, by Mike Lowery

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Image Copyright: Little, Brown Books

In this rather novel adventure you get to fill in the blanks helpfully left by author Mike Lowery, including drawing your very own hero. It is your job to help Jim the Duck recover an important artefact that has been stolen from the headquarters of a secret society of explorers. Fantastic for reluctant readers who can’t sit still long enough to read a traditional book.

The War that Saved my Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

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Image Copyright: Text Publishing Company

From the silly fun of Doodle Adventures to a heart-wrenching wartime adventure. The War that Saved my Life tells the story of disabled nine-year-old Ada who has never left her tiny flat in the East End of London. When Ada’s brother Jamie is evacuated, her cruel mother decides it isn’t worth sending Ada, with her twisted foot, to join him. But Ada has other ideas and sneaks out to join her brother. Arrived in the country and taken in by Susan, Ada enjoys a freedom she never knew at home, but will it last?

Pete’s Time-travelling Underpants, by Barford Fitzgerald

Rule- Britannia-1600-Barnes-and-Noble

Image Copyright: Cocoa Bean Press

Of course, no list of great books for those aged 7-plus would be complete without one of my own books. In fact, here’s two of them. Pete’s Time-travelling Underpants is an historical comedy series which is great for lovers of Horrible Histories. In book 1 (‘Rule Britannia’), schoolboy Pete Tollywash receives a very strange birthday present and soon finds himself transported back to Roman East Anglia. Falling foul of the local Roman prefect, Pete is sold into slavery and meets fellow slave-boy Julius, who has a big family secret. But can Pete save the two of them from slavery? And what is Julius’ secret? The follow-up, Tudor Trouble, has also just been released, and sees Pete taking on a bloodthirsty King Henry the Eighth.

So there you have it. My book picks for Christmas. What books would you include on a list of great book gifts for Christmas? Let me know in the comments below.

5 fantastic, fun and inspirational picture books for Christmas

Christmas is coming, in case you weren’t aware, and there’s no better gift than a book, especially for the very little ones. Here’s my pick of the best picture books from the last twelve months to amuse and inspire younger readers and keep the adults entertained too!

Barford's pick of 2016 - Picture books

Ada Twist, Scientist - by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts

Image copyright: Abrams Books
Image copyright: Abrams Books

The third in a series of picture books about ambitious kids (Rosie Revere, Engineer and Iggy Peck, Architect being the other two), 'Ada Twist, Scientist’ is a well-written and fun adventure. It follows the insatiably curious Ada, who is always seeking the causes of things, as she conducts experiments to find the source of the strange smell that has invaded her home.

Pass it on - by Sophy Henn

Image copyright: Penguin Books
Image copyright: Penguin Books

A beautifully illustrated story about finding happiness in the smallest things and least likely places. And, as the title suggests, it’s also about sharing that joy with others. Great for pre-schoolers. Uplifting for the 'bigger kids' who may be reading it to them.

Dave’s Cave - by Frann Preston Gannon

Image copyright: Nosy Crow
Image copyright: Nosy Crow

Caveman Dave has a pretty comfy cave, but he has that nagging feeling that there may be better out there. Dave’s simplistic caveman speak and the illustrations are very amusing in itself, but the book has soul and a message too. Under-fours will particularly love listening to the caveman speak!

Christmas for Greta and Gracie - by Yasmeen Ismail

Image copyright: Nosy Crow
Image copyright: Nosy Crow

Not strictly a book of 2016 (it came out in October 2015) but perfect for this time of year and great for younger siblings too. In this story, younger sister Gracie finally silences her bigger, bossier sister, Greta, when she discovers a Christmas surprise all on her own. As I say, younger siblings with rather over-confident bigger siblings will relate to this one very well.

Du iz tak - by Carson Ellis

Image copyright: Walker Books
Image copyright: Walker Books

This is one of the more unconventional picture books you will see this year. ‘Du Iz Tak’ is not written in a foreign language, but rather a made-up language, and half the fun is in deciphering it. ‘Du Iz Tak’ (which seems to mean ‘What is that?’) takes us into the inner life of a back garden where we meet the plants and bugs that live just outside our windows and follow them over the course of a year. The story itself may be better for children 4-plus, but the beautiful artwork will mesmerise younger children too.

