Chez l'abeille

Culture. Travel. Writing. My world in words and pictures


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“Planet Odd”

planet oddI’m don’t know about you but I’m only just getting my head around the new world order. In a heartbeat what seemed so ordinary, now seems either really hard to achieve or simply not necessary. I seem to be setting myself simple goals on a daily basis – mostly linked to locating ordinary items I would not have given a single thought too in that previous world we inhabited.

I also work in early education so the current issue of children being in or out of school is all consuming. I have seen many parents coming online to ask about the kinds of things they can do with their children whilst they are at home – which at this moment could be for quite a while.

For children who are almost at the end of their reception year parents can still find ways to help children practice their developing reading skills. At this stage in the school year children have typically been exposed to most of the letters in the alphabet (graphemes) and the sounds they make (phonemes). They can match a sound to a letter. (phoneme -grapheme correspondence) and they can hear the sounds through a word. They may have learnt to do “robot arms” when they orally chop up the sounds in a word This “segmenting” will help them with writing. For example, red is split into 3 distinct sounds, r/e/d. The other way around, when they put the sounds together, (blending)  is a key skill they draw on to read. Being able to independently read simple words like this is a key target for children going on into year 1. Reading books together will help children at this crucial stage of cracking the reading code. Find words in any books you have that are easily segmented and blended. Look for common words such as “the” or “my” which are not so easily blended (sometimes called tricky words). I found a useful video that might help anyone who wants to know a bit more.

Children read and understand simple sentences. They use phonic knowledge to decode regular words and read them aloud accurately. They also read some common irregular words.They demonstrate understanding when talking with others about what they have read.   (Early Learning Goal for Reading)

The Maverick Yellow Band Early Readers are the perfect match for this vital stage of reading development. Among the most recent additions to the collection is the fabulously titled Planet Odd, which matches the current state of the world outside our front doors. Written by Jenny Jinks and illustrated by Roman Diaz, it follows the adventures of Kip, who crash lands on a planet quite unlike his own. This planet is r/e/d! Thankfully, Kip meets Zak, the odd resident of the red planet, who turns out to be quite a helpful character. The illustrations provide some excellent opportunities for a spot the difference conversation as Zak and Kip travel towards a solution for returning Kip home. Much of the story is told through conversation and works well with the visual story told through the pictures.

Another winner for me is “Too Much Noise” by Cath Jones, illustrated by Leesh Li. This story has a more classic, bedtime story feel to it. Poor Rabbit cannot sleep because of bear’s rumbling tummy! However, Rabbit is a true friend and after much  effort Bear can sleep again. Or can he?! I was reminded of one of my old favourites, “Peace at Last” by Jill Murphy, so if that is a family favourite I’d bet on this one being a winner too.

“Bad Robot” (which I cannot say without hearing the ident for the production company of the same name) by Elizabeth Dale and Felicia Whaley is the tale of Max and his robot Rob. This is a fun story with a great twist at the end, that I certainly didn’t see coming! Finally “The Red Rocket Pirates” by Katie Dale and Elena Resko will certainly appeal to all pirate lovers out there. The story is well paced and there are many laugh out loud moments! With Easter on the way the ending feels just right.

So if you’re in lock down with a Reception age child, I would recommend any of these new books, along with the full range of Early Readers. As with all the books in the scheme they are well written, perfectly pitched and above all fun!

Stay safe and well and KEEP READING!

 

©Chez l’abeille  2020

Disclaimer: I was provided with complimentary copies of the books by Maverick Books. I was not recompensed for this review and all views are my own.


“The Pirate who lost his name” by Lou Treleavan and Genie Espinosa

Finding new texts to enthuse young children is always a teacher’s top priority. In recent times, I don’t think I’ve got through a school year without seeing a pirate context being used in an early years classroom somewhere. Most young children love the idea of pirates and know a lot about them too. The-Pirate-Who-Lost-His-Name-Cover-LR-RGB-JPEGThis new book by Lou Treleaven and Genie Espinosa brings a new twist to the pirate genre, and offers some strong curriculum links too.

The front cover bears some detailed investigation and consideration; our pirate protagonist is sporting a quizzical look and a very large bump on his head, his parrot is wearing a rather long -suffering look and the way-sign suggests we’re off on a journey. Lots to discuss and predict from there onwards.

Our main character has all the trappings of your usual high seas brigand – he is the very model of a model modern pirate but unfortunately he’s forgotten his name. There is a very engaging double spread explaining exactly how, which took me a while to fully appreciate. In a series of small vignettes we are able to visually read the cause of his amnesia, which adds some useful practice of inference and deduction skills to the telling of this tale.

So begins our hero’s quest: to find a way to remember his name. His first stop at Captain dreamboat’s heart shaped island would provide opportunities to investigate 2d and 3d shapes in nature. I was immediately reminded of the famous heart shaped island in the Maldives, but discovered more!

At each port of call, he gets closer and closer to discovering his name and the parrot becomes more insistent with her squawks of frustration. Then almost at the point of failure his name is revealed! There’s a nice twist at the end too which will have the reader and listener laughing.

