I love getting letters from readers in the post. Real letters are far more fun than emails. I love opening the envelopes, unfolding the letter inside, holding the exact piece of paper that a little while ago the sender was writing on. There’s something quite magical about letters.girl writing

This week I answered three letters from young readers. Two of them were from Ireland, one was from the UK. Each contained questions for me. I thought I’d answer some of these questions below. Maybe they are questions that you would also ask me if you could.

Some of the letters from my young readers
Some of the letters from my young readers

If you’d like to write to me, I’d be delighted. The address is: Sarah Webb c/o Walker Books, 87 Vauxhall Walk, London SE11 5HJ, England. I promise to write back to you.

Sarah, how did you get the idea for Amy Green?

My teen diaries. As a teen I wrote in them every day and it was fascinating reading back and seeing what made me happy, upset or angry at 14, 16 or 18.

Who or what inspired you to write?

Judy Blume, Enid Blyton and all the wonderful writers I read as a child. I was and still am a huge, devoted reader. I found friends on the pages of books. Reading inspired me to write.

What is Ireland like (this was from a UK reader) and where do you live?

West Cork
West Cork

I live in Dun Laoghaire – below – a town 7 miles from Dublin city which has a large harbour. It has a great cinema, a theatre and the best library in Ireland, the Lexicon. We live on a long street which winds its way up a hill from the sea. In Ireland you are never far from the countryside and if you drive for a little while you’ll hit green fields, hills and mountains.

I also spend a lot of time in West Cork – above – which has the most stunning landscape. The people are very special too, warm, friendly and funny.

It’s hard to say what Ireland is like. It is a place where books and stories and cherished, which I think makes it very special. What I do know is that for me it’s home and although I love to travel, my heart belongs to Ireland.

Dun Laoghaire
Dun Laoghaire

What was your dream job as a child?

Writer. It just goes to show that sometimes dreams really do come true if you work hard enough and follow your heart.

What is being a writer like?

Do you write all day?

I’ll answer these two questions together. I have lots of different kinds of days – writing days, school visit days, festival planning days, reading and reviewing days, teaching days. Most writers don’t just write, especially children’s writers – they do lots of other things too.

Every week I spend 2 or 3 mornings writing – from 10am to 2pm – and 2 days visiting schools, teaching creative writing, reviewing and doing other bits of work relating to books. I try to write 2k words every time I sit down at my desk, that’s my aim. I often don’t hit this target, but sometimes I do.

At the moment I am Writer in Residence in Dún Laoghaire so from September I will be hosting book clubs for young readers and writing workshops, that will be fun.

What job would you do if you weren’t a writer?

A children’s bookseller. One day I hope to own my own children’s bookshop. Watch this space!

This post first appeared on the Girls Heart Books website.

 

I’m a big fan of Oliver Jeffers who is a Northern Irish designer, artist, writer and illustrator who is best known for his picture books. My favourite is an early book called Lost and Found about a boy and a lost penguin who become friends. His new book is called A Child of Books and it’s out in September. Written and illustrated by both Sam Winston and Oliver, it’s an ode to childhood books.

A Child Made of Books
A Child of Books

 

Here’s the trailer, do check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3_qoMY7mf8

 Inspired by this book, I thought I’d list some of the books that made ME:

1/ Richard Scarry’s Busy Busy Worldbusy busy world

I loved this book and used to pour over the details in the pictures. It’s full of funny stories set all over the world, from Italy to Ireland, and I loved it so much I used to sleep with it under my pillow.

2/ Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

Image from the Ballet Shoes Television Movie Starring Emma Watson
Image from the Ballet Shoes Television Movie Starring Emma Watson

I took ballet classes for years and always dreamed of one day being a ballerina. It was not to be, but reading about ballet and watching ballet is the next best thing. I even wrote about ballet in Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze.

3/ Heidi by Johanna Spyriheidi

How I wanted to live in the Swiss Alps with a kind grandfather after this story was read to me. It’s such a wonderful tale, of friendship, overcoming hardship and being yourself.