Have you read any of the books above? What did you think? Or do you think I’ve missed off a truly fantastic book that came out this year? Let me know in the comments below.

An easy approach to develop your story

People often ask me how I turn my story ideas into a story. They probably believe that there is some special fairy magic that goes on behind the scenes. The truth is much more mundane than that, but in many ways more exciting too. I follow a simple approach that is available to anyone to use. You don’t need to be some colossus of literature to do it and it really opens up the possibilities for story development. So what is it? Today I’m going to talk you through this process and show how you can go from a blank page to a fully-fledged story idea really quickly.
 
 
Step one: The six plots
 
I begin by choosing my plot. Not making up, but choosing. Though there are more stories in the world than it is possible to count, I believe there is a limited number of different basic plots to choose from. In fact, a literary theorist named Christopher Booker believes there are seven, as he tells us in his aptly named book ‘The Seven Basic Plots’. Booker believes that all storylines are simply a variant on these basic seven. I’d go one step further and say there are six basic plots, as follows:
 
  1. Overcoming the monster - Many of the most popular books and films of all time fall into this category - Harry Potter, Star Wars, James Bond and most crime thrillers. Ultimately it covers any story where the main plot is about defeating an opposing force (whether it be an actual monster, other people or your own inner demons).
  2. Rags to riches - A particularly popular theme in fairytales such as Cinderella or Aladdin, but also in Dickens.
  3. The quest - Probably the most popular plot after ‘Overcoming the monster’ and used in stories from the Lord of the Rings to Indiana Jones. 
  4. The comedy - This is basically any story that simply narrates a series of comic events as its main focus. Examples in children’s books include the ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid' series.
  5. The tragedy - Though many of the other plot types can involve a fatally flawed hero or heroine, the consequences of this fatal flaw are the main focus of tragedies from 'Oedipus Rex' to 'Madame Bovary'.
  6. The change - Though particularly common in fairytales (e.g. the Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast), this remains a popular plot type from ‘A Christmas Carol’ to 'Despicable Me’ where changes in character occur rather than physical changes.

Though I don’t agree with everything Booker says, I have found his theories a really helpful way to approach storytelling. Once you have picked your basic plot or plots (many quests are also about overcoming the monster and many ‘rags to riches’ tales are also comedies) then you’re ready for step two.
 
Step two: The six characters
 
Once I have my basic plot I need to decide who are the individuals who will carry the plot along. As with plots, I believe there are also a limited number of character types. As a student, I was particularly intrigued by theories of Vladimir Propp developed from his analysis of Russian fairytales. He concluded that every character in these fairytales falls into one of seven types. I’ve found these invaluable in my own story development and have adapted them to my own purposes and again narrowed these to six general types.
 
  1. The hero / heroine - The person (or sometimes persons) around whom the story revolves. They may be an anti-hero or anti-heroine, even, but without one you haven’t got much of a story. 
  2. The villain - Arguably not every plot type requires such a character, but some of my favourite characters from children’s books have been villains (Shere Khan, Cruella De Vil, Mr. Twit).
  3. The false hero - A classic character of fairytales whom we still meet in modern media with characters like Prince Charming in 'Shrek 2' and Zapp Brannigan in ‘Futurama’.
  4. The victim - This character type is a development from Propp’s own character type called the ‘Princess or prize’. I find it much more helpful to think of this character as the person to whom something unpleasant has happened which the hero or heroine needs to solve in the story rather than the hero’s goal.
  5. The helper - This character basically facilitates the story by providing some sort of help to the hero or heroine. Characters of this type include the Fairy Godmother in ‘Cinderella' and Short Round in 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom'.
  6. The fool - This character is not necessarily important to the development of the story, but provides comic relief, like Donkey in Shrek or Falstaff in Henry IV, part 1.
Armed with these simple ingredients it is very easy to go from no story idea to a story outline in minutes. It has helped me development my two books to date (find out more here) and I am using it currently for my next book.  Will you give it a go?

