Tuesday 21 June 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten MG Books Of First Half of 2016

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish.

Nine of us got together to talk about some of our favourite 2016 releases from the first half of the year! (No particular order, by the way.)

1. The Crooked Sixpence by Jennifer Bell (Corgi Children's) - selected by Jim from YA Yeah Yeah/Teens on Moon Lane

Stunning debut from Jennifer Bell, first in the Uncommoners series, is a magical story of a girl and her brother plunged into a strange world where nothing is as it seems and the most ordinary-seeming of objects can have hidden uses. With a great heroine and a truly chilling antagonist, this is a fantastic start to what's sure to be a must-read series.

2. The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (Chicken House) - selected by Andy Shepherd 

This is such a wonderful MG debut. I was captivated from the very first page. Gorgeous world, cracking characters and a thrilling fast paced story that never lets you go. My son's top pick for the year so far too!

3. The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth by Katherine Woodfine (Egmont) - selected by Katherine Webber

Katherine Woodfine's second book is even more delightful than her first, the wonderful and well-recieved Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow. Sophie, Lil, and the rest of the gang have another mystery to solve, and this time they have to venture away from the magnificent Sinclair's to do it, and enlist the help of a few new friends-who are fabulous additions to an already well-crafted and engaging cast of characters. The Jewelled Moth has all of the delicious details, gorgeous descriptions, and spectacular settings as Clockwork Sparrow, but the expanded world and the superbly plotted mystery is what makes this such a treat to read. 

4. Dreaming the Bear by Mimi Thebo (OUP) - selected by Lorraine Gregory

Loved reading this story about a girl and her relationship with a wild bear. Great voice, beautiful writing and characters that are both real and charming. Honest, engaging and at times sad this book will stay with me for some time.

5. Swan Boy by Nikki Sheehan (Rock the Boat) - selected by Tatum Flynn

A rare magical realism MG and a rare book all round - beautiful, gripping, scary, funny, heart-rending tale of a boy with a sad past who is forced to perform in a school version of Swan Lake, and who may or may not be turning into a swan for real...

6. Mumnesia by Katie Dale (Macmillan Children's) - selected by Tamsyn Murray

A hilarious laugh-out-loud cringefest about Lucy and her mum, Sharon, and what happens when Sharon suddenly becomes Shazza - a twelve year old girl from the 80s! But don't be fooled - there's a gorgeous soft centre to this funny Freaky-Friday-with-a-twist. It left me grinning from ear to ear and sighing with satisfaction

7. Stormwalker by Mike Revell (Quercus Children's) - selected by Ruth Fitzgerald

A truly exciting, imaginative story about a boy who becomes the hero of his writer Dad's terrifying story. This is a fantastic book. A terrific, action thriller with a real emotional core. It covers grief, loss, friendship and football and wraps them up in a page turning, adventure - my emotions were all over the place! I really couldn't put it down. 

8. Chasing Danger by Sara Grant (Scholastic) selected by Relly Annett-Baker

Chasing Danger is a mystery/thriller story set on an over-60s holiday resort in the Maldives with no TV or wifi. 14 year old Chase is convinced she might die of boredom. Instead Chase, and her new friend Mackenzie, barely have time to dip their toes in the aqua lagoon before they must defend the island from attack from modern-day pirates. The action is intense, the plot twists are breathtaking and Chase and Mackenzie are fab, hilarious, heroines. It’s Charlie’s Angels for middle grade and the start of a brilliant new series.

9. Erica's Elephant by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King (Scholastic) selected by Faye Rogers

In this beautiful story, Erica is a ten year old who wakes up one morning to find an elephant on her doorstep. With her uncle away on a business trip and no one else to turn to, Erica brings the elephant into her home and tries to find a solution to her money and feeding woes. This is a magical book full of incredible illustrations that will leave your heart feeling full and wonderful. The perfect cute story for the younger generation.