4/ Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery

Anne from Anne of Green Gables
Anne from Anne of Green Gables

I’ve always admired Anne ‘with an e’ – she’s one of my favourite characters of all time. I like to think we’d be kindred spirits if we ever met. She has such a fun, feisty and true nature. This book left a lasting impression on me as a young reader.

5/ Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret

I re-read this every year to remind myself what it feels like to be thirteen. It’s over 40 years old now but is still as fresh and funny as the day it was published. I first read it as a teenager, adored her honesty and humour, and Judy has been one of my favourite writers ever since.

6/ The O’Sullivan Twins by Enid Blyton

And pretty much all Enid Blyton’s books! I read my through them and adored their ‘Englishness’.

7/ New Patches for Old by Christobel Mattingley

New Patches for Old
New Patches for Old

This book was a real eye opener and I’ve never forgotten it. Patricia or ‘Patches’ is an English girl who has moved to Australia with her family. She has to deal with making new friends, adapting to a new life and growing up. Her new life isn’t always easy, but she deals with everything that is thrown at her with good humour and honesty. I was about twelve when I read this book and it was the first time I’d come across a girl getting her period for the first time in any book – and I was so grateful that someone had written about this (I was anxious about the whole thing, as many teens were in those days as it wasn’t talked about much – things are a lot more open now, thank goodness), a subject that is also dealt with in Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Both these books inspired me to write Ask Amy Green: Summer Secrets. Amy gets her period during her summer holidays and rings her aunt, Clover (who is 17 and also her great friend) to ask for advice.

Often people say there were no teenage books in the 1970s but there were – including this one. I’m so glad I read it, it really did make a difference to my life.

These are some of the books that made me. What books made YOU? I’d love to know!

Yours in books,

Sarah XXX

This blog first appeared on Girls Hearts Books website.

Mum reading to me and my sisters when we were little - I'm on the far right
Mum reading to me and my sisters, Kate and Emma (I’m on the far right)

I could live without many things – radio, newspapers, television, even ice-cream – but I couldn’t live without books.

We all read every single day. We read without even knowing we’re doing it – street signs, Facebook, text messages, corn flake boxes, recipes. It would be very difficult to navigate the world without reading. But that’s functional reading, the reading I’m talking about is far more important. It’s the kind of reading that keeps me alive.

My Dad
My Dad

It all started a long time ago – when I was a very small girl. I was lucky, I grew up in a family who loved books.

My dad was a quantity surveyor and loves history books and biographies. My mum was a primary school teacher and loves short stories and novels.

My sisters, Kate and Emma also love novels. Emma is a Montessori teacher and cares for people with disabilities and Kate thinks up cool ways of marketing things. My brother, Richard is also a teacher and my grandpa was a professor.

My Grandpa Reading Gulliver's Travels to his Grandchildren!
My grandpa reading Gulliver’s Travels to his grandchildren
(We’re looking at the illustrations in this shot)

He and my granny were big readers too – my granny loved Mills and Boon books and used to hide them down the back of the sofa, and my grandpa read and wrote books about ancient Greece. He used to read us all kinds of books, from Gulliver’s Travels to Jason and the Argonauts, and my personal favourite, Pandora’s box.

Me reading at age 11
Me reading comics at age 11

I didn’t find reading easy and I was almost ten before I read fluently, although I hid this from my teachers and family (I’m still the worst speller!). But I was lucky – I had parents and grandparents who loved books and who read to me and that made all the difference.

I fell in love with Posy, the amazing dancer in Ballet Shoes, with difficult Mary in The Secret Garden, with Sara Crewe in The Little Princess – she even had my name! I loved escaping into fictional worlds and I found new friends on the pages of my books.

Books did something else very special for me – they made me want to write, like my heroes Noel Streatfeild, Enid Blyton and Frances Hodgson Burnett.

The Magic Sofa - a book by me inspired by Enid Blyton! (Age 12)
The Magic Sofa – a book by me (age 12) inspired by Enid Blyton

I’m proud to be a reader AND a writer. These days I still find great friends in books and love getting lost in amazing fictional worlds. I hope you do too.