Why I wrote ‘Pete’s Time-travelling Underpants’

Rule- Britannia-3D-BookCover-transparent_backgroundLast week I released the first in my new series of children’s books entitled ‘Pete’s Time-travelling Underpants’. The first book, “Rule Britannia”, is set in Roman Britain in the first century AD. It’s a humorous story (you may have guessed so from the title) aimed at getting children interested in history and learning historical facts in an engaging way. I stopped the other day and asked myself why I wrote it and here is what I responded.

I love history

Anyone who knows me knows that saying ‘I love history’ is a ginormous understatement. I adore the stuff and have done ever since my visits to castles around the North West of England and North Wales in my plastic knights’ armour as a small child. Writing ‘Pete’s Time-travelling Underpants’ was therefore an indulgence of sorts. It allowed me to go back and explore one of my favourite periods of history - the Roman period. It was a great deal of fun as a result.

I never really stopped being a teacher

blackboard-1185042_960_720Many years ago I was a teacher and my favourite part of the job was sharing knowledge and seeing that moment when I really piqued a child’s interest. I still regularly go on to friends and family about interesting facts, theories and other things I find interesting with the hope that it stimulates their interest too (with mixed results). So, it seemed natural to me to write a children’s book that entertained while passing on lots of interesting and often gross facts about living in Roman Britain.

I was a fan of ‘Horrible Histories’ as a child

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Image copyright: Scholastic
Many of you will be aware of the highly-successful children’s non-fiction series ‘Horrible Histories’, which has even become a television programme. I loved these books as a kid for two main reasons:
 
  1. They were funny and disgusting.
  2. They were packed full of facts about a particular period - ‘Vile Victorians’, ‘Terrible Tudors’, etc.

 

These books made distant peoples seem more human than other history books that focussed on the grandeur of Ancient Rome or the industrial might of the Victorians. In short, they made you realise that the people in these times were essentially the same as us, which made them all the more interesting. I hope with ‘Pete’s Time-Travelling Underpants’ to create a similar understanding in young readers.

It gave me a chance to try out humorous writing

My first book, “Holly Watson and the furry thieves”, was a children’s detective mystery story. Although I included some humour in it, this was not the over-riding tone of the book. I’d always enjoyed trying to write more humorous stuff in my spare time (though rarely sharing it) and also reading humorous children’s books. It seemed natural to try out something humorous and ‘Pete’s Time-travelling Underpants’ was the result. 
 
From the response to the book so far, I realise it’s not only a good book for kids - adults are really enjoying it too. You can check it out now on Amazon in paperback and ebook.

Introducing Pete (and his time-travelling underpants)

I'm really excited to introduce you to the characters of my new book, the first in the 'Pete's Time-travelling Underpants' series. Titled 'Rule Britannia', it sees the hero, Pete Tollywash, transported back to Roman Britain by a dirty, old pair of underpants which his godmother gives him for his thirteenth birthday.  The cast are a motley crew who range from the insane to the downright despicable. Fortunately, there are exceptions, including Julius, a friendly young slaveboy with an incredible secret. Through his hilarious and exciting adventures, Pete learns that Roman Britain was not all it was cracked up to be and, in fact, could be pretty disgusting - think Horrible Histories meets Quantum Leap. So, let's meet the cast.

21st century AD cast

Pete Tollywash

13-year-old schoolboy and resident of Guildford, a large town outside London. Pete is pretty lazy and, when it comes to history, completely clueless. Fortunately
(or should that be unfortunately?) for him he’s about to get a much-needed history lesson. He is convinced that his Auntie Cheryl is just being her usual insane self when she gives him underpants for his birthday. When he finds himself thrown into a disgusting, smelly prison in Roman Britain, he starts to think she may have been right about these ’time-travelling underpants’. 

Auntie Cheryl

Though officially ‘out of her tree’, Pete’s godmother, Cheryl Snarlborough, is also a very respectable History teacher at a local secondary school. Her love of history stems from the fact that she too once time-travelled in the famous underpants. She has now passed the duty on to the next generation, but that doesn’t stop her interfering and getting Pete into lots of trouble. 