This story would also provide opportunities to discuss the cast of characters and their various attributes. Each pirate has a hugely descriptive name and sometimes some quite subtle characteristics. Captain Anorak certainly wears an anorak, but why does our pirate rush away when the “One Thousand Favourite Pirate Postcards Scrapbook” is produced? Understanding the multiple meanings of words and phrases is a skill the reader needs to develop so they can really understand the texts they engage with. I think having opportunities to do this with language and not just images is important. My only request would be to even up the gender balance as I could only find three female pirates who all had background roles. (Maybe there’s an idea for me to ponder and add to my “to write” list!)

All in all this is a funny story, with depth to the tale and the illustrations, and one which will bear multiple readings. A worthy addition to the pirate canon!

And if anyone can tell me what movie the “Best Pirate Beard Contest” poster is referencing, could you please let me know? I REALLY can’t remember.

©Chez l’abeille  2019

The Pirate Who Lost His Name

Disclaimer: I was provided with a complimentary copy of the book by Maverick Books. I was not recompensed for this review and all views are my own.

 


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More Maverick doings…

I’ve reviewed several Maverick Early Readers before, so it’s always interesting to see the new titles and get a feel for how the series is developing. These new books certainly deliver. One of the things I love about them is that they would be equally at home in the home or in a classroom – so as my day job takes me in and out of many classrooms, I’m going to consider them in that context.

There is a lot of discussion in education currently, about the need for reading books that are “decodable”; that is, closely matched to the phonics knowledge a child has mastered. The recently revised draft Ofsted Inspection Framework makes much of this viewpoint, so many schools I expect, will be looking closely at their reading book shelves and making big decisions about their content. Personally, I think all the Maverick books would be a good addition to any classroom collection.

er-mole-in-goal-cover-lr-rgb-jpeg-731x1024First up then: Mole in Goal by Amanda Brandon and Giusi Capizzi (Orange Book Band/Phase 5 Letters and Sounds). This is a great book in which disability is sensitively explored. Mole has very poor eyesight and naturally short legs which prevent him being able to play his favourite game, football, until his goal keeping skills are discovered. What I particularly liked is the opportunity this affords for children to explore Blind Football and see how a visual impairment is not something that needs to prevent engagement in games and sports at very high levels. When his team mates create a sound making football, Mole is able to save the game and the day.  The illustrations work well with the text and I particularly liked the way Mole’s point of view is demonstrated, so children can see how he experiences the world.

er-the-oojamaflip-cover-lr-rgb-jpeg-1-731x1024The next three colour bands; turquoise, purple and gold, are all aimed at readers who have developed the required phonics skills and are now building their reading fluency. I was particularly happy to see “The Oojamaflip” by Lou Treleaven and Julia Patton (Turquoise Band) in the set I received. This story, in its very early submission stage was once shared with permission in a SCBWI workshop I attended and greatly influenced my move into sometimes writing in rhyme! In this funny story, the wonderously red haired  and resourceful Professor McQuark invents her Oojamaflip, which does exactly what it says! I was interested to see that this has been rewritten in prose and it did make me wonder if there is a place for rhyming texts within this series. However, I do think that having alternative versions of stories, outside of the traditional tale cannon is an equally useful addition to classroom resources. Given that I sometimes have to hear Year 2 children reading as part of my day job, I think this one may make its way into my work bag!

er-wishker-cover-lr-rgb-jpeg-731x1024“Whishker” by Heather Pindar and Sarah Jennings takes us up to Purple band, which brings in more opportunities for wider inference and discussions about the characters and their motivation. This also extends to the illustrations. The main character’s wish builds gradually into a massive problem, which presents the reader with a moral dilemma; Mirabel learns her lesson, but does somehow get her wish! However the nice twist at the end also brings opportunities for considering what happens next. I also felt the language and structure of the text gave it a sightly more episodic feel – perfect for building up the reading stamina as children move into early chapter books.

er-scary-scott-cover-lr-rgb-jpeg-731x1024So finally to “Scary Scott” by Katie Dale and Irene Montano (Gold Band). I loved this story for it’s humour and pace. The story is told over 5 chapters and I also liked how the illustrations interplay with the story and add layers of meaning, so the reader has to use their inference and deduction skills to really engage with the text. The tension builds gradually and there are some great Uh-Oh! moments and cliffhangers along the way. There is also another moral dilemma to discuss – how to do the right thing, even if you may lose out is an important consideration for most 6 and 7 year olds!

So once again, all I can say is Maverick have continued to bring children, parents and teachers some great stories which we can all enjoy in equal measure!

Bravo!

My other reviews of the Early Readers can be found here:

A “Maverick” reading scheme? Yes please!

Making Reading Real Again.

©Chez l’abeille 2019

 

 

 

 

 


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Making Reading Real Again.

One of the longest standing debates in the teaching of reading must be the reading scheme vs. “real books” one. Over nearly 35 years of being involved in the teaching of reading, this one has rumbled and rumbled. Being a realist, I was always aware that the barrier to reading a published picture book independently lay in the complexity of the written words and this remains the main stumbling block.

Maverick have grasped this nettle and are building a deliciously appealing set of banded reading books which combine both the aesthetics of a picture book, yet have the graded vocabulary required to match a child’s developing decoding skills. The colour bands used to grade the books are derived from the “Book Band” system, developed by the Institute of Education, and used widely in schools to match books across the many existing schemes. I’ve been a long-standing devotee of the book bands, as they give teachers a short hand system for judging the relative difficulty of a book. In my day job I work with primary schools and this includes the moderation of reading assessments in Reception and Year. At times like this, being able to judge a book by its cover comes in very handy!