Do you want to be a writer? I’ll let you in on a secret – read! Immerse yourself in story. Most of the writers I know, from Judi Curtin to John Boyne and Cathy Cassidy were big readers as children and teens. Drop everything and read, read, read! It certainly worked for me.

Yours in books,

Sarah XXX

This blog first appeared on Girls Heart Books website

 

 

This is the most popular blog on my website and I update it every year with agents recommended by their writers. Thank you to all the children’s writers who responded to my 2016 call out.

I’d like to pay tribute to Philip Ardagh who first posted the question on Facebook in 2015: ‘Who is your agent and would you recommend them?’ which inspired me to continue his work.

I’ve had the good luck to work with one of the best agents in the business, the wonderful Philippa Milnes Smith from LAW (details below). Good luck in finding someone as clever, kind and supportive as Philippa.

Who represents Eoin Colfer? Who helped Derek Landy climb to the top? Who represents Cathy Cassidy? Read on and find out!

Why Do You Need an Agent?

Eoin Colfer

Eoin Colfer

In Ireland we are lucky to have the O’Brien Press whose editors are happy to read unsolicited manuscripts. You can send your book directly to one of their editors. Details of how to do this are here: http://www.obrien.ie/guidelines.cfm

Little Island are also happy to read unsolicited manuscripts – www.littleisland.ie (they have excellent submission guidelines)

Penguin Ireland – experienced writer and teacher, Claire Hennessy is their Children’s and YA Editor – Claire will read unsolicited manuscripts and will accept them by email.

Gill Books has recently started publishing children’s fiction, Mercier also publish children’s books and Poolbeg are also back in the game after a strong season of 1916 related children’s books

But most UK publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts so you will need to submit your work through an agent.

What Does an Agent Do Exactly?

1/ An agent can advise you on your manuscript and on how to make it more attractive to a publisher. Some of them will act as unofficial editors to their clients or at the very least can suggest changes or improvements. They are also excellent at coming up with zippy book titles as I’ve discovered.

2/ An agent can find the right editor or publisher for your work – like a book matchmaker. And they can sell your UK, US, digital and foreign rights. They can also look after any film or television rights.

3/ Agents deal with the difficult and technical area of contracts. This is particularly important at the moment as digital rights can be tricky.

4/ Financial back up – they can chase up your royalties and talk to your publishers about outstanding monies owed to you.

These days having potential isn’t enough, your manuscript must be as perfect as you can make it before it goes anywhere near a publisher. A good agent can play a vital role in this process.

Who Represents Some of the Best Children’s Writers?

The Agents Who Represent Some of the Most Successful Irish Children’s Writers (with Contact Details) and Children’s Agents Highly Recommended by UK Writers

Remember to check each agent’s website for submission guidelines before you send anything out. Or ring the agency for details – I know it’s daunting but they are always happy to advise you on how (or if) to submit. Be warned – you may get the agent herself/himself on the phone. Be prepared.

Highly Recommended Children’s Agents:

Eoin Colfer is represented by Sophie Hicks. Sophie is a very experienced agent and her writers rate her highly. www.sophiehicksagency.com

Derek Landy is represented by Michelle Kass, who also represents Patrick Ness. www.michellekass.co.uk

Darren Shan is represented by Christopher Little For general enquiries please email: www.christopherlittle.net

Sarah Webb and Chris Judge are represented by Philippa Milnes Smith at LAW
lonely beast 1

Contact: All submissions should be sent, in hard copy, by post to:

LAW, 14 Vernon Street, London, W14 0RJ www.lawagency.co.uk

Marita Conlon McKenna is represented by Caroline Sheldon www.carolinesheldon.co.uk

Irish Writer, Elizabeth Rose Murray recommends her agent, Sallyanne Sweeney of Mulcahy Associates (London). She says she’s ‘supportive, thorough, creative, knowledgeable & really champions her authors. And she really loves children’s/YA literature too – always a bonus!’ She’s also from Dublin originally.