Pete’s family 

Pete is hindered along the way by his loving family. His mother, Linda, hasn’t yet quite come to terms with having two teenage sons and his father, Harry, is just generally pretty baffled. The bane of Pete’s life is Jim, his older brother and the star of his school. Pete can’t quite compete with Jim academically (well it’s probably fairer to say he doesn’t even try). The only person who doesn’t cause Pete trouble is his big sister Susie, but that’s mainly because she’s away at university most of the time.

1st century AD cast

Julius

13-year-old slaveboy from East Anglia working for the same master as Pete. Julius is a bright young boy, but for some reason he takes a shine to Pete. So much so, that he lets Pete in on his secret. This propels both of them into an adventure that will put their friendship to the test and bring them up against the evil Noxius Maximus.

Snottius

The chief slave. Snottius looks down on all the other slaves. He claims this is because he is a Gaul (sadly not the good kind, like Asterix) and they are Britons. In actual fact, it’s because he’s a rather unpleasant little toad. Suffice to say, he is not impressed when his master, Probus, comes home from the slave market with Pete in tow.

Noxius Maximus 

The local prefect, that is to say the head of the local government in East Anglia, Noxius lives up to his name. His favourite pastime is torturing the local Britons in his prison. Noxius is a thoroughly nasty piece of work who sells our hero into slavery. But can Pete and Julius stop his evil plans?

 

 

Superbus 

Superbus by name, Superbus by nature (‘superbus’, among other things, means ‘arrogant’ in Latin). The son of Pete's master, Probus,  he is lovingly called ‘snot-for-brains’ by Julius and Pete quickly learns why. What Superbus lacks in intelligence, he more than makes up for in downright unpleasantness. Even so, he does provide plenty of amusement for Pete and Julius who find it just too hard not to play practical jokes on him.
 
You will be able to meet these characters and more in 'Pete's Time-travelling Underpants' - available on Amazon from 22nd June.

 

 

 

 

Top children’s books with a female lead

What makes a book memorable for you? For me, it is usually an engaging lead character. This is definitely the case for most of the books I remember fondly from my childhood. So, to celebrate the release of my new book, 'Holly Watson and the furry thieves' (which stars a ten-year-old girl), I decided to look at other children’s books with a highly engaging female lead. My choices cover a range of reading abilities from picture books to full-length novels, but they have a couple of things in common: they all have a great female star and are brilliant for boys as well as girls. Read on to find what made my list.

Six of the best children's books with an engaging female lead

1. The Paper Bag Princess - by Robert Munsch

Copyright: Annick Press
Copyright: Annick Press
This is a great picture book for young girls AND boys. It is a fun inversion of the usual fairytale of the princess imprisoned by the dragon. When a dragon destroy's Princess Elizabeth’s castle and kidnaps her fiancé, Prince Ronald, she sets out to rescue him in the only clothing she has left - a paper bag. Our courageous and highly intelligent heroine's adventure teaches her some important lessons about herself and some unpleasant truths about her husband-to-be.

2. Pippi Longstocking - by Astrid Lindgren

Pippi Longstocking is the quirky and mysterious girl who moves in next door to Tommy and Annika. She has a monkey and a horse, but, it would seem, no parents. Having been brought up at sea on her now-missing father’s ship, Pippi lacks an understanding of the conventions of urban life, a trait which makes her all the more endearing. Her wild imagination and complete lack of understanding of 'how she should behave' lead Pippi and her new neighbours into a series of outrageous and comical escapades.

3. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - by C.S. Lewis

Copyright: Geoffrey Bles
Copyright: Geoffrey Bles
Though she is one of four siblings, Lucy Pevensie is the obvious star of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, the first book in the classic 'Narnia' fantasy series. It is Lucy that first enters the world of Narnia through the wardrobe and it is Lucy who then leads her three siblings into this fantastical world.  Finally, it is Lucy’s faith that wins through. For me, she is by far the most likeable of the Pevensie children as she lacks the cynicism of her brothers and demonstrates a huge generosity of spirit and a very strong will.