Maverick titles August 2018

New Maverick titles August 2018

I was able to review some of the earlier books in the scheme, which were in the Purple Band – definitely for the more confident readers likely to be in Key Stage 1. These were retellings of existing picture books, which was what I loved about them! I was therefore keen to see if there was any difference in the earlier bands, given the need to pitch the language and vocabulary to a more specific range of reading skills and knowledge.

Both books really worked well for me. Jim and the Big Fish, by SCBWI friend Clare Helen Welsh and Illustrated by Patricia Reagan is a Yellow Band book – this would roughly be aimed at a Reception/Year 1 child. It is a charming story with a seaside setting – now knowing Clare lives in Devon, this didn’t surprise me! Jim tries unsuccessfully to catch a big fish but the items he does fish out of the harbour, courtesy of the pesky seagulls, help him achieve his aim in a roundabout way! There are simple sentences and speech bubbles which feature easily decodable words, perfect for the developing reader. The usual quiz is at the end of the book to support recall skills. The illustrations also provide some opportunities for practising inference and deduction skills, as you have to look quite hard to see that the man in the boat is also fishing – it took me two reads through!

Little Scarlet’s Big Fibs by Katie Dale, Illustrated by Kevin Payne is a Blue Band book,  – perfect for Year 1 readers. This is based on the traditional Red Riding Hood story but with a great twist that will get children laughing! There is an increase in the number of sentences on the page, which will build reading stamina, but the reader is still supported by decodable words to help fluency. Small illustrated clues also give the reader information about just what Little Scarlet is up to and why Granny isn’t getting her treats. Granny is quite savvy and I’m also sure Scarlet won’t be eating her snacks again! One thing I did wonder about was the universality of crossing your fingers behind your back to excuse a fib…again this is a very small illustrative detail but key to any discussion around Scarlet’s behaviour – is telling lies to your Granny a good or bad thing? This would definitely be worth exploring from a moral standpoint.

Once again the high production values and quality of the writing shine through in both books and I think these are a great addition to the Maverick Early Reader scheme.

©Chez l’abeille  2018

 


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FOMO!

I’ve started to notice a curious feeling recently. About a year ago when my slush-pile winning text, “Where’s that tiger?” found me a place on the Golden Egg Academy picture book programme, I was on a real high. After several years of trying, things were finally moving in the right direction.

Once I was accepted onto the Golden Egg programme I knew I wouldn’t be doing any serious submitting for a while. I had stories to hone and editorials to be ready for. But lately as this fantastic year is coming to an end, I’ve realised I’m beginning to feel sendy! This is the term coined in my critique group when you just want to be sending your polished texts out into the big bad book world of submissions; where the dream could, just maybe, if I’m really lucky, come true. But there’s also something else. Something I can only describe as a HUGE fear of missing out, of needing to be THERE…in the right place, the right time, where that one agent will chat to ME and realise what a fabulous all round writing star I really am…

#FOMO. Fear of missing out. Something that gets bandied about on social media, almost as a joke. Yet within the writing world I’m beginning to wonder if it’s more pervasive than we may imagine. Recently I’ve been trying to analyse where this sensation comes from and how it can impact on the unpublished, or even published author.

I’ve used Twitter and other social media for a while now. It enables me to keep in touch with my writing peers and hero/ines all at the touch of a finger. What I have come to see, however, is that a constant feed of Woo-Hoos and celebratory huzzahs can start to dent the confidence of those whose moment has not yet arrived. It’s all too easy to begin to compare yourself to all those successful authors and illustrators and feel, well, not quite good enough!

At moments like that I turn to my trusty critique group. They know my writing very well and provide a healthy perspective on what I am achieving. We also share and discuss the realities of our personal writing journeys, both the highs AND the lows and this helps maintain a more balanced view. Yet it can gnaw away at your confidence when all about you are apparently getting signed to agents or having their fabulous publications splashed across the book world and somehow you begin to feel that you are being left behind. In moments like that, the most important thing to remember is that no one ever posts their failures and rejections in the same way they share their success! Behind each and every wow moment lies just as much pain and fear of failure that will accompany anyone who calls themselves a writer. You are not alone!

It’s also easy to feel that you have to be at every event, workshop, critique event or conference that comes along. This year I was able to visit the London Book Fair as the timing coincided with the school holiday period. I remember last year feeling rather jealous of all the book people who were able to go, as if somehow they had progressed an extra step up the ladder. I had to go…I had to be there to be a part of it, as all proper writers must surely be.

This morning, before I headed out to travel to the fair, I scanned Twitter and this comment made me stop and think:

In the interests of balance, I am NOT at the London Book Fair. So if you’re an author (aspiring or published) and you’re not there either, don’t be panicked by FOMO and a timeline full of tweets. It can be fun, but it’s really not an essential part of the process.

And they were right! I had a thoroughly pleasant time looking at all the books but would I rush back? I could possibly achieve the same outcomes by visiting my local bookshop or library!

Yet, given the array of things that are available it can become increasingly difficult to say no! The annual calendar starts to fill up with workshops, conferences, competitions. Again social media buzzes: Are you going? Are you entering? What will happen if you DON’T? Agents are found, deals are made…you have to be in it, to win it, don’t you? Yet in reality choices must be made, and budgets managed. Planning ahead and focusing on events that will develop friendships as well as my writing has become a more meaningful approach for me.