Let’s hear from some other Irish writers:

Sheena Wilkinson: My agent is Faith O’Grady who’s lovely.

Dave Rudden: I’m with Clare Wallace at Darley Anderson – can’t recommend her enough!

Clare also represents Olivia Hope.

Shirley McMillan: My agent is Jenny Savill at Andrew Nurnberg Associates. She is wonderful.

Jenny also represents Nigel Quinlan.

Other Recommended Children’s Agents (UK authors)

Cathy Cassidy is represented by Darley Anderson and highly recommends him.

Cathy Cassidy

Cathy Cassidy

Eve Ainsworth:  I’m with Stephanie Thwaites at Curtis Brown, she’s fab

Julia Churchill at A M Heath

Eve White, Eve White Literary Agency

Veronique Baxter at David Higham

Catherine Clarke at Felicity Bryan

Robert Kirby at United Agents

Jodie Hodges at United Agents; Catherine Mary Summerhayes, Jo Unwin and Clare Conville at United Agents

Polly Nolan at Green House (Polly is from Galway, now based in the UK and is a highly experienced editor as well as an agent.)

Hilary Delamere at The Agency

Lindsey Fraser at Fraser Ross

Gemma Cooper at The Bent Agency

Penny Holroyde at Holroyde Cartey 

Elizabeth Roy – www.elizabethroy.co.uk

Laura Cecil – www.lauracecil.co.uk

Madeleine Milburn – www.madeleinemilburn.co.uk

Sam Copeland and Claire Wilson at Rogers Coleridge and White – www.rcwlitagency.com

Good luck with finding a great agent!

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

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The Irish Hockey Women's Hockey Team (photo c/o hockey.ie)
The Irish Hockey Women’s Hockey Team
(photo c/o hockey.ie)

I was watching one of my daughter’s hockey matches recently and it reminded me of the importance of fighting to the end.

The girls from the school they were playing were HUGE, the goalie was hitting on six foot. My daughter, Amy is in 6th class in Ireland, so the girls are mainly age 11 or 12, with some of them going on 13. However Amy’s school has 5th class girls on its team (age 10 and 11) and they looked so small compared to the giant 6th class girls from the other team.

At half time Amy’s team was 2-0 down. Their coach – a wonderfully engaged woman called Carole who is an Olympic hockey ref and mum to two of the girls on the team – talked to them. She told them they were playing brilliantly (they were), and if they went out fighting in the second half she had no doubt they would win. No doubt at all.

So the girls went back on the pitch and scored not just one or two, but three goals! They were throwing themselves into the game, running after every ball, while the mums and dads cheered on from the side line. When they won the match, we were so proud of them, they’d put everything they had into the game and flopped down beside us to rest.

I learnt a lot from watching my daughter and her team that evening. Sometimes talent alone isn’t enough. You can be taller and stronger but that’s not enough either. Spirit and grit and tenacity will win every time. As their hockey coach said, you want to win, you have to come out fighting.

Life as a writer isn’t always easy. At the moment I’m struggling with a plot gnarl in my new book that just won’t unknot itself. I’ve rewritten a particular scene over and over and it’s still not quite working. I think I may have to go in and change a good chunk of the start of the book to fix it.

But tomorrow I’m  going to go back to my desk using my daughter’s tenacious spirit to guide me. I’m going to attack that old plot gnarl – I’m going to come out fighting! I’ll let you know how I get on!

Yours in books,

Sarah XXX

This blog first appeared on the Girls Heart Books blog. 

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My Diary Collection 1986 to 2015

My Diary Collection 1986 to 2015

Today is Christmas Eve. In many parts of the world children will wake up tomorrow morning and find presents at the end of their bed, or in stockings at the fireplace. Maybe they will get a much wanted bike, books, or even a puppy.

A Photo of Me and My Sisters and My Grandparents - I'm the taller girl in the red!

Christmas is full of magical memories. One way of saving those memories is by taking a photo. This is a photo of me and my sisters with my grandparents when I was about 8 or 9 – I’m the taller girl in the red!