4. Matilda - by Roald Dahl

'Matilda' is one of the best of Roald Dahl’s books (which is saying something) and a character still loved almost thirty years after her creation. She is a prodigiously intelligent girl who, incredibly, is also very popular with her classmates due to her patient and kind character. However, her obnoxious parents and her terrifying headmistress, Miss Trunchball, fail to see Matilda’s gifts and treat her with the utmost disdain. When her teacher, Miss Honey, attempts and fails to get Matilda’s parents and Miss Trunchball to see our heroine’s gifts, Matilda discovers another gift - an aptitude for revenge.

5. Anne of Green Gables - by L.M. Montgomery

Orphan Anne Shirley is intelligent, imaginative and eager to please. Due to a misunderstanding at her orphanage, she is sent to work on a farm in the wilds of Nova Scotia. The farm’s owners, brother and sister Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, are expecting a boy to be sent to them, but Anne’s good nature and willingness to help soon dispel their disappointment. Her chattiness and imagination, though, bring her into conflict with Marilla and she also finds her red hair makes her the object of teasing from some of her new classmates. The beauty of this book is that we get to watch Anne grow and we see her flaws as well as her many qualities.

6. Holly Watson and the furry thieves - by Barford Fitzgerald

Copyright: Barford Fitzgerald I cannot finish my list of top children’s books with a female lead without a mention of the heroine of my new book, ten-year-old schoolgirl Holly Watson. Holly is highly intelligent, loyal and perhaps a little too sure of herself.  When her best friend Charlie is accused of stealing a mobile phone in the local park, Holly decides she is the only person who can solve the mystery. Very soon, though, she finds herself in over her head and realises that she cannot do it all alone.

Over to you

So, what are your favourite children's books with an engaging female lead and why? Please let me know by leaving a comment below. My latest book, 'Holly Watson and the furry thieves', is available now on Amazon.

Do we need to gender-label children’s books?

Is your book for boys or girls?

girl-1176165_1920I am currently preparing two children's books for publication and one of the questions I am often asked is "Who are they for?" My answer is that they are for children (aged 7 plus if we have to be more specific, but I'd rather let the reader decide if I'm honest). I am then pressed on this. "Yes, but are they for boys or girls?"
 
This question perplexed me the first time I was asked it. I had never thought in these terms (perhaps very naively as most other things for children - clothes, toys, TV shows - are marketed very clearly for one gender or the other). I wanted to say, "Let the child decide", but of course it's not as simple as that. One of my books stars a ten-year-old girl and the other a thirteen-year-old boy. I imagine, therefore, that the assumption will be made that one is for girls and the other for boys. But is it necessary to label books in this way?

A boy who read books about girls and liked 'My Little Pony'

I certainly did not think in this way about books as a child and I read books with both girls and boys as the lead characters (as well as books with giants, jungle animals and talking mice as lead characters!). I enjoyed 'When Hitler stole pink rabbit' (which even had a pink cover) as much as I did 'Charlie and the chocolate factory' - both very different books anyway even if you ignore the gender of the lead character. My reading experience was much richer for that. I believe it also helped my development of empathy and understanding of other people.
 
my-little-pony-468916_960_720At an even younger age, I didn't even think in terms of gender regarding toys and I owned two 'My Little Pony' figures as a toddler. They were given to me by my late grandmother for Christmas when I was about 18 months old. I am told I had mithered (to use the northern English dialect term which Grandma would no doubt have used) for these bright pink and purple equines and that my mother had suggested to my grandmother (who had no idea what 1980's children might be into) that she might get them for me.
 
They remained a staple in my toy box until about the age of four when I gave them to a girl who lived up the road. I don't know whether I did so because I was being made aware at primary school and by other children that these weren't for me or whether I grew tired of them. But, it is clear that gender labels meant nothing to me at a young age.

'Let Books be Books'

child-316510_960_720I was pleased, therefore to be directed recently by a friend to 'Let Books be Books', a campaign led by the organisation 'Let Toys be Toys'. They believe that marketing books as being for girls or boys is limiting and restrictive. They even state on their website that such "artificial boundaries turn children away from their true preferences, and provide a fertile ground for bullying". They are currently running a petition asking publishers of children's books to stop marketing books in this way and have already had agreement from a few big names, such as Usborne, Scholastic and Ladybird.
 
