Friday, 8 January 2016

2016: The Year of Children's Non-Fiction?

Well, goodbye 2015, it was nice knowing you. We had some good times together - we laughed, we cried, we ate too much cheese (again...) and we really enjoyed being on Blue Peter.

But now you've gone. You've ceased to be: you're history, an ex-year, and we must look ahead and see what kind of journey round the Sun lies ahead. Will 2016 be kind? Will it rain on our plans or shower us with unexpected gifts?

I know one thing I'd like to see. I'd like to see more people waking up to children's non-fiction. The thing is, that in the world of publishing, everyone says they like non-fiction, everyone will tell you how much they value it, admire it, enjoy reading it and so on. And yet it remains so much the poor relation, fobbed off and told to do the washing up while stories go to the ball.

I've been thinking about this for a while but it was the LISTS that prompted me to pen a ranty post. What lists you say? Oh you know, those lists that people like to bandy about at the end of December:

  • My Favourite Books of the Year
  • Best Children's Reads of 2015
  • Top 10 Titles for 8-12s
  • Essential Reading for Kids
That kind of thing. I often don't look at them because I find them too depressing. Yes, the books on them are good; yes they are well-written; of course they should be recommended and celebrated. But they are always fiction.

Now I'm as big a fiction fan as anybody else. I read a LOT of novels, both adult titles and kids' but if I am compiling a list of books for children I do tend to think about children themselves. Kids come in all shapes, sizes, flavours - and the sad truth is that lots of them don't read. They don't choose to read, anyway. I hear this more and more, especially from teachers but from parents and others too.

Yet, many of us involved in publishing (and I'm guilty of it too) spend so much time celebrating the types of books that are only read by kids who already read for pleasure. I know this is a bit of a generalisation and there are always exceptions but it's one of those ugly truths we prefer not to confront. We all do it: authors, publishers, bloggers, illustrators, agents, reviewers, festival organisers, award givers and more. We love the challenging, sophisticated, deep, issue-raising, unflinching novels in which the UK in particular excels. We have so many superb writers.

A book for a knave?

But what about the kids. What about that boy of 9 I was talking to this week from the Barnsley estate? He had a lovely smile and a dirty white T-shirt. He was pale, keen and probably bookless at home (although you never know). Would those long, challenging novels get him reading? Do fat pages of text appeal to him?

We rightly celebrate these books because their quality is admirable but why don't we celebrate other types of books that are good in other ways? What about books of interesting facts, or books of humorous true stories or collections of wordplay or wacky poetry or quirky miscellanies? These are the types of books that get the Boy from Barnsley smiling, laughing, wanting more, even asking where you can buy these books. 

But how often do we celebrate them? How many times have you seen a children's book award given to a book of funny poems or a miscellany of appealing facts? When do we see these books on lists of recommended titles or round-ups of 'The Best Books for Children?' Sometimes the odd one is tacked on to the end. And to give credit it where it's due, there is increasing recognition of some beautifully presented and illustrated larger-format non-fiction books from publishers like Flying Eye. Lots of people have admired the wonderful Shackleton's Journey. But is anyone shouting up for the best activity books, joke books, biogs, puzzle books?

A few weeks ago I looked at the children's programme of a major UK book festival. It boasted about 15 exciting events with great authors and illustrators. All of them were fiction writers/artists (I include picture books here). Not a solitary non-fiction writer was invited to put on an event for that - really quite considerable - portion of the younger population that prefers facts to stories. No poets either - another poor relation that children love. It's the same elsewhere and it's time for change.

Anyone else with me? I'm not saying less fiction. I'm not saying dumb-down or celebrate the mediocre. I'm not saying aim lower. I'm saying lets give recognition to the best of non fiction books that many children prefer - the books that get them reading and laughing and going to the library. And not the just books that we want them to like.

Could 2016 be the year that popular, funny, interesting kids' non-fiction is allowed to go to the ball?

PS Let's find a new name for it too: 'non-fiction' is such an ugly, un-child-friendly term. And please don't say 'fact' books because not all non-fiction is that. I will award a wonderful prize to the best idea.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Best Book with Facts?

Last week brought some very exciting news: The Silly Book of Weird and Wacky Words has been shortlisted for the 2016 Blue Peter Book Award (Best Book with Facts). It is one of three books in the running for this fantastic non-fiction prize which I won this year with The Silly Book of Side-Splitting Stuff.

Could this be another winner?
The news came right out of the blue and I am thrilled to be going for the 'double'. Could it be another Blue Peter badge (my third!)...? Well, the competition is tough but children are voting for the winner and I know that they'll enjoy TSBOWAWW's blend of jokes, wordplay, lists, amazing words, poems, tongue-twisters and more. The results are announced on World Book Day: March 3rd 2016.

