Something for children to get their teeth into: World Book Week 2019

5803022F-E37C-41CF-922E-3D9A679688ECI’m always delighted to visit schools, whether or not it’s World Book Week (which it just has been, in March). Taking a group of 9 – 13 year-olds on an illustrated tour through Dante, Greek mythology and the First World War (Ante’s Inferno) or Doctor Faustus, demons and Elizabethan Magic (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst), and seeing their eyes light up at the richness, complexity and sheer power of stories is hugely inspiring for a writer. But one of my school visits this year took a different form, one that gave me more than the usual butterflies as I wrote the date in my diary. Not just butterflies, in fact. Trepidation.B1BA6FB4-9FC8-40A5-9541-67A315DC616E

Stretham Primary is a lovely village school in a not particularly well-heeled part of Cambridgeshire, in which quite a number of children qualify for pupil premium. I’ve visited a couple of times before and been bowled over by the warmth of my reception and the eagerness with which the 9 – 11 year-olds lap up facts about Dante Alighieri, Christopher Marlowe, Elizabethan natural philosophy and the Faustian pact. It never ceases to sadden me how the book world generally underestimates young people, considering all these themes far too adult for them to understand. From my experience at Stretham, not only do children have no problem grasping them, they are also excited by stories that give them something to get their teeth into.5798B2EE-E72A-4CC2-A2DA-1507C388A9DF

So why the trepidation?

Well…. this time, the children were doing something for me.

As a writer you hope you’re on the right track, that what grabs you will grab your intended audience: but there’s nothing like being able to put this to the test. I needed to try out my latest work in progress, and ten 11 year-olds had bravely volunteered to read The Fall of a Sparrow and tell me what they thought. At 50,000 words this was quite a commitment. And scary for me… what if none of them got beyond the first chapter, the first PAGE?

Shortly before the day of the visit, I received a package in the post. Feedback …eek.

Taking a deep breath, I went through all the painstakingly written comments – and breathed out again.

07F08712-8B97-4318-8E31-2763BF32907FThe children had enjoyed the story. They got the characters, the situation, they felt with Eleanor – the heroine – in her predicament, as she delved deeper and deeper into family history, uncovering a tragedy that had never been confronted before. If some of the readers felt that occasionally, too much description held up things, they still all wanted to keep turning the pages, all the way to the end. And now they couldn’t wait for my visit so they could pepper me with questions – about the characters, the ideas, what it’s really like being at a boarding school (since that’s where the story is set) and most of all, how soon will The Fall of the Sparrow be published so they could ALL read it?

Ah, now that really is the question….

Three cheers for school visits!


Demons & magic – essential for curriculum

A few weeks ago, I did one of my favourite things as a writer: visited a school. On the hottest and longest day of the year, I stood in a cool (aahhh, relief) assembly hall and spoke to two lots of 9 – 12 year-old boys, around 150 in all. Together we covered important topics that would be part of any national curriculum I had a hand in – alchemy, magical instruments, demons, Faustian pacts, corruption and abuse of power. Yup, that should equip them for dealing with whatever the world can throw at them in later life. Oh, and the crucial ingredients for what makes a good story: strong, believable characters, powerful motivation and a tight plot structure.

I involved my audience as much as possible, asking questions ranging from easy to more demanding, not because I expected them to know all the answers but because it’s extraordinary how often children can surprise themselves – and their teachers – with knowledge they didn’t know they had.


How to draw up a Faustian pact


This is why I love school visits. Yes, I always hope a good number of my audience will be inspired hearing about my book (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, in this case, as you probably guessed) to queue up afterwards for a signed copy. But sharing with children the things that excite me about books, how they can not only entertain but enrich your imagination and experience with themes and images that link straight to the great classics, gives me the biggest thrill of all. You can enjoy the world of Narnia, for instance, with no idea that fauns, centaurs, dryads and naiads are all rooted in Greek mythology; ditto with the fabulous creatures and themes – hippogriffs, dragons, unicorns, the basilisk and phoenix, alchemy and shape shifting, all well-known tropes of mediaeval literature – in the Harry Potter stories. But if, having read these when young, you later on pick up a copy of Ovid or Vergil or Dante or Milton, it will feel – at least in part – like coming home.



Because my books are aimed at Years 5 – 8 (straddling the primary/secondary divide) I visit all kinds of schools, alternating between speaking to the oldest and youngest Year groups. Every school has a different – but, in my experience, always positive – atmosphere, from the most comfortable private school to the most cash-strapped state primary. I am full of admiration for the teachers who organise my visits; with all the pressures they are under already, it can’t be easy to free up several classes across a school day to attend my talk. Yet I often see from their faces – as well as the pupils’ – at the end that it’s been worth while. The experience of meeting a real, live author who takes the children on a journey they wouldn’t normally go on, can be truly exhilarating, inspiring them to take their own reading and creative writing to new levels. And that can only be good.