Yet many people would argue that it is simply a case of helping parents, carers, relatives, etc. find appropriate books for children. Some may even argue that in helping adults and children to find new books it encourages reading. While I do sympathise with that argument, I do agree with the 'Let Books be Books' campaign that such labels can narrow children's horizons. This in turn could discourage children's imaginations and restrict their learning. Instead, we should think about what books to give to children based on their interests and reading level.

Over to you

So what do you think about the marketing of children's books by gender? Is it harmful and restrictive or is it a helpful way to help adults and children find new books and encourage reading? Do let me know in the comments section below.
 
My first book for children, 'Holly Watson and the furry thieves' (which stars a girl in case you were wondering), will be available to buy from Wednesday 11th May. Sign up to my mailing list to be among the first to hear about its release.

Introducing Holly Watson (and friends)

Holly-Watson-and-the-furry-thieves-3D-BookCover-transparent_backgroundWith the upcoming release of my new book ‘Holly Watson and the furry thieves’, I thought I’d better introduce you to some of the characters you’ll shortly meet. It seems like I’ve known them for a long time, but you will, of course, have no idea who they are. I’m very excited to be sharing them with you.

The premise

As you may have guessed, the star of the show is a 10-year-old girl called Holly Watson. The book centres around her attempts to prove her best friend’s innocence when he is accused of stealing a mobile phone in the local park and her investigation to find the real culprit. She cannot do it all alone and is surrounded by a supporting cast of friends and family. But not everyone wishes to see Holly succeed.

The origin of the story

Kelsey Park in the snow
Kelsey Park in the snow
I was inspired to write this book while watching the outrageous behaviour of the incredibly bold squirrels in my own local park, Kelsey Park in Beckenham, South London. If you do plan to go down to Kelsey Park, do just watch out for the squirrels. They have no fear of human beings and think nothing of intimidating grown men and women (or at least the more timid grown-ups like me) into handing over whatever edible items they might have on them.
Anyway, Kelsey Park, in fictionalised form, is the setting for this first book in the appropriately named ‘Kelsey Park Detective Agency’ series. So, who are the main characters?

The main characters

Holly Watson

imageedit_3_7509140796Holly is a highly confident, curious and intelligent girl who likes to play the detective. She is sometimes a bit too gung-ho in her enthusiasm to help others and this often gets her into scrapes. Holly is fiercely loyal and is a very good friend. She is the goalkeeper of her school’s football team, a dab hand at puzzles and she hates bullies.

Charlie Dunn

thumb_imageedit_4_6876444064_1024Charlie Dunn is the polar opposite of Holly. He is a rather plump, shy and unpopular ten-year-old boy who doesn’t have a sporting bone in his body. In spite of this , or perhaps because of it, he is Holly’s best friend. Like Holly, he is a faithful friend and kind, but in the first book he finds himself the number one suspect in a local crime.

Raluca Ionesco

thumb_imageedit_5_5322092078_1024Raluca is the calm, contemplative balance to Holly’s gung-ho attitude. She joins Holly’s school mid-way through the first term of year 6, having moved to South London with her family from Birmingham. She is very proud of her Romanian heritage, but very quickly adapts to South London life.

The Watson family

Holly is the eldest of the Watson family’s three daughters. Her two sisters are Sarah, a rather surly seven-year-old who is far too ‘cool for school’, and three-year-old Daisy, who is as mad as a hatter. Sarah is jealous of her big sister (though she wouldn’t admit it) and the relationship she has with their dad. Daisy is too busy in her own little world to notice either of her sisters. Holly’s parents, Debbie and Paul, adore their three daughters, but even they will not believe Holly when she protests poor Charlie’s innocence. We cannot forget the Watson’s very fat and very lazy cat, Duchess, who, despite the unpromising outward appearance, has a surprise or two up her sleeve.

Over to you

Which of these characters do you like the sound of most? Let me know in the comments below. You will be able to meet them all very shortly in ‘Holly Watson and the furry thieves’, out soon. To be the first to find out about the book’s release, sign up to my mailing list. You can also find me on Facebook.