10. Defender of the Realm by Nick Ostler and Mark Huckerby (Scholastic) selected by Faye Rogers

Alfie is a prince. He also feels overwhelmed and does not want to be king as he feels that his twin brother would do a much better job. But when their father dies, Alfie learns that being King comes with even more responsibilities than he first imagined; like defending the realm from supernatural villains. In this fast-paced, funny, and adventure filled book, you'll follow Alfie as he learns to accept his destiny for what it is. This is definitely a series to keep an eye on.

Monday 20 June 2016

#CoverKidsBooks – Writers & Illustrators

In the first #CoverKidsBooks blog, we learned that children's books get just 3% of newspaper review space, despite accounting for over 30% of the market.  We then interviewed booksellers, librarians, teachers, parents and experts about this situation, and found overwhelming support for more media coverage.  Now, in our final interview blog, we hear from writers and illustrators.

We spoke to Chris Riddell, the Children's Laureate; Malorie Blackman, former Children's Laureate; Philip Pullman, winner of the overall Whitbread Book Of The Year; Frances Hardinge, winner of the overall Costa Book Of The Year; Francesca Simon, one of the UK's most popular authors; and Sarah McIntyre, one of the UK's most popular illustrators.

Why is it important for the media to cover children's books?

Malorie Blackman: It is so important to bring books to our children and our children to books.  A child who loves reading grows up to be an adult who loves reading.  If we want our book industry to not just survive but thrive then we have to ensure our children are switched on to reading.  Children's book reviews are an important way to let parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians and YAs know what's out there.

Francesca Simon: It's very important that children's books be part of our cultural discussion.  It shouldn't be treated as a specialist interest.  I think anyone with an interest in books should have a very strong interest in children's books – especially at the moment, when there's so many incredible books being published.

Philip Pullman: There ought to be a space in the mainstream media, in the book pages, for coverage of children's books.  It's important that the general reader sees children's books being discussed intelligently, and not by children.  You need to have a fairly good backlog of reading experience before you can criticise a book justly, and say what its merits and its flaws are.  Children don't have that.

Sarah McIntyre: Children's books are a huge part of the book market.  You can see the shift in bookshops: children's book areas used to be at the back and now they're in front-of-shop displays.  I can only assume the media aren't as interested in reporting on children's books because they don't see the majority of their viewers and readers as children.  But many will be parents, people looking to buy books for friends' children, teachers, and adults who genuinely love children's books for themselves.

Frances Hardinge: It matters because younger readers have as much right to find the books that are perfect for them as older readers do – in fact, possibly slightly more right. 

Chris Riddell:

What is your experience of media coverage?  Have reviews made a difference to you?

PP: One important one that I still regard with great gratitude was Amanda Craig's review of The Subtle Knife.  It was something special.  She said something like: "Once in a generation…" and I thought, "Ah, that's the way to talk about my books!"  It made a big difference to me, and it's quoted on all the paperbacks.  The thing that made the biggest difference, without a doubt, was winning the Whitbread.  Suddenly, I was being talked about on the grown-up pages, and that made a huge difference. 

FH: It definitely does make a difference.  Like a lot of authors, I do the neurotic thing of watching my Amazon sales ranking and hitting 'refresh' a lot.  And whenever a review comes up, there's a spike in sales.  It obviously and immediately results in sales.  The media coverage after The Lie Tree won the Costa Book Of The Year made a huge difference.  But I remember my second book was Children's Book Of The Week in The Sunday Times, and that gave me the biggest sales spike I'd had at that point.  Nicolette Jones is a wonderful champion of children's books, because not only is she passionate, she's so erudite.  She has an acute literary intelligence which I don't think anybody can debate, and therefore her judgement has a lot of weight. 