You can read some reviews of the book here. and see some excerpts here.

Books on Tyne

I had a wonderful time at the Books on Tyne Festival in Newcastle. I spent the day at the amazing Lit and Phil Library, the largest private library outside London. The building is wonderful:

The company was wonderful too: I was speaking alongside Anne Fine, David Almond and Robin Stevens, all of whom gave insightful talks. I was grateful too for the festival arranging some photos of me in this beautiful library among the books:

In other news I've finished writing the first draft of Prankenstein on Tour, Book 3 in the series about pranks, comedy, Estonian twins and hairy monsters. It will be unleashed in Spring 2016.

Friday, 30 October 2015

A trip to Russia

I was very excited to be invited to visit the International School Moscow in late October 2015 for a week. I've never been to Russia before and it was a great chance to see a bit of this vast and amazing country as well as to to take part in a long and action packed author visit working with ages 6-13.

I went along with fellow UK children's writer Margaret Bateson-Hill and although we worked at different venues each day it was fun to compare our school experiences at the end of each day and to walk into the city with someone friendly!

ISM is large and a typical international school - full of kids from many backgrounds around the world including many Russian students, of course. They are very bright, responsive and keen to learn as well as enthusiastic readers: a bit of a dream combo for a visiting author... The staff are also fantastic - so much enthusiasm, humour, diversity and talent. Again, it was great to see people from many countries working together.

One of ISM's many buildings across Moscow

The school is unusual being across three sites in different parts of the city and Moscow is one of the largest cities on earth so there was quite a bit of travelling by taxi involved (an hour a journey each way most days) and every trip was a mini-adventure. For a start the city is dominated by traffic and huge wide highways, some of them 14 lanes in total. Yes, fourteen:

Good luck trying to cross this road on foot...

Very few of the yellow cab drivers speak any English so journeys were on the silent side until we started to get near to our destination each time when the drivers would start firing questions about the exact location of the school. My Russian is limited to about 5 words but it was evident that none of them knew where to find the destination. Lots of stopping and asking and getting lost was involved - quite comical at times, especially when one taxi owner stopped for a pee behind a road sign!

But there was lots to look at - it's a city of 10,000 tower blocks, wide roads and polite people. There are Red Squares, blue skies and black cars. Oh they love their big Mercedes alright, as long as they are black and huge and intimidating. The other thing I noticed when in the taxis was that it appears to be an offence not to use a mobile phone when driving..

The city is vast and many parts do represent the grey-grim spawn of mankind's love affair with concrete but amongst the  tarmac, cold steel and cracked verges are magnificent feats of engineering, stylish buildings and startling expositions of technology.

The twisted skyscaper was among my favourite buildings

One of Stalin's impressive 'Seven Sisters' from the 1950s

There are more golden domes around than expected: the lovely Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
 Margaret and I made sure we got to Red Square one evening and stood for the obligatory tourist pose in front of the fairytale St Basil's Cathedral, although I did spice this one up with a KGB hat purchased at the excellent Soviet goodie shop down the Arbat. The Kremlin was lit up and all the more imposing, but the giant square itself is wonderfully attractive. There's a real feeling of East-meets-West here. The night was also enlivened when a couple of vodka-happy Chechnyans insisted on borrowing the hat for their own selfies but couldn't quite manage the phone coordination.

The truly wonderful St Basil's

 Of course, no trip like this is without hitches and there were delayed flights, long waits at passport control (a Russian Visa is not something you can buy in Tescos...) and the struggles of lugging round brick-heavy suitcases of books because shipping them there is a nightmare. Some kids missed out on a signed book at the school because I couldn't take enough but we're still working on sorting that one out.

Then, finally there was the Russian guy in the hotel in the room next to mine who got locked out in his undies when placing his finished room service tray in the corridor. There was a very humorous few minutes where he knocked on my door and with frantic sign language tried to explain his predicament and pointed into my room, clearly anxious to borrow the phone and call for rescue. Alas his glasses were also locked in his room. What a lark.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

About time!

Yes, it's about time I posted on this blog... So, here goes with an all-sorts kind of update.

Well, first of all the new term has begun in schools and I've already visited lots of great primaries across the north of England in September including Foston, Terrington, Clifton with Rawcliffe (York), Langton, St Benedict's, Norton, RL Hughes (Wigan), Aspin Park (Knaresborough) and Our Lady Queen of Martyrs (York).

The children in all the schools have been massively enthusiastic and there has been a real buzz around books - it's so great to see kids getting excited about reading! If you're a teacher and want an inspirational author to get your children reading for pleasure then email me at

Who to choose... Sorry, whom to choose!