 Why, then, do I find it so difficult to charge a visit fee?

Initially, I reasoned I was new to this game, the main thing was to spread the word about my books while enthusing my audience with the glories of reading, and with luck, to sell a good number of copies afterwards. A few visits which didn’t quite work out like that soon toughened me up. In some schools I’d sell 60 or 70 books; in others, after talking to 120 children, only a handful. I gained in confidence that what I offer is worth having, therefore charging a fee is perfectly reasonable (I know!). But what really swung it for me was an observation by a fellow author that if we, as speakers, don’t put a value on ourselves, neither will schools. My ‘generosity’ (ok, cowardice) in waiving a fee makes it much harder for another author to charge one, and time spent away from writing needs to pay its way, or how can a writer make a living?

   The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst Cover for MATADORThus chastened, I do now charge for visits, plus expenses. It’s the piece of information I dread giving, even though the modest sum named is well below the rates recommended by the Society of Authors. Thankfully, most schools are fine with it, though I still can’t get over the brazenness of one private school in the wealthiest part of London informing me that on principle, they never pay fees or expenses to outside speakers. Needless to say, plans for my visit stopped right there and I was left hoping that the same principle didn’t extend to the school’s own teachers, administrative and catering staff.

   So if you know of any school who’d like their Years 5, 6, 7, 8 inspired by an author talk ranging from Greek mythology to the First World War (Ante’s Inferno), or from alchemy to demons and Elizabethan magic (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst), taking in the art of creating convincing characters, dialogue and story structure on the way, put them in touch with me here:

SLIDE 10 The_Alchemist

Alchemy or chemistry?

I promise their students will go away with a good working knowledge of such useful concepts as the Seven Deadly Sins and what exactly constitutes a Faustian pact.

Knowledge like that… Well, you can’t put a price on it, can you?


(Adapted from an article on Authors Electric Blogspot 1.07.17)

3 lucky winners!

Yup, it’s over.  My Goodreads giveaway finished last week and three FREE copies of The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst are now in the post to the winners who, rather pleasingly from a broadcasting point of view, are scattered all over the UK (inasmuch as you can scatter, er, three people).  2-img_1987

Over 200 people entered, which is a terrific number – thank you, everyone, for being intrigued enough by the book to try for a copy!  If you were one of the winners – or even if you weren’t, and have read the book anyway (oh lovely person) – please take the time to leave a review on Amazon.  The more reviews a book has – and they don’t even need to be ecstatic ones – the more Amazon will recommend it to other customers, leading to more eager readers like these ones.

(Who needs lessons?)

What would tempt a 13 year-old boy to make a pact with a demon?

That was my first question as I set about creating a children’s version of the legend of Doctor Faustus (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, out 28th August).

Young Faust was already forming in my mind – or rather, two young Fausts: hero of the story Henry Fowst, and his 16th century counterpart, John Striven.  Both boys are hardworking and keen to learn – traits which come close to Doctor Faustus’s striving after knowledge – but somehow the idea of either of them giving up his soul in exchange for learning failed to convince me.  Learning is what children do anyway; why would they want more?  Even the prospect of supreme power might not be all that alluring for an ordinary 13 year-old boy, not unless I was writing a dystopia in which the hero has to Save the World. And I wasn’t.

STC198813Then it came to me: the catalyst for both Henry’s and John’s actions wouldn’t be desire; it would be desperation.

What if your problems were so great that no one – not friends, parents, teachers, last of all yourself – could help you?  If you happened to stumble across instructions in an ancient manuscript on how to summon a demon to your aid… well, wouldn’t you give it a go?

Except for one thing. Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus follows a strange kind of logic: he blithely enters into a pact with a devil from hell, all the while maintaining that hell doesn’t exist, leading to some amusing exchanges with Mephistopheles:

FAUSTUS: Come, I think hell’s a fable.

MEPHISTOPHELES: Ay, think so still, till experience change thy mind.

Desperate as Henry and John are, in their separate predicaments, I just couldn’t see them inviting danger and darkness into their lives, as if they were a pair of J K Rowling’s Deatheaters. For a while, I was stumped.

Then I did some research into Elizabethan attitudes to magic – and got my answer, which I’ll reveal in my next post.

Happy 750th Birthday!

PIC 2 Dante portraitWhen a year forms not only the centenary of First World War campaigns, but also commemorates at least two other famously bloody battles (Agincourt, Waterloo), it is cheering to discover that 2015 also marks the 750th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest poets the world has ever produced.

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265. We don’t know the exact date, but from hints dropped in the Paradiso it was when the sun was in Gemini, that is, between 11 May and 11 June. The Paradiso is the third part of Dante’s most famous work, the Divine Comedy, in which he imagines himself being guided through all three areas of the afterlife (Inferno, or Hell, and Purgatory being Parts One and Two).  The Devil, as we know, has all the best tunes, meaning that while the Divine Comedy as a whole is among the most sublime poetry ever written, it is the poet’s descent into the dark circles of Hell that makes the most exciting story. Which for me, as Dante enthusiast and children’s writer, begs the question – why has noone ever created a children’s version of this wonderful, scary, gruesome journey, full of mythical monsters and rivers of blood and fire?  Is Dante just thought too difficult for a child to understand?

Well, if that used to be the case, the good news is that it isn’t anymore. In the UK in recent years, writers have taken up the challenge: John Agard with his sharply amusing updated  Young Inferno, Young InfernoHunt Emerson and Kevin Jackson with their deliciously irreverent Dante’s InfernoEmerson and Jackson Dante's Inferno    and, ahem, me with Ante’s Inferno, an adventure story in which 12 year-old Ante (Antonia) finds herself descending through the classical Underworld on a quest to solve a 100 year-old murder mystery.Ante thumbnail

While all publishing is something of a gamble, adapting for children a work more commonly the subject of deep academic study will be thought by some adults to be brave, not to say niche. Luckily children think otherwise. On BBC Radio 3 recently, Kevin Jackson described how an 8 year-old boy enjoyed his Dante’s Inferno so much he now wanted to read the original (hurrah!).  My book Ante’s Inferno won the 2013 People’s Book Prize, judged entirely by readers who vote for the books nominated.

That Dante, given a chance, can appeal to young people is something I know well from reactions of the 9 – 13 year-olds I talk to on my school visits. None of them has heard of Dante before. All are fascinated by the idea of someone dreaming up a carefully ordered Hell structured on a place many of them recognise – the Hades of Greek myth – and eager to read an adventure story set there.

So I am delighted when children – and adults – tell me they’ve loved Ante’s Inferno.  If my book – like Emerson’s and Jackson’s – inspires them one day to tackle the masterpiece it’s based on, so much the better.

Calling for Diversity

the horse and his boy

Listing The Horse and His Boy as one of the all-time best books for children under 10 sparked an interesting Twitter discussion on racism in C S Lewis’s work.

This got me thinking (never a bad thing).  I’d chosen the book because it has all the elements of a great epic. A hero of mysterious parentage, brought up in poverty, needing to flee a fascinating, beautiful but cruel culture, joins forces with a group of companions, including a spirited heroine, to follow an exciting and difficult quest. That the Calormens, from whom Shasta and his friends are escaping, have dark skin has disturbing connotations for present day readers; but to condemn C S Lewis for racism is harsh. He was writing at a different time, with different sensibilities. And it’s significant that the book’s heroine, Aravis, is a Calormen, whose predicament is depicted in equal terms with Shasta’s (he flies from slavery; she, from an enforced marriage, the ‘noble’ equivalent to slavery), culminating in the two of them (*spoiler*, sorry) falling in love and marrying at the end. (For a more in-depth analysis of the race issue in the Chronicles of Narnia go to

However things have moved on since the 1950s when C S Lewis was writing.  We live in a far more ethnically diverse society and Malorie Blackman is right in arguing that children’s books should reflect this. As she said in an interview with Sky News in August 2014, “a very significant message… goes out when you cannot see yourself at all in the books you are reading.”

This doesn’t mean, in my view, that all children’s books should be about race, but rather that we should get to the point where a character’s skin colour is simply irrelevant. Characters from ethnic minorities should be able to be heroes, villains, mentors, jokey sidekicks – it doesn’t matter. I’m not convinced that the reason ‘there are too many white faces in children’s books’ is all down to a worry that diverse books don’t sell. Children want a good story, they don’t care what colour the characters are. I think it’s more a wariness on the writers’ side about which characters should be from a minority background; heroes, yes, increasingly, which is good – but villains? Won’t that look like racism?

Antonia, the heroine of my MG book Ante’s Inferno is black. She is bullied mercilessly by Florence, a blonde, blue-eyed white girl, but not for the reason you might think. Children can find all kinds of grounds to be nasty to each other, it doesn’t have to be racism. For Florence it’s a mix of jealousy and a long-held grudge. Moreover, one of Florence’s friends, who naturally backs her up, is black, and Ante longs to be cool like her.

Ante thumbnail

This set-up felt natural to me. If I were writing in the 1950s, all these characters would have been white because that would have reflected children’s experience of the time.  Now it’s diverse and that’s right too.  People are people, whatever their ethnic background.

The Top Ten best books for children under 10 of ALL TIME

I’ve been inspired by the wonderful choices of SF Said, and @Yayeahyeah to think back to the books I adored when under 10 (the only exception to that time frame is Harry Potter, which I read when, er, my son was under ten rather than me – but J K Rowling breathed such fresh life into children’s literature I couldn’t leave her off the list).

So, in no particular order –

The Horse and his Boy by C S Lewis.  I’d pick all the Narnia series (except possibly The Silver Chair, which I found too sad at the time but often think about now). This one was a particular favourite.

The Luck of Troy.  Roger Lancelyn Green was incomparable in his retelling of Greek myths.  Beautifully written, detailed and exciting.

Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson.  For sheer, charming absurdity – and a thread of darkness running through the stories that makes them even more intriguing.

The Phantom Tollbooth.  This is just the best!  Norton Juster’s witty tale of Milo’s quest through the Kingdom of Wisdom to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason is packed with delightful puns and wordplays.  And how can you not warm to a book containing characters such as The Mathemagician and King Azaz the Unabridged?

The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley.  Another wonderfully ridiculous quest story, as Aladdin’s son Abu Ali is sent to rescue the Button-nosed Tortoise from the mysterious floating Land of Green Ginger, assisted by a half-pint Genie called Boomalakka Wee.

The Log of the Ark by Kenneth Walker and Geoffrey Boumphrey.  Sadly out of print now, perhaps because this hilarious tale of an ark peopled (or rather, animalled) not only by nervous elephants and cheerful hippos, but lesser known creatures such as the Wumpetty Dumps and Seventy-Sevenses, contains a sliver of darkness which grows as the story progresses.  A classic which deserves to be much better known.

The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright.  Does anyone read this lovely book anymore?  Four siblings, ranging from teenage down to 7, hit on the brilliant idea of pooling their pocket money so every 4th week each can go out and do something exciting.  If I’ve made it sound tame, it isn’t – the unwonted freedom they achieve is intoxicating.

Alice Through the Looking Glass.  The archetype of children’s fantasy, how could Lewis Carroll’s ground-breaking (ha ha, literally, with Wonderland) books be omitted?  I’ve chosen the marginally less popular one, finding something particularly satisfying about its brilliant chess board structure.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  J K Rowling deserves every bit of her phenomenal success.  The combination of magic, adventure, charm (in all senses of the word), clever referencing of mediaeval mythical creatures, comedy and tight plotting have resulted in a uniquely original creation.

And in the best tradition of the Last Shall Be First – that GIANT of children’s literature, Winnie The Pooh. A A Milne’s and Ernest Shepard’s tales of the Bear of Very Little Brain are enchanting, funny, warm, humane, sad, endearing – hugely enriching to childhood and adulthood alike.

PS.  Sorry, Down with Skool (Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle), I did have you on this list but decided that Nigel Molesworth and his grate freind Peason who have a face like a squished tomato really come into their own around age 11-12 so no longer qualify chiz chiz.

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst COVER REVEAL

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst Cover for MATADOR       Strange, the workings of fate. Four hundred years and more I have waited for a learned man, a scholar eager for worldly recognition and fame – someone, in short, with whom I can do business – to leaf through these books until he reaches the One. And what do I get? A boy. Another boy.

   Yet he may serve my purpose. Two young souls – why should one suspect the other? The second can catch the first and my task will be done.

Lots of people have asked me if my next book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst is a sequel to Ante’s Inferno.  Well it is – and it isn’t.  Set in the same place, Northwell School, it’s nearer a companion volume; the years have moved on and the characters are different. More of the school’s strange history comes to light, in particular the Elizabethan library with its collection of ancient books where for hundreds of years a demon has lurked, waiting his opportunity…

When 13 year-old Henry Fowst, desperate to escape his problems, stumbles on a sixteenth century diary written by a boy his own age, he sparks off a chain of events that brings a four hundred year-old mystery to life. Soon Henry’s absorbed in diary writer John Striven’s battles with his murderous foster brother, and when John decides to summon an ‘Angellick Spirit’ to his aid, it seems a really good idea to Henry too.

Until, that is, Mephistopheles arrives.

As with Ante’s Inferno, Hilary Paynter has created a stunning wood engraving which Pete Lawrence has designed into an atmospheric cover.

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst will appear with Matador ( in August 2015.