During my year of no submissions, I have developed seven stories and they are all the better for the time I have taken to let them sit and percolate. I have now written out a tentative plan for the next steps as I re-enter the world of rejection and hope! I’ll be working hard not to let FOMO deflect or defeat me. Writing is a journey not a destination.

©Chez l’abeille  2018

 

 


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In retreat again.

I first went on a writing retreat in 2015. At that time I found it all rather overwhelming and I remember how I was utterly in awe of the other writers and illustrators I was meeting. My overwhelming memory was of being a bit lost and brimful of doubt. I was also feeling like a real imposter. It was surprising then to hear all these feelings and more  shared by everyone at this year’s SCBWI Picture Book Retreat.

During his session on writing Picture Books, Author/Illustrator David Lucas asked us to write down a personal fear; something we felt could be an emotional problem for a character. One by one we anonymously bared our souls as each slip of paper was pulled from the bag: fear of failure, feeling the grass is always greener, wanting to please others… it turns out all picture book writers and illustrators are a fairly neurotic bunch!

“A really good book is a mystical whole.”

David had a pretty good reason for putting us all in therapy for an hour or two. He wanted us to consider those emotions that are universally understood. Through mining the seams of our own psyches we were able to explore the interplay between the particular and the universal. Shared human emotions such as feeling lost, lonely or stuck  are coloured in differently by each of us and we can use these personal experiences to create that universally appealing story. Sometimes the thing that is missing from your umpteenth draft is not the strength of your idea (The Head) or your skill in constructing the story (The Hand) but the emotion or Heart. Without this emotional connection the reader simply won’t care about your character. As David said so passionately, look to your real world and your characters can come alive.

“The real world is more amazing than we know”

We were lucky to also have a session led by Adam Stower, author/illustrator of many successful picture books but most recently the rather marvellous “King Coo”. If you’ve not yet seen this book you really are missing out! (Especially if, like me, you are a secret Molesworth fan.)

Adam took us through his own creative process and shared his fabulous sketchbook archive where we got to see his later characters emerging from earlier observations and ideas.Adam Stower We also explored in some detail the relationship between words and pictures by analysing his book “Silly Doggy”; it is only from the illustrations that the reader knows that Lily’s doggy is in fact, a bear! This empowers the reader but also means the narrator doesn’t have to lie to their audience. His use of a poster to give key narrative information was a lightbulb moment for me in solving a problem with one of my texts so thanks, Adam!

Alongside Adam we also had the benefit of Zoe Tucker’s long experience as an art director. Zoe treated us to examples of fabulously illustrated submissions and correspondence from several well-known picture book illustrators. Social media is fast becoming a key way for art directors to spot new talent. Her top tip was to be an avid user of tools like Instagram, as a way for illustrators to create an instant portfolio but also for writers as a jumping off point for possible stories.

There were many interesting discussions during the weekend, but often we returned to the knotty issue of word counts. Amongst my critique group we have recently been discussing requests from editors to cut out at least 150 words from an already skeletal text and the perceived target word count seems to tumble with every conversation. Peter Marley, Commissioning Editor of children’s picture books at Oxford University Press gave us an encouraging range of  500 – 700 words in his discussion about structure – yet he still urged removal of unnecessary text. Maybe what’s important is not the word count but making every word count!

“Picture Books are like a building – words can be scaffolding which are gradually removed”

Peter outlined his template for seeing quite quickly if a story is going to essentially “work”. He  broke down the traditional 12 spread layout even further to illustrate how the first three spreads will set up the problem and typically send our hero off on a quest to solve it. The mid-section will give the hero space to solve the problem with the twist or “kink in the road” somewhere around spreads ten or eleven, before their safe return home. I was particularly interested in this “circular structure” which in traditional fairy tales is often described as the “There and back again” model; think of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” where Gerda goes on her mission to rescue Kai and bring him home. Both are changed by this journey and the reader’s satisfaction lies in what David Lucas described as the “multiple possibilities” they have as a result of their experiences.

Dummy book

During the weekend every speaker emphasised the importance of making dummy books, so for book making newbies here’s my personal favourite; The “snip and fold quick book” method which I often use to layout my own stories. When making a dummy Peter also suggested including the cover and imprint pages – in fact mock-up the whole book so you can read it through in exactly the way your future readers will experience it.

This time, for me, the weekend passed by far too quickly in a heady mix of writing, drawing and good company. Time out to reflect and review is always time well spent and this retreat certainly provided for my head, my hands and my heart.

©Chez l’abeille  2017


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What a character!

“Actions, looks, words and steps form the alphabet by which you may spell character.” Johann Kasper Lavater

Much of my day job is spent tuning into young children and trying to understand their motivations and desires. Following a curious infant, hell bent on discovering where a forbidden object has gone certainly helps you see their investigative ingenuity in full force. A few weeks ago I heard a child development expert describe a typical two year old. “Their job,” she said, “is to find out how everything in the world works.”

This observation came back to me in a different guise as I listened to Natascha Biebow at a recent SCBWI masterclass on developing characters. “Observe the world around you,” she said, “and think about what motivates children to do what they are doing”. The world of children is mostly determined by what is happening to them “in the moment” and if we watch we can often find great starting points for writing a really satisfying story.

Just WHO is your character? Continue reading


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“To ignite their interest”: 10 tips for visiting authors in the early years.

What could be better than this?

“Children must be given access to a wide range of reading materials (books, poems, and other written materials) to ignite their interest.”

The statutory framework for the early years foundation stage

Not much! For young children their interest in the world around them often starts with the books we share and read with them. To meet someone who actually writes or illustrates books can be a truly inspirational experience. However, for many adults, authors included, being asked to engage a group of three, four or five year olds for any length of time can be the most daunting experience they could think of.

Having worked with under fives for many years, as a teacher and early years consultant, I have experienced those tumbleweed moments when small children simply vote with their feet! Here then are my top tips for planning and delivering a successful author visit to any early years classroom.

Part one: Telling stories.

#1. Location, location, location. Nursery age children in particular are most comfortable in a space they are used to being in. Take them out of their familiar surroundings and other exciting new things will soon eclipse your attempts to command attention! Try to meet the children in their own classrooms to minimise other attention grabbing goings-on.

#2. Attention spans. There are many rules of thumb for determining children’s attention spans. Most typically it is the child’s age plus 1, or the child’s age x 4. Whichever way you consider it, young children do not have long attention spans so if you are reading your story to them don’t expect to be doing it for more than around 15 minutes for a nursery group or 20 minutes for a reception group. After that they will probably start to fidget.They are also remarkably capable of simply  wandering off, no matter how exciting you think you are being!

#3. Bring your character to life. Young children are immensely skilled at willingly suspending their disbelief and they love a puppet or character to engage with. Where they can be shy of unknown adults, a puppet gives them someone non-threatening to talk and listen to. Puppets can also gain their initial interest and help them understand the themes or emotions within a story. If you can illustrate, then drawing your characters will also be a great starting point. Children see being confident at drawing as a highly prized skill.

#4. Keep it interactive. Songs, rhymes, chants, actions, sound effects, using other languages…all these engage young children and keep them involved in the story. There are many song tunes which children will know from an early age to which you can put your own words – try teaching new lyrics to twinkle, twinkle little star and see how easy it is!

#5. Question time! Ask any early years child a question and the responses can range from a detailed description of their new shoes to the more varied random thoughts that enter their heads; “How old are you?” and “Do you have a mum?” would be fairly standard fare. Instead, try asking them open-ended questions about their views on your characters’ behaviour or experiences. Older children may have prepared questions to ask you –  try throwing questions back to them to so it is a more interactive experience.

You’ve made it alive this far! Continue reading


Love of the common language

It is often commented that America and Britain are two countries separated by a common language. The most recent Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) London Industry Insider event proved that we may have more in common than we think, especially when it comes to children’s publishing. The guests for the evening were Clelia Gore, Head of Children’s and Young Adult books with Martin Literary Management, based in Seattle and Amber Caravéo from Skylark Literary. Clelia was in town for a visit and had very generously enquired if there was any SCBWI activity she could join in with. Her proactive engagement with SCBWI was a recurring theme in the discussions – more of that later!

Having settled down with a very welcome post-work aperitif, I was treated to an in-depth Q and A session. We began with an overview of what Clelia and Amber would be looking for. This is always good to know and both had very specific likes and dislikes. Amber is definitely “looking for the gem” in Children’s or YA to add to the phenomenal talent on her current list, but, she added “if it was an amazing picture book I wouldn’t rule it out.” Clelia helpfully includes a list of all the things she wants on her website. Thus began the tale of the kraken. Having tweeted her desire for a kraken story, an editor tweeted their agreement. Clelia then approached the SCBWI group in Washington to see if anyone had one, resulting in a successful submission! So listen up picture book writers; Clelia says, “Okapis are my favourite animal. I’d love to do a quirky, funny book about an okapi!”

When asked about how an author should submit if they write for a wide range of ages both agents were in complete agreement; always submit your very best work. As Amber commented, if she connects with one piece it’s odds on that she will like your other work too. Equally she talked about a submission where the story didn’t hook her, but the quality of the author’s voice shone through. This resulted in a request for any other work and a second manuscript became the published book. Voice and writing talent will show but plot can always be worked on.

Read the submissions guidelines was the evergreen guidance but both Amber and Clelia work hard to ensure successful submissions are responded to in a timely way – something I’d appreciate as I wait for a response to several submissions going back a few months now. What was surprising was the lead in time in America, where books which will hit the shelves in 2019 and even 2020 are being sold to publishers! Typically in the UK publication can be around a year, but wherever you publish, I’ll assume it’s going to be a slow process.

The difference between American and UK Young Adult writing was another fascinating question. It was felt that current innovation in YA literature is coming from America and maybe UK YA writers are not quite capturing the zeitgeist. however there was complete agreement that there should be, “No more dead or alcoholic parents!” There was also some variation in the age ranges and word counts that might be expected. I was very excited to hear both Amber and Clelia suggest 1000 words for a picture book, being a champion for the longer story but in my later discussions with Clelia, she felt that most books would be much lower than that. Back to the editing for me.

The audience also wondered why a British writer might want an American agent. Clelia felt that for YA, Middle Grade and Picture Book writers (yay!) the market is very strong. She has clients across the globe but even in America much of the work is done remotely anyway. Transatlantic promotion might be a bit tricky, unless you or your publisher can afford long road trips so being a social media savant would be very handy.

The evening ended with mingling and meeting new and known SCBWI members and for some members a little light pitching. Now I hate pitching, so for anyone who shares that feeling, here’s a great piece of advice from Amber. “In the end they want to see the writing. Nothing in your pitch will change the impact of your actual submission. Nothing you say will spoil your chances.”I am going to keep that as my preparing to pitch mantra.

So there we have it – maybe we are separated by our common language, but in the world of writers maybe we are also joined by our common love of language.


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8 Essentials For A Successful Blog (or 8 Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Started).

As Chez l’abeille headed towards its third anniversary I found myself musing on where it might go. You know – beyond a readership that is primarily family, friends and a few like-minded unknown followers to something that is recognised by name alone. Around the same time I was heading home one day, idly reading a discarded copy of The Guardian, when the words “How to create a successful blog” caught my eye. It was an advert for a masterclass with Niamh Shields of eat like a girl and Julie Falconer of a lady in london. Successful! Blog! Masterclass! I signed up immediately.

Niamh and Julie were fascinating as they talked about their journey from starting a blog to making it a platform for their full-time occupations. Although both had a different tale to tell, each shared common themes that are key in making a blog stand out from the rest.

So here are the 8 top tips I gleaned (in no particular order) for creating a successful blog. Apparently this is a listicle and a v. good thing. More on that later.

1. WHAT’S YOUR HOOK?

Aha! I know all about hooks, so this is a good place for me to start. Your hook is the thing that defines your blog and sums it up in a few well-chosen words. Think elevator pitch. Having tried to define the hook for each and every one of my, as yet, unpublished picture books I can tell you this is NOT EASY!! I didn’t really think about this when I started blogging – it was more of a vague “I’ll write about the things I do”. Now Chez l’abeille is about culture, travel and writing. It says so in my title. Although there’s a bit of London too…and maybe art…

Chez l’abeille success rating: 7/10

2. NAMING YOUR BLOG.

All blogs have a name. However, it’s important to think of a name that will work in the long-term and will grow with you. “My blog about things I did on Monday 12th December” is clearly not going to deliver on that. It’s also a good idea to check you haven’t thought up the best ever name that is actually already in use elsewhere; whilst it might bring you loads of unforeseen traffic, someone else is going to be very cross indeed.

I searched for Chez l’abeille when I got home. Phew! It’s all mine. But does it fit my  target audience? Hmmm. Firstly, it’s in French. Clearly I’m not French, bien sûr. Secondly, hands up all the beekeepers out there? On the other hand it does reflect a bee (me!) returning home with tales for the hive. It’s staying.

Chez l’abeille success rating: 6/10

3. YOUR DOMAIN.

When I started my blog I hadn’t got a clue and my domain has been an irritation ever since. Let’s be clear – all the best blogs have their own domain. There are all sorts of domains now; .com, .co.uk, .london, .blog…I on the other hand have a crazy mashup of my email address and WordPress. This will have to change.

Chez l’abeille success rating: 2/10

4. BRAND CONSISTENCY.

Social media is very useful as you build your traffic and can be used to create interest in your blog. Curiously, as I was heading towards the masterclass I was hit by a moment of clarity; why were my blog, Twitter and Instagram all named differently? Eagle eyed followers might have spotted the sudden alignment across platforms. Your brand is the thing that makes readers remember you and also helps take you to the top of your “category”. Who do you think of when you think of a food blogger or a travel blogger? And if you don’t say Chez l’abeille when you think of your top 10 culture, travel and writing blogs I shall be very upset.

Chez l’abeille success rating: 7/10  

5. BLOG MUST HAVES.

Firstly a theme. Blog platforms will let you have these off the peg with various levels of personalisation available. You can have your own imagery developed but whatever you do, make sure your blog reflects you. Very big banner headers are a bit passé apparently.

Secondly, some key pages help. An “About” page is essential, as your readers are curious and will want to know a bit about you. A contact page is also a useful thing for when those offers of affiliation start flooding in.

Thirdly, use images. A blog is a visual thing and images help – make them as high quality and as big as you can! It is very important to check out copyright and permissions if you intend to use an image that is not yours. I failed to take any pictures at the masterclass, so here’s a rather jolly phone pic of one of the Guardian’s colour coordinated christmas trees as a seasonal bonus.

Chez l’abeille success rating: 8/10

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Christmas at The Guardian

6. CONTENT

Edit, edit and edit again. Spell check and then do a bit more editing.

Consider your “evergreen” posts; those that stand up to the test of time and won’t fade into obsolescence like a listicle, where you share your top tips for example! It can also be useful to return to and update an old post as this is where all things Google creep in. Traffic to evergreen posts helps build your search rating and what do ratings mean? That’s right, visibilty! However, whatever you write, you are aiming to inspire your readers. Remember every reader is important and they must trust in you and your authenticity which means being transparent when you are working with a brand and not compromising your content. Quality is everything. Which probably means not having random images of Christmas trees. We shall see.

Chez l’abeille success rating: 6/10 (until this listicle hits evergreen status and I’ll bump it up to 8)

7. TIME.

I try to publish something twice a month; that’s not enough according to the pros. Again the googly tentacles that push you higher in the ratings need to see you are alive and publishing. I find making time to write so hard but it’s true, the more you do, the better you get and the more will happen. There’s also quite a bit of time involved in getting out there and meeting other bloggers, reading other blogs, keeping up with social media and just making yourself visible. One way to manage this is to keep anything from a little list to a full editorial calendar. Readers, I promise I will do better.

Chez l’abeille success rating: 4/10  

8. BE BUSINESS MINDED.

Because your work is worth it. When those offers of affiliation, co-working and general excitement start to flood through your “contact me” page you will need to organise yourself to manage their demands. Work out your costs and rates. Don’t do something you are not happy being associated with – does the offer fit with your blog ethos? So far I’ve had the grand total of one query which bagged me a bottle of champagne, but who knows? Better to be ready!

Chez l’abeille success rating: 1/10  and that’s pushing it

So there you have it. 8 top tips from 2 of the top bloggers around! Start writing those evergreens.


Editors – Just what DO they want?

Well that’s a pretty big question! Anyone who aspires to publication spends quite some time second guessing the desires of those legendary gatekeepers, Agent and Editor. In our never-ending quest we tirelessly seek out the breadcrumb trails of informed rumour and whisper. Collectively, the great unpublished try to work out how to unlock the door to the magical kingdom of publishing. And for every scrap of knowledge there is an equal and opposite alternate reality.

Hurrah then for SCBWI and their always brilliant masterclasses. This is the fast track route to the knowledge and Rachel Wade, Children’s Book Editor with Hachette Children’s Group gave us a full insight into what editors do and want.

Rachel Wade

Rachel Wade helping us write our pitch!

Rachel started out by asking what we knew of  imprints – cue a bit of head scratching. Publishing houses will often have different imprints and each one will focus on a particular style or genre of book, so within Hachette Children’s Group you can find various imprints such as Hodder Children’s Books or Orchard. The mention of Orchard took me straight back to the many “Orchard book of…” titles that used to grace the book shelves of my classrooms and my perennial favourite “Five Little Ducks”!

With that cleared up we looked at the role an editor plays in the journey from “The Idea” to “The Book”. Once they fall in love with your idea, it is your editor who creates that essential buzz within the publishing house and gets the initial text to the point where everyone involved is happy. From here external agencies may be involved in the copy editing and proof reading process until finally off it goes to print. With the editor as midwife, a new book is finally born.

So how do you improve your chances of getting your masterwork pounced on by an editor?

Top tips from Rachel include:

  • Be serious. Successful authors see their work as a career. Use your networks to build your own profile as a writer.
  • Remember feedback is just an opinion – write your story and only edit if you think it is the right thing to do.
  • Talk to trusted readers – critical friends or other writers.
  • With picture books, just focus on your book. Editors might look to a series if the first book sells well.
  • Is your angle different?
  • Experiment with the form of your book – is it in the right genre, from the right perspective or point of view?
  • Make sure every word is working for you – does it hook your reader in from the start?

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Prior to the workshop Rachel asked us to bring along a favourite opening paragraph. It’s an interesting exercise: go back to your favourites and ask yourself, “why did I want to keep reading?”

As any seasoned submitter will know, “the pitch,” that introduction to you and your writing, is so difficult to get right. There was much sighing and crossing out as we all tried to pull a pitch together simply to share with a colleague! Rachel helped us think in more depth about what we can do to make our submissions as professional as possible:

  • Understand the books they agent – are you a good match for them?
  • Know who your intended audience is.
  • Include a bit about yourself: successes, related first hand experiences and things of relevance (being a teacher is good!)
  • Include your pitch letter at the start of your manuscript – this can help a busy editor on their eReader recall who you are!
  • Keep your submission letter to one side of A4 and your book pitch to two or three sentences.

To finish up we had a go at editing ourselves, something I enjoyed greatly. I was straight home to wield the axe on those darling little adverbs I had so carefully selected. I’m making every word count. I’m closer to the door.

©Chez l’abeille  2016


Find your funny…

One of my favourite TV comedies is W1A. For those who haven’t come across this gem here’s the gist: Ian Fletcher and his team are tasked with clarifying and defining the BBC’s core purpose. It’s an important role and Ian Fletcher is an important man.

In preparation for the latest SCBWI workshop we were asked to think about our favourite comedy and this was mine. But what actually makes it funny?  As Mo O’Hara, author of the “My big fat zombie goldfish” series has worked with funny for quite a while, we were unpicking comedy gold with a real insider.

So what better place to start than with a banana skin, because… well, it’s a banana skin!

To get to the funny side of a banana skin for children, we had to think about who slipped on it (character), where they were (setting) and when it happened (timing). Now a favourite aunt slipping on a stray banana in the kitchen would probably be a domestic disaster (and not funny). The evil headteacher who has dodged several potential bananas, only to slip up in front of the entire school…well that might just get to green on the funny-o-meter. The key insight I gained from Mo when considering characters, was the idea of status and how this creates humour. Many really funny characters on TV have an assumed status, which brings me back to Ian Fletcher, the man in charge at W1A. Watch the clip carefully and you can see how the clever use of his assumed status is what makes this work; Ian Fletcher really has no control! Mo also got us thinking how to make our characters more multi-faceted by identifying their hopes and fears and thus avoid clichés.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen to your characters? Make it happen!”

A contained world, where the characters are stuck together with no escape is frequently the “where” element of successful comedy. Think of the cells in “Porridge” or the Craggy Island of “Father Ted” as good examples. They are also places where new characters can come and go and this is what provides much of the comic potential. However to make this work for children, any  world we set our characters in needs to be one that is grounded in their reality. Equally, the use of incongruity or taking our characters out of their “normal” can  bring in rich comedy opportunities. Mo referenced Eddie Izzard’s “Death Star Canteen” and if you’ve not seen it – go watch. You’ll get the point!

“Keep saying YES! Be extreme but within the boundaries of your world”

When we listen to really funny things it is often the timing that brings out the funny. Mo encouraged us to use dialogue in the same ways as an orator would. Repetition, emphasis, silence, pauses…all help to create the patterns of speech that will make us laugh. In W1A watch how hapless Will responds to the coffee order. For picture book writers it’s also important that the adults get something from the humour too – after all they’ll be the ones hopefully buying, reading and re-reading. This means re-reading our own work out loud to others is crucial and doing what Mo described as “punching up the script” to make it as funny as you can and upping the humour quotient.

So here’s a question:

Q: What would you call two bananas?

mo-ohara

A: A pair of slippers

See. Banana skins. They’re everywhere. Go find that funny!

©Chez l’abeille  2016


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From paper to published: How to stand out in the slush pile!

Getting your carefully crafted manuscript into the hands of a welcoming publisher is the dream of all picture book writers so this SCBWI workshop was just the ticket! Led by Ellie Brough, Assistant Editor at Maverick, we worked through the many pitfalls and pratfalls of submitting and how to get out of the slush pile.

Maverick is one of those wonderful publishers in the world of children’s books who actually accept unsolicited manuscripts, thus getting us swiftly over hurdle number one – where to send your story. However, as Ellie reminded us, there are still many hurdles; writers with agents already, the time of year or just simply the 3-4k submissions Maverick receive each year!

Still, undaunted by the long odds we considered what would make our submissions stand out and sometimes even jump the queue. Rather marvellously, Maverick read all submissions in order of arrival but sometimes a title will just scream “Read Me!” and get noticed sooner. Ellie gave the wonderful “Strictly No Crocs” by Heather Pindar as a good example. As Steve Bicknell, the founder of Maverick says, “Title is king”. Titles are my downfall so I’m going to have to work on this!

Ellie Brough from Maverick

So what do we need to do? Continue reading


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That was the year that was…

2015. The year that scarred me. Literally.

Whatever it was that bit me in Devon is still unknown, but the hole it left in my forehead remains as a souvenir of the week I went to Arvon.  This was the year I did a lot more learning about picture book writing but a lot less sending out stuff to agents. Seeing the brilliance others achieve is somewhat daunting and I feel a confidence boost is needed to go back to the things I have completed and get them sent out. That is my first 2016 ambition. I was tremendously flattered by the poem inspired by my blog post though- thanks Al!

I saw the northern lights by accident and popped over to Paris but didn’t travel as much as usual. All my spare money went into essential repairs at the tail end of 2014, but as a result I have a lovely spare room/work space with the ever ready aerobed which welcomed many visitors in 2015, including the not seen for ages Mary, Alicia and Mardi. I did finally get to the great home owning milestone of paying off the mortgage, so maybe there will be more travelling in 2016. I’m already coming up with ideas for Christmas and would really like to go back to Iceland.

I discovered I really enjoy unravelling murders. MOOCs have entertained and enlightened throughout the year and I have several waiting for me in 2016. I also walked a lot and went to places in London I had never seen before. There are still many sections of the Thames Path to tramp along and new street art to seek out, so watch out for more Streets of London reports next year.

2015 map

Finally, I achieved my blog target of at least two posts a month and more than doubled my visitors and views. A lot of people around the world came and visited me in cyberspace. If you were one of them, thank you and may 2016 be a great success for you. I would love to have more of your comments and thoughts so please feel encouraged to leave them!

I am thinking about how to refresh and build the blog next year so watch out for more doings here at Chez L’abeille in the year to come!

Happy New Year! Cx

©Chez l’abeille 2015

 

 

 

 


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Picture books and the power of poo!

SCBWI workshop 2015 Jude EvansJust what makes a picture book exceptional? The  illustrators and authors who gathered together at the most recent SCBWI picture book workshop were all very keen to find out. Fortunately we had Jude Evans, Associate Publisher, of Little Tiger Press on hand to share her accumulated wisdom and industry insider knowledge about what makes a picture book stand out from the crowd.

Jude gave us a very detailed overview of the UK picture book market today. In the current top fifty titles Julia Donaldson accounts for a whopping eighteen of them, books with licensed characters such as Disney films took up eight spots and the classics or discounted titles had a further six titles apiece.  It was very clear from this industry list that the market place for debut authors, or even just the less well-known, is very, very crowded indeed. Jude also included what she grouped as “scatological books” in the top fifty. Apparently you still can’t beat dinosaurs, aliens, pants and poo!

So just how do you get someone to even look at your masterwork? Examining the current trends and fashions of children’s publishing can be a good starting point. As more and more agents and publishers use social media, this can be a great way to find out what they are all getting excited about. Even observing what booksellers are making a song and dance about can tune you in to what’s hot and what’s not in the picture book world. Currently illustrated non-fiction is flying off the shelves, after the publication of books such as Shackleton’s Journey. Alternatively you could opt to focus on the perennial themes that just seem to run and run. Yup. You guessed it: dinosaurs, aliens, pants and poo. Continue reading