Another way of saving memories is by writing them down in a diary or a journal. I’ve been keeping a diary since I was a teenager and I’ve amassed quite a stack of them at this stage. They are are carefully locked away as they are full of secrets!

I’ve always found that writing things down helps me work through my feelings and helps me make sense of particularly difficult or upsetting days. They say a worry shared is a worry halved, and for me keeping a diary is like telling a trusted friend my problems.

As a young teenager I had many worries:

Do my friends actually like me? The answer to this one was yes, but teenagers don’t always act kindly towards each other – hang in there, it will get easier.

Does everyone feel as alone as I do sometimes? Yes – even as an adult, I think everyone feels alone now and again.

Does everyone notice my spots as much as I do? No, they are far too busy worrying about their own spots!

Who am I supposed to be? How am I supposed to act? I’m in my 40s now and I know who I am – a mum, a writer, a friend, a partner, a sister, a daughter, and a reader. I’m still not sure how to act sometimes, but as you get older you care less and less. You realise that people like you for who you are, not what you are. And if you don’t click with someone, you spend less time worrying about it.

Me at 17

I also kept a ‘boy list’ as the back of my diary of boys I liked. I didn’t actually know many of them, they were boys I’d spotted at a bus stop or working in a shop. I also kept a book list and a movie list and these are fascinating to read back over (far more interesting than the boy lists!). See my 1987 movie list below with the scores out of 10 I gave each film that year.

In some ways I haven’t changed much from my teen years: I’m still mad about books, worry about things, and can be full of energy some days and exhausted and grumpy the next, but one thing that hasn’t changed is my diary keeping. I still do that, 30 years on.

From a young age I’ve always had the urge to write things down, it’s how I make sense of the world. I guess that’s what drove me to write books. This is a photo of me at 17.

In 2016 why don’t YOU try keeping a diary? In 30 year’s time they may give you something truly fascinating to read – the story of YOU.

Happy Christmas to all the Girls Heart Books readers and writers, and most especially to Jo who keeps the whole show on the road. Talk to you again in 2016!

Yours in books,

Sarah XXX

My Movie List - 1987

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My New Book
My new book, Sunny Days and Moon Cakes is out next week – exciting. It was great fun to write and even more fun to research. Sunny, the main character in the book, has a condition called selective mutism which means she finds it difficult to speak. In order to write her story I needed to do a lot of research. I was lucky to meet a mum early on who has daughters with the condition and she was really helpful, reading my manuscript and talking to me about her daughters’ lives. She was really kind to share her family’s stories with me.

 

Research Tip No. 1:

Nothing beats talking someone with specialist or personal knowledge of a subject.

I also watched a lot of documentaries about selective mutism and read academic books. An expert in the field, a UK speech therapist called Maggie Johnson was also a great help. I read her wonderfully clear and well written book on the topic and also emailed her. It’s amazing how kind people are if you ask them for help with research.

Research Tip No.2:

Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to go to the top. People who are fascinated by their work and love their subject are generally delighted to talk about their work.

In the book, Sunny’s little sister, Min has a terrible accident and has to be airlifted to hospital in a helicopter. Now, I’ve never been airlifted, thank goodness, so I had to do more research. I wrote to the Irish Coast Guard at Waterford and they arranged for me to fly in their rescue helicopter with my daughter, Amy. It was a remarkable experience and made the cliff rescue scene in the book truly come alive.

Research Tip No.3:

Never say never.

Never think ‘I’ll never find someone to take me up in a helicopter/out on a super yacht/meet a lion’. Ask around – you’ll be surprised how willing other people are to help you track someone useful down. My contact in the Irish Coast Guards came from an old school friend who is now a fireman. I put a call out on Facebook and he stepped in to help connect us.

I’m working on book three in the series now and it’s all about dolphins and sea mammals. That has been a lot of fun to research too. I can’t wait to share all my newly found animal knowledge with young readers. This photo of a Humpback Whale breaching was taken by Simon Duggan, an old school friend of mine who lives in West Cork – isn’t it brilliant? My research is throwing up all sorts of ideas for this and future books.