FS: I remember when I started out, there was no way you could get any kind of press as a children's author.  There was just so little coverage.  So when people asked me, "Do you feel JK Rowling has taken all the publicity?" I said, "What publicity?  There was no publicity to take!"  There's been mega progress.  But still, someone like Julia Donaldson, who is one of the greatest and most successful writers – does Julia get asked to do Front Row?  I have done Front Row, but mainly because I had a maternity cover publicist who came from adult books, and didn't know that children's authors were never put up for it!

What are the consequences of the media not covering children's books?

SM: Only a few writers are earning almost all the money, and the media is encouraging this by only bigging up a few of them.  This makes it difficult for other writers and illustrators to build names for themselves and develop enough of a career to do the job for a living.  So this makes getting published the realm of the already-wealthy.  People from poorer backgrounds will have an extremely hard time getting a foot in the door, and not only will these people miss out on amazing careers, but readers will miss out on getting books from diverse backgrounds.

MB: Placing books into the hands of our children and teens has long term benefits which perhaps cannot be immediately measured, but as Einstein said, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts."

FH: It depends how long it goes on for.  Children's literature is thriving enough that hopefully it won't result in a loss of variety.  It's likely to result in some interesting young authors who don't get reviewed finding it hard to make ends meet.  And then there's all the tiny tragedies of children not finding books they would've loved.  There isn't a single right book for all 10 year olds, any more than there is a single right book for all 30 year olds.  A wide range of reviews means each child has a better chance of getting that one book that's right for them.

PP: It is probably felt by children's book reviewers and editors that we have so little space, we should use that space celebrating the ones that are good.  So you don't often see a children's book taken to pieces and revealed as a steaming heap of crap – though some of them are.  We regularly see that sort of thing with adult books, but in justice, we ought to see negative criticism occasionally. 

"There isn't a single right book for all 10 year olds"

Our research shows that children's books typically get 3% of newspaper review space, despite accounting for over 30% of the market.  How do you feel about this under-representation?

PP: It does sound wrong, doesn't it?  To up the content of the book pages from 3% to 30% children's books would be great for children's books and great for children's authors.  There might be room for these negative reviews, which I'm so keen on seeing!  I wonder how adult readers who haven't got a child or aren't particularly involved in children would feel about it?  I don't think many would read the latest Allan Ahlberg unless they had children.  They would love it if they did.  The greatest picture books could well win – or should well win – things like Nobel Prizes.  Why not?  Where The Wild Things Are is well worthy of a Nobel Prize, in my view. 

SM: They tend to talk about a very narrow range of books.  Can you imagine the book review sections having such a narrow range of authors for adults?

MB: I'd love to see children's books getting far more media coverage than they currently do.  YA book bloggers in particular have proven that there is an eager and receptive market for these book reviews.  There is of course a wider context to this – the proven benefits that accompany reading for pleasure as far as our children and teens are concerned.  Also, more and more adults are now reading books written for the YA market, so it seems to me to make sense that this growing reading market is taken more seriously.

FS: I think it's terrible.  Newspapers are really missing a trick.  If they're worried about declining readership, having a strong children's book section is important.  Readers are interested!

What would you like to see the media doing?

FS: I think they should have at least one or two long reviews every week.  Children's books deserve it, and it's harsh if you only give them a couple of lines.  They need to understand that you can write about children's books for an adult audience.  The main thing is having expert people writing well and authoritatively about it, in the same way that you'd have knowledgeable literary critics.  And I think it is important to do it regularly, because then you look for it.

MB: I'd love to see more in-depth interviews with children's authors and illustrators about their lives and their work and regular, frequent children's book reviews which don't feel like an afterthought or an adjunct to reviews of adult books.  Children's books and books for young adults are not the poor relation of book publishing.  More mainstream media outlets need to recognise this fact.

SM: Mentioning illustrator names would be an obvious and simple start!  And interviewing illustrators as well as writers (Pictures Mean Business).  I don't think the media has really twigged that it's often the pictures selling the book.  If they want to talk about, say, Stick Man, they'll get on Julia Donaldson, not Axel Scheffler. And the media don't really know how to talk about illustration, either; there's no vocabulary.  If they do feature Axel, they'll ask very inane questions such as "Why do people like books with pictures?"

FH: I think it's important to celebrate the people who are doing something, and hold them up as a commendable example for those who are doing a little less.  It's great news that CBBC have their book club; more of that would be very nice.  Maybe other newspapers emulating The Guardian's children's book website.  Maybe people emulating The Sunday Times's decision to expand Nicolette Jones's column.  Just a little more space wouldn't hurt!

PP:  We don't have enough coverage of books per se.  There is no coverage of books at all on the television, which is an absolute disgrace.  From the point of view of the economic importance of the book trade, the vast number of people who read, the growing importance of book clubs and so on, there really ought to be a television programme on a mainstream channel.  And then children's books would be part of it.

"You can write about children's books for an adult audience"

Some people say children's literature isn't literature.  What do you think?

FH: I think a lot of adults don't realise how experimental children's fiction is.  For example, at the moment, I'm reading Sarah Crossan's One, which is a verse novel about Siamese twins, and very funny, and very sensitive, and human and brave and wide-ranging – and also very easy to read.  But I think that's part of the issue.  There's a lurking idea that if something is easy to read, it's somehow worthless, or worth less.  And I don't think that's true.  Writing something that does complicated things but is still readable is very much an art. 

FS: As Philip Pullman says, it's literature for an audience that includes children.  I think Jon Klassen's This Is Not My Hat is a work of absolute genius.  Does that mean I'm infantile?  No, it means I know a good book when I see one.  I chose A Wrinkle In Time by Madeline L'Engle as my book for the BBC's A Good Read.  Now, I haven't read A Wrinkle In Time for 45 years, and I remember that book chapter for chapter.  It seared itself into my consciousness.  And children's books do that.  Anyone who's interested in literature should be interested in children's literature.

#CoverKidsBooks invites you to join in a public conversation about children's books.  Leave a comment, write a blog of your own, or tweet about it using the hashtag.  Tell us why children's books matter to you, and what you'd like to see the media do to #CoverKidsBooks! 

Friday 10 June 2016

Cover Reveal: The Other Alice by Michelle Harrison

We're really excited for the upcoming Michelle Harrison book from Simon & Schuster, The Other Alice!

This sounds FABULOUS; check out the book's synopsis below...

What happens when a tale with real magic, that was supposed to be finished, never was? This is a story about one of those stories . . .
Midge loves riddles, his cat, Twitch, and ‒ most of all ‒ stories. Especially because he’s grown up being read to by his sister Alice, a brilliant writer.
When Alice goes missing and a talking cat turns up in her bedroom, Midge searches Alice’s stories for a clue. Soon he discovers that her secret book, The Museum of Unfinished Stories, is much more than just a story. In fact, he finds two of its characters wandering around town.
But every tale has its villains ‒ and with them leaping off the page, Midge, Gypsy and Piper must use all their wits and cunning to work out how the story ends and find Alice. If they fail, a more sinister finale threatens them all . . .

And now, how gorgeous is this cover?! Designed by Jenny Richards at Simon & Schuster and illustrated by Chloe Bonfield, it looks stunning - we can't wait to add it to our shelves!
The Other Alice will be published on 28th July by Simon & Schuster.

Wednesday 8 June 2016

Guest Post: Gabrielle Kent on The Writing Process; From Finished Draft to Final Copy

We're really pleased to welcome Gabrielle Kent, author of the Alfie Bloom series (published by Scholastic) to MG Strikes Back today to talk about her writing process! I've heard great things about this series and can't wait to read it myself.

Over to you, Gabrielle!

Working on a novel from finished draft to final copy is much easier now that I’m doing it for the third time around. That’s because of the lessons I learned from my first novel. When I wrote The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle I winged my way through it with a loose destination in mind and no map of how I was going to get there. I crammed in every cool idea that popped into my head and seeded the novel with dozens of secrets that would be revealed in later books. Looking back, I realise now that the agents I was approaching must have felt as though they were trying to focus on a toddler who had just been fed a bag of sugar with a pot of coffee to wash it down.

The first draft was around 76,000 words which I realise now is very long for middle grade. I had taken the same approach as many other authors and Googled the length of the first Harry Potter novel and used it as a benchmark. I now know that the 50,000 word mark is a good length for this age group. So, I was trying to sell an overly long children’s novel full of McGuffins, dubious motivations, dozens of hints foreshadowing future novels and Alfie and his cousins just hanging around having fun instead of getting on with their adventure. Something had to go.

My husband, Satish, finally convinced me to make some drastic cuts in a very clever way. He created an excel spreadsheet listing all 22 chapters and ranked each one of them out of ten for excitement, interest/intrigue etc, as well as writing a tiny synopsis for each. When he had finished he turned his figures into a graph and the problems with the manuscript became clear. The worst culprit was chapter four. I knew a writer must have a great first three chapters to hook an agent, however, the graph clearly showed where things were going wrong. Chapter four in particular flatlined. Like a teenager shoving all of their mess and dirty washing under the bed, I had created a cracking start to the novel and then crammed all the exposition and backstory in chapter four. After condensing that whole chapter down to a single paragraph, and snipping other sections that didn’t advance the plot, I hooked the first agent to read it.

There was still work to be done before I landed a publishing deal. The first few publishers to see the manuscript found Alfie gifts, the villains’ motivations and parts of the story overly complex. They also became frustrated with all of the hints that didn’t go anywhere yet. It took a lot of willpower, but I forced myself to cut back on all the little ideas and references I had crammed in there and then turned my attention to clarifying and streamlining the plot. I asked myself what the characters wanted most of all and why, then I worked on making that need influence all of their actions. Then the secateurs came out and I pruned back all of the loose strands until the story could breathe. Scholastic were the next publisher to see the manuscript and my dreams came true, I was offered a three book deal with world rights.

Scholastic were very happy with the state of the manuscript and fortunately there was only minimal editing from that point. My editors, Helen Thomas and Lena McCauley, had me go back and clarify Alfie’s arc as well as picking up on little sections that no longer made sense after the big cull. The manuscript was then passed on to a line editor, Pete Matthews, who picked up on overuse of particular words and made some suggestions for a smoother flow. Finally, the book was ready for print.

Over the course of editing, The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle was cut by 25,000 words and an additional 12,000 were written. I took a lot of lessons from that process which I applied to the writing of The Talisman Thief. I read up on structure and mapped out the novel chapter by chapter before I even thought about getting started. I thought about my characters’ fears and motivations and considered where we would see that in the story. Of course things always change as you write, but it’s so much easier to polish a planned draft than to tame a narrative gone wild!


When Alfie Bloom inherited a castle and a centuries-old magic, his dull and lonely life was changed forever. But Alfie's new life has come with dangers he never could have expected. When Ashford the butler is kidnapped in the middle of the night, the castle comes under threat from a terrifying enemy. Trapped inside with only his twin cousins and best friend Amy, it's up to Alfie to defend his inheritance and prevent a terrible fate from befalling the whole of England!

Information about the Book

Title: Alfie Bloom and the Talisman Thief (Alfie Bloom #2)
Author: Gabrielle Kent
Release Date: 2nd June 2016
Genre: MG Fantasy
Age Range: 8-12 year olds
Publisher: Scholastic
Format: Paperback

Author Information

Gabrielle Kent has worked in and around the videogames industry for fifteen years and currently lectures in games art and design at Teesside University. As well as teaching, she directs and presents Animex, the UK’s largest annual games and animation festival, bringing young people together from all over Europe. Gabriellehas written and contributed to a number of articles, papers and broadcasts on gaming and is a regular judge on the Games BAFTA awards. In 2006 she was voted one of the Top 100 most Influential Women in the games industry by US based Next Gen magazine.

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