I've also just been down to Hertford Children's Book Festival where I did two tasty events, one with home-schooled children (which was great fun) and one at a school in Hertford (which, by massive coincidence, was great fun). The festival has a really impressive line up of authors and performers and is well worth a look if you live in the area.

Being Silly with the home-schooled kids
As usual I gave out lots of moustache pencils to children who made a special contribution to the events...

I have some wonderful events lined up over the next few months too:

Sat Oct 10th  Ryedale Book Festival - Weird and Wacky Words: a fun family event in Malton

Sat 29th Oct Summer Reading Challenge Celebration - Leeds Central Library

Sat 28th Nov Books on Tyne Festival - Lit & Phil Library, Newcastle: another great family event (free!)

I'll also be doing a school visit to Russia in October, which should be exciting. Da!

Free fun pack for schools!

Did you know that my brill publishers Bloomsbury have produced a FREE fun wordplay activity pack to download? It's based on my new book of Weird and Wacky Words:

It's full of enjoyable activities based on words and can be downloaded as a PDF from Bloomsbury's website here
Bye for now!

Saturday, 1 August 2015

What do people say about Wacky Words?

My latest children's book has been out for a few months now so it's time to see what some reviewers have said...

Friday, 5 June 2015

WACKY WORDS is here!

Oh my goshness, this book was so much fun to write:

It's now out there on the bookshelves in your local store or friendly tax-paying website. It the third book in the series that has already won the Blue Peter Book Award and it's waiting for you to read and enjoy.
What's it about? Well MUCH more than words....

Have you been to Muckle Flugga?
Do you know what a courjet is?
Why is your bottom in your middle?
Does CIA mean ‘custard is awesome?’
Can you say, ‘Three free throws’ quickly?
What’s special about wet stew?
Do you know what Ubbi Dubbi is?
  • Find out how to play Ognib and Yabba Yabba
  • Meet Dooby Scoo, Old Gobbo and Two-Metre Peter
  • Discover what a bush telly and a gut buster are
  • Find out the meaning of kludge, zyxt and schnozzle
  • Have fun with Stickipedia, poopo and belly jeans
Here is a feast of jokes, riddles, games, wacky words, punny poems, nutty names, tongue-twisters, funny nonsense, witty wordplay and much more.

Enjoy these snippets:

Read an extract and download a fun free activity pack here!

Buy from Waterstones, Bloomsbury or Amazon

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Hay Fever

Last week was my first visit to the Hay Festival and WOW! My experience was extra special because I was performing there on the final Saturday in the BBC tent as part of the Blue Peter Book Awards 15th anniversary celebration event. The festival is just fantastic in terms of the buzz about books that fills the whole site each day. There is just so much to see, so many great authors around and so many superb events to choose from.

The site is just outside the charming small town of Hay-on-Wye, right on the Welsh border and surrounded by delightful countryside. It's bookshop heaven amongst the wooded hills! The festival site is a huge tented village with thousands of happy book-potty kids and adults roaming around trying to decide which event to go to next.

It was very exciting to be in the Green Room alongside lots of feted names from the world of both adult literature and children's books. There are the TV celebs too but they spend most of their time staring at smartphones. I met several lovely kids' writers and illustrators, covering the full range from teenies' picture books to dark YA thrillers. The food is great too!

My Blue Peter event included the other BPBA winner the brilliant and funny Pamela Butchart along with her excellent illustrator Thomas Flintham plus the extra-nice CBBC presenter Katie Thisleton who hosted our session. Here we all are, micced up before we went in:

Katie, Pamela, Thomas and Andy (me!)
 The BBC tent quickly filled up and we had a lot of fun during the event sharing our favourite bits from our books, talking about what it was like to win the awards (Tom did a jig of delight) and answering questions from the hugely enthusiastic audience. I also shared some 'True or False facts' where the audience had to spot real from fake - loads of fun. My fav fake fact was that The Titanic weighed the same as 600,000 Justin Biebers (it's more like 850,000!). The book signing afterwards was busy but loads of fun. These are the days that authors dream about!

Pamela excited about something!
I also managed to get to three other events while I was at Hay: I saw the very funny John Dougherty, the witty Michael de Souza (creator of Rastamouse) and the amazing Meek Family who gave a fantastic talk all about doing 100 Family Adventures in one year. The two girls Amy and Ella were superb speakers and it was great to meet them afterwards and sign a copy of The Anti-Boredom Book for them. It's well worth visiting their website - they are so inspiring.

The Amazing and brilliant Meek Family
Well, that's enough about Hay - I can't recommend it enough and I shall be there next year I really hope!