A Humpback Whale

 

Research Tip No.4:

Research can play an important part in the writing process.

It can trigger plot ideas and inform your knowledge or feel for a character. If your book is set in the past, research is a vital part of the process. The adult novel I am working on at present is set in the 1930s and I found reading novels set in this period particularly helpful, as well as newspapers and magazines from the time.

Research Tip No.5:

Don’t let the research slow down or stop your writing.

It’s important to get your book finished. So no matter how interesting the research is, you must know when to stop. If you’ve started coming across facts you already know it’s time to get back to the writing. You can always go back and check details after you’ve finished your first draft.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

A version of this blog first appeared on Girls Heart Books.

 

 

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I was doing some intense thinking about picture books last night. My writing class asked me why I’m not keen on rhyming picture books and I didn’t have a coherent answer for them. But I do now!

Some of My Picture Book Collection

Some of My Picture Book Collection

When I got home I read dozens of rhyming and non rhyming pictures books. Every month I am sent review copies of all the new titles (and proofs or early reading copies) by the various Irish and UK publishers, and I read ALL the picture books and as many of the novels as I can. So I get a great overview of what’s going on in the world of children’s books. (Aside – when I was the children’s book buyer at Waterstone’s and then Eason’s I saw the covers and titles of up to 8k children’s books a year. Booksellers are a font of knowledge when it comes to children’s books, trends, titles, covers etc. I’m proud to say I still work with booksellers, as a consultant with Dubray Books.)

So what conclusion did I come to after my late night read? A large number of rhyming picture books are all about concept (love, ABC, 123, colour) and it’s hard to get emotion and conflict into even the best of them.Yes, yes I know Julia Donaldson manages to pack her books with emotion (and others do too – Madeline, Millions of Cats, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes etc) but she is one in a million. Non-rhyming picture books are all about story, character and emotion.

Spread from Owl Babies

Spread from Owl Babies

I like books that squeeze my heart, books full of emotion and power. Owl Babies, Where the Wild Things Are, Lost and Found, The Heart and the Bottle, Monster Mama (see below for details).monster mamma

I hate insipid, badly rhyming picture books about loving your mummy (who is also a teddy dressed in human clothing). Managing to make the last words on each line rhyme does not magically turn a writer into a poet. The whole line has to sing.

And for the record here are my all time top 10 favourite picture books (not the best books, or the ones that have won the most awards, the ones I love the most). Books I could not live without:

1/ Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak

Is there a better picture book?

2/ Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson

Love it – and it has my name in it!

3/ Lost and Found – Oliver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers

Oliver is exceptional. One of the greatest picture book talents Ireland has ever produced.

4/ Busy Busy World – Richard Scarry

My childhood is embedded in this book.

5/ The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont, illustrated by Raymond Briggs

Loved it as a child, love it now.

6/ The Red Tree –  Shaun Tan

From The Red Tree

From The Red Tree

The illustrations make me shiver, they’re so good. I also love Rules of Summer. All his work in fact.

7/ Monster Mama by Liz Rosenberg, illustrated by Stephen Gammell

Incredible book about a mother and her son, bullying and the power of love.

8/ Alfie Gets in First – Shirley Hughes

Best writer for toddlers ever. Her domestic scenes sing with love.

9/ Peter’s Chair – Ezra Jack Keats

Exceptional picture book from 1967 about sibling rivalry. I was read it first when my sister was born and it’s stayed with me all that time.

10/ Fighting it out for the last slot – I can’t choose. There so many amazing picture book makers. Jon Klassen is my pick for today. I Want My Hat Back. But I also adore Dr Suess (who doesn’t?), although may of his books are more illustrated books than picture books (maybe Richard Scarry’s too?). A topic for another day. And for pure illustration, Lizbeth Zwerger all the way. Journey by Aaron Becker is pretty special too (wordless picture book). So many pretty books …

A Spread from Journey

A Spread from Journey

Better get back to the writing! I’ll leave you with this: award winning picture book maker, Marie Louise Fitzpatrick talking a lot of sense about picture books that rhyme:

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX