Children's Books

Characters from Head to Toe by Natasha Mac a’Bháird

Natasha Mac a’Bháird is a freelance writer and editor. Her latest novel, Laura’s Spooky Show, the third book in the Star Club series, is out in September 2019.

Characters – From Head to Page

When I signed off on my first novel, Missing Ellen, the sense of achievement at finally finishing it was tinged with sadness that I would no longer have those characters living inside my head. After all the time spent daydreaming, writing, rewriting and editing, they were so real to me I found it hard to let them go.

With my first Star Club book, Hannah in the Spotlight, came a whole new cast of characters, and the best thing about writing a series is not having to leave those characters behind. I get the chance to really develop them over time, seeing how they react to new situations and how the relationships between them change. I’ve chosen to write each book in the series from the point of view of a different member of Star Club, and that’s been an interesting challenge as well – making sure each voice is unique, and looking at a character from the inside out in one book and then as others see her in the next.

Laura is, in many ways, the character I identify with most. She’s a bookworm who spends as much time living in imaginary worlds – her own and other people’s – as she does in the real one. She is seized with ideas for stories and has days where she can hardly write fast enough to keep up with her thoughts – and days when they remain stubbornly elusive, completely refusing to be put down on paper.  So far, we have quite a lot in common. But Laura is a lot tougher than me. She knows her own mind, is grimly determined in the pursuit of what she wants, and is totally unconcerned about what people think of her. Maybe when I grow up, I can be a bit more like her.

And isn’t that the best thing about writing – the chance to live many lives instead of one? To be in someone else’s head, thinking about how they would feel, how they would react – and, sometimes, to do things you wish you were brave enough to do yourself.

What I love about writing too is when characters start to take on a life of their own. When I thought up the character of Ruby, I was mainly thinking of her as someone who was obsessed with ballet, fully focused on her training and supremely confident about making her dreams come true. But other aspects of her character took me by surprise. She became the anxious one of the group, the one who worries about getting into trouble, who panics at being expected to take on too much. I love that I never planned that side of her, she just evolved that way as the story went on.

Having come through some stressful situations in the first two books, the girls’ friendship remained firmly intact – but that all comes under threat in book three. I must admit I felt terribly cruel at some of the situations I was inflicting on them, especially Laura, who begins to feel that the whole world is against her.

Laura’s Spooky Show is my tenth book. Getting that first copy into my hands is every bit as exciting as the first one – and letting it go on its way out into the world is every bit as terrifying. I hope readers will identify with these characters and enjoy their adventures, but it’s out of my hands now. It’s time to pick up my pen again and see what happens next.


I’ll be running a weekend course for anyone interested in writing for children very soon with Grainne Clear, who is a Senior Editor at Walker Books, London.

There are only 15 places so if you are interested email or text me quick!

Grainne Clear and Sarah Webb (with Lucky)

Writing for Children Weekend with Grainne Clear (Editor) and Sarah Webb (Writer)

Focus on Fiction

Sat 31st August and Sun 1st September 

 Everything you need to know about writing for children and getting published!

 Grainne Clear is a Senior Editor with Walker Books and Sarah Webb is an award-winning children's writer

 (look out for our picturebook day in early 2020)

During the weekend they will cover:

Age groups and genres

Creating compelling characters

Plotting and the story arc

Creating authentic dialogue

Rewriting and editing 

The world of agents, editors and children's publishing 

and much more! 

 The weekend will also feature a guest author of MG or YA fiction to speak about the day-to-day of being an Irish writer and share their writing tips

 Before the course begins, Grainne or Sarah will critique your work (or book idea if you are just starting out) so you can concentrate on the areas that need attention over the two days

Max 15 people to guarantee plenty of individual attention 

 Cost - including 1 page manuscript critique and notes, lunch on Saturday and coffee/tea both days: e250 

 Venue: Royal St George Yacht Club, Dun Laoghaire (e5 parking per day to the right of the club on the pier, e6 per day in dlr Lexicon Library car park), 2 mins walk from 46A bus stop and Dun Laoghaire DART station 

Times: Sat 10am to 5pm (coffee/tea and light lunch provided)

Sun 11am to 4pm (coffee/tea provided) 

Booking - or text 0866086110

How to Pitch to Book Festivals - Practical Tips for Children's Writers

These notes were prepared for Mindshift at Irish Writers Centre March 2018

 Notes by Sarah Webb, Family and Schools’ Curator, ILFD, Literary Advisor to Listowel Writers’ Week

One of my festival events with Alan Nolan for age 7+ 

One of my festival events with Alan Nolan for age 7+ 


Schedule of Programming

Many book festivals start programming six months to a year in advance. Many key names would be in place 6 to 10 months in advance for the children’s programme: ie Francesca Simon, Judith Kerr (or sometimes more).

If you are thinking about approaching a festival (and more on how to do this in a moment), make sure you don’t leave it too late. I would suggest at least 4 months before the festival is on.

What I Am Looking For:

1/ International names who will attract a large audience and fill a theatre (300+ seats) eg Francesca Simon, Eoin Colfer, Julia Donaldson, Michael Rosen.

2/ Strong, award-winning names for individual events and panels – esp writers who have written outstanding books (anything from 120 seats to 300+ seats depending on the artist) eg David Almond, Louise O’Neill, Patrick Ness, Katherine Rundell. Most festivals like to vary the writers they invite every year (although in the children’s world, the audience changes every 2 or 3 years – as they grow up!)

3/ Writers who are excellent at performing for school audiences and who have a strong body of work behind them. Experience is key for school events in a theatre (or in any venue). Ex-actors are particularly good, people who can also draw are useful. Eg Guy Bass, Steve Cole, Niamh Sharkey, Marita Conlon McKenna, Oisin McGann, Judi Curtin, Alan Nolan, Nicola Pierce.

4/ Exceptional storytellers eg Dave Rudden and Grainne Clear.

5/ Exceptional workshop leaders eg Dave Lordan, Celine Kiernan, Niamh Sharkey, Claire Hennessy, Sarah Crossan. The best ones engage 100% with the young writers/illustrators and bring something unique to their workshops.

6/ Exceptional new/newish writers for panel events featuring new voices – eg Catherine Doyle (for her MG book, coming in July) would be on my wish list for autumn 2018, Bethan Woollvin, John Kane – new picturebook makers. 

I am lucky to be sent early proofs which I read eagerly. If you have written a brilliant, original and exciting book you have a good chance of being invited to a book festival. FOR ME IT ALL STARTS WITH THE BOOK.

7/ Exceptional picture book makers to give talks/workshops to children and also masterclasses to adults eg Yasmeen Ismail, Oliver Jeffers, Chris Judge, Chris Haughton, Niamh Sharkey.

8/ Unusual and original book related events. Esp non-fiction events in fact – history, natural history, science, maths. Come up with a unique and inspiring event and practice, practice, practice.

9/ Artists who are willing to work hard and go the extra mile. Artists who will muck in. Artists who offer to fill in for other artists when there’s a last minute illness or delay. Artists who are fun to work with and above all, professional. I’ll never forget Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve mucking in at one of the festivals I programmed when one of speaker’s children was rushed to hospital. They did his events for him.

10/ Strong local talent – writers, poets, storytellers, illustrators, picture book makers and more. Experienced and debut writers alike.

What I Am Not Looking For:

1/ People with no experience. Get out there. Start with your local school or library and build up your experience. See below for some ideas.

2/ Writers of books I have not read or heard of (if you’re a new writer, ask your publisher to send me your book). If you’ve written an amazing book, you have a great chance of being invited to a festival on that basis alone.

3/ People who think a book event means standing and reading your book for 40 mins and then taking some questions. Unless you are Judy Blume or Jacqueline Wilson, this will not work. Not that Judy or Jackie would ever dream of doing this!

I’m a Self-Published Writer, Can I Apply to Appear at a Festival?

Most festivals are curated festivals. This means the curators select the artists. Yes, you can apply to appear, if you think you can offer something original and exceptional (and your book is professionally produced and an excellent read – children deserve the best literature we can give them). But please note that very few artists who apply directly are selected; most artists are invited. This goes for all writers, not just self-published writers.

What I’d Love to See More Of:

1/ Non-fiction events – science, natural history, history. If your book is fiction, you can still offer a festival a non-fiction event. I have put together an event called ‘Talk Like a Dolphin, Sing Like a Whale’ for festivals/schools – based on whale and dolphin communication. I have some Blazing a Trail events coming in the autumn based around remarkable Irish women.

I’d love to see some interesting suffragette events offered to me, workshops around diversity or equality. Think outside the box.  

2/ Innovative workshops – offer me something different and put time and passion into developing your idea. Again, you need experience. Offer to present your workshop at a local school. Ask the students and teachers for feedback.

For eg I have created a Book of Kells workshop for Hay Festival in Kells, with real vellum and swan quills; a Jane Austen workshop for mothers and daughters and I do a rhyme, song and craft event around A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea. Be inventive! The more prep work you put in, the better a workshop or event will be.

3/ Innovative pairings – dancers, musicians, artists, puppeteers, other writers. For eg  in 2016 I teamed up with Judi Curtin and we talked about our friendship at lots of the major festivals. It was our ‘Friendship Tour’. Previously we have toured with Oisin McGann (The Ideas Shop) and Sophia Bennett (Your Wildest Dreams Tour). Team up with someone interesting and put together a cracking event. It’s also a lot of fun!

4/ Events for children with special needs. In previous years I put together a How to Catch a Star workshop with Deirdre Sullivan for children on the autistic spectrum.

5/ Early years events and workshops – age 0 to 5. There is a growing demand for quality, creative events for very young children and their associated grown up/s.

How to Apply to a Book Festival:

Before you do – research the festival and make sure it actually programmes the kind of event you are thinking of offering. Start local.

1/ It’s best to apply thorough your publisher. Tell your publisher you are interested in appearing at (X) festival and ask them for their opinion. They will either a/ say yes, great idea or b/ suggest you might need a little more experience. If their answer is b – go off and get that experience and go back to them.

2/ Be a festival supporter - it’s important to attend and support festivals if you’d like to appear at them. You also learn a lot by watching and listening to other artists doing events. Take a notebook along and jot down things that work and things that don’t work.

3/ Make a demo video of yourself in action and upload it to You Tube. Nothing fancy – you can take it on your phone. Let programmers see you in action.

4/ If you don’t have a publisher, you can apply yourself. Email the children’s curator/programmer - outlining your book, the events you’ve done and what you can offer them: workshops, events etc.

It is vital to have a professional photo to send festivals for their brochure. It must be high res, clear and should show something of your personality. No frowns, please. Ask someone to come along to one of your events and take an in-action photo if possible.

The blurb for your event and your biog should be short, well written and relevant. I rarely get sent interesting titles for events – be the one who sends me something unusual and clever!

If the programmer says no, do not hound them under any circumstances. That is not going to make them change their mind.

Tips for Events:

If You Have No Experience – Go and Get Some.

Prepare an event and deliver it (yes, free) in creches, schools, libraries, retirement homes. Anywhere that will have you. Make your mistakes early and learn from them.

Ask an experienced writer if you can shadow them. Or go to events at festivals and see how other writers do it. Learn from them and then come up with your own event.

Ask the teachers to give you an event ‘reference’ eg ‘Mandy Bloggs was wonderful. She kept JI and SI highly entertained with her stories about African animals and they learned a lot in a fun and innovative way.’

Prepare a script for your event and practice it until it’s perfect. Most events are 60 mins. Break this down: 20/30 minutes talking is perfect. Add  1 or 2 x 5 min readings within or after the talk (never more) + 20 mins for questions at the end.

Your event is not a hard sell for your book. In fact some of the best talks I’ve ever heard are not about the artist’s book at all. Eoin Colfer is one of the best in the business (watch him in action on You Tube) and he rarely mentions his books.

Think about using props, music, dance, theatre, images (although powerpoint presentations can go wrong so always be prepared to deliver your event without it).

Think about using costumes or at the very least looking visually appealing to children (see Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve’s costumes).

Growth Areas:

Events for the under 7s

Family events that the parents will enjoy as much as the children – eg Monster Doodles, innovative storytelling, book-related puppet shows

Events that combine yoga/fitness with books; music with books; dance with books

Events for children on the autistic spectrum

Drama workshops for children; screen writing workshops for children; animation workshops for children – also the same for teens.

What the Festivals Are Looking For:

Writers’ Week, Listowel:

We would love any writers to contact us either through their publisher or directly themselves, but we would like a brief biog about themselves and their writing included.

The events that we are looking for are fun, interactive events, and creative writing workshops.

Aoife Murray, Children’s Books Ireland

How to approach a festival: For me I don’t mind if it’s via agent/publisher or on your own bat as long as the contact is respectful, informative and useful to my purposes eg: I want to know what age you do events for, what type of events you prefer and how much you want to charge. I feel it’s essential to research the festival to see if you suit it, otherwise you are banging on a closed door and it’s important to remember that the programmer has a vision and if you don’t fit it, that’s unfortunately just how it is on this occasion.

Events we’re looking for: Something more than the standard reading and signing, as this doesn’t generally work for younger audiences. In demand at the moment are events for 0-2 and 5-8.

Sample Pitch

1/ A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea:  Family Rhyme and Art Fun with Sarah Webb and Steve McCarthy                   Age 5+ and the whole family    30 minutes

 Join writer, Sarah Webb and illustrator, Steve McCarthy for this interactive event for the whole family. Revisit favourite childhood rhymes and songs such as She’ll Be Coming ‘round the Mountain (an American song with a very interesting Irish link), A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea and The Owl and the Pussycat, and discover new ones from Ireland and beyond. Join in the skipping (jump rope). Watch Steve draw owls, pussycats, boats and sailors, and draw along; and create your own colourful sailing ship. Sea-filled fun for everyone!

Workshop Details:

This workshop is designed to give children a playful and engaging creative experience. Songs, rhymes and poems are part of every child’s literary heritage and we will share them with the audience in a novel, interactive way. Most importantly we aim to make the event dynamic, playful and inspiring for the audience.

Step by Step Guide to the Workshop:

Sarah and Steve will welcome the children and associated adults as they arrive and give each of them a personalised name sticker. When all the participants have arrived Sarah will share some favourite rhymes and songs from A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea with the audience and Steve will draw along.

Steve will then show the audience how to a sea creature and the audience will draw along.

Sarah will then turn a skipping rope and encourage the children and adults to join in some Irish skipping games – including Cross the Crocodile River and Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear.

Finally they will help the children create their own sailing ship using collage materials – felt, coloured card, scraps of material, metallic paper, lollypop sticks and straws.

Watch the experts in action:

Sarah McIntyre and Philip

Katherine Rundell

Michael Rosen

Eoin Colfer

Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year Awards 2018

The 2018 Children’s Books Ireland Award is given to books published in 2017. There were some outstanding titles last year for all ages, from Rabbit and Bear for young readers of five plus (Julian McGough and Jim Field), to Sarah Crossan’s searing YA novel in verse, Moonlight.

Every year I predict the titles that will be on the shortlist and the overall winner. This year I have a book in the mix, A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea, illustrated by the hugely talented Steve McCarthy. Obviously I’d love it to be shortlisted. I believe Steve’s illustrations are outstanding and if it is shortlisted we will both be over the moon. Let's wait and see!

The shortlist will be announced on the 12th March and the awards are on 23rd March (tbc).

So here goes – my predictions for the CBI Awards 2018:


the presidents glasses.jpg

1/ The President’s Glasses by Peter Donnolly 

A wonderfully funny tale about what happens when the president of Ireland forgets his glasses. Striking illustrations in luscious colour.

2/ Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers

A heartfelt ode to the world for his new baby son. Glorious illustrations in a more painterly style. A treat for the eye.


Early Readers

3/ Rabbit and Bear: The Pest in the Nest by Julian Gough, illustrated by Jim Field

I am a huge fan of Rabbit and Bear – what brilliant characters. Funny and thoughtful, a super book for reading aloud. 

Age 9+

4/ Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano

Moving graphic novel about two refugee brothers who are making their way from North Africa to Europe by boat. Not to be missed.

5/ Hopscotch in the Sky by Lucinda Jacobs, illustrated by Lauren O’Neill

Moving and thought-provoking poems for children about subjects that fascinate children. A brilliant collection from one of our most important children’s poets. (Disclaimer – I worked with Lucinda at the early stages of this book.)

Age 12+

6/ Pavee and the Buffer Girl by Siobhan Down, illustrated by Emma Shoard

Graphic novel about a traveller girl. Siobhan write it before she died and her writing as always is lyrical and powerful.

7/ A Dangerous Crossing by Jane Mitchell                      POSSIBLE OVERALL WINNER

Excellent novel about a refugee boy from Kobani, Syria. Strong and powerful.

8/ Star by Star by Sheena Wilkinson

Suffragette tale by one of our most talented writers.


9/ Moonrise by Sarah Crossan                  POSSIBLE OVERALL WINNER

Powerful novel in verse about death row that deserves to be read.

10/ The Space Between by Meg Grehan

Debut novel in verse about an Irish teenager with mental health problems. Brave and moving.

11/ Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan

Lyrical, sinuous writing make these feminist retellings of fairy tales leap off the page. Not to be missed.

Other outstanding books from 2017 that might make the shortlist

Like Other Girls by Claire Hennessy

Claire is an outstanding YA writer and this book about gender politics and identity pulls you in from the first page.

The Girl in Between by Sarah Carroll

Debut about a homeless girl and her mother from a writer to watch.

Stand by Me by Judi Curtin

Judi’s books are beautifully written and are much loved by readers. This one goes back time to the 1960s.

Knights of the Borrowed Dark: The Forever Court by Dave Rudden

Brilliant fantasy adventure with heart.

The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue

A tale of a family with two dads, two moms and seven children.

Good luck everyone!

Riches Galore: New Titles Spring 2016

In 2016 I will be posting regular reviews of children's books and YA novels right here. I'll do a mixture of stand alone reviews and round ups and I'll cover as many titles as I can. I like star systems myself, so I'll be awarding each title between 1 and 5 stars. I'll also be posting some reviews from my friends at Dubray Books and other friends in the children's book tribe. So stay tuned. And do let me know what you think or if there are any children's books that have particularly impressed you.

So far in 2016 it’s been a strong spring, with some stand out titles published for all ages.

Book of the Season

knights of the borrowed
knights of the borrowed

It has to be Knights of the Borrowed Dark (Penguin/Random House) by Dave Rudden. Believe the hype (and there has been a lot). This is a cracking middle grade (age 8 to 12) fantasy-adventure with some genuinely creepy scenes.

The book opens in an old fashioned orphanage called Crosscarper which ‘slouched against the mountainside like it had been dropped there’. Orphan, Denizen Hardwick is whisked away by an aunt he’s never heard of, let alone met. When he reaches Dublin he’s in for a shock. His aunt is head of the Knights of the Borrowed Dark and Denizen is about to find out how just terrifying the world can be when Darkness seeps through the cracks.

Rudden’s writing is suburb. Every sentence is carefully crafted and it’s not often I stop to wonder at the language in a fantasy-adventure novel. On a long drive ‘the road looped round the shoulders of the mountain like a tailor’s measuring tape.’ A woman is ‘tall and thin, with a spine curved like an old coat hanger.’

The female characters are strong and realistic, and you’ll fall in love with the naïve, brave bookworm, Denizen. A joy to read, it’s a must for all readers of 9+, adults most definitely included. (***** 5 stars)

Other strong titles for YA (Young Adults)

Plain Jane by Kim Hood (O’Brien Press)

plain jane
plain jane

I loved Kim Hood’s previous novel, Finding a Voice and this one is even better. Jane’s sister has cancer and Jane has simply become ‘Emma’s sister’ in the small village in Canada where they live. She loves her sister, but she’s tired of what the illness has done to their family.

A complex and highly realistic character, Jane is beautifully drawn and although she’s not always easy to like, the reader walks in her shoes and grows to care about her deeply.

Hood is a gifted writer, and the themes she chooses to tackle – in this book, sisterhood, cancer and teen mental illness - are deeply personal and always fascinating and I can’t wait to see what she does next. (**** 4 stars) Look out for my full review in The Irish Independent

Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan (Little Island)

A storming novel dealing with child abuse and its aftermath. Sullivan has a very distinctive, individual writing voice and her writing reminds me of a bird on a wire, delicately balanced with inner strength and the power to soar at any moment.


Not an easy book to read at times, but so worth seeking out.

Along with Louise O’Neill and Kim Hood, Sullivan is one of our most talented and interesting YA writers. A true artist.

Early Readers and Middle Grade novels - age 8 to 12 - to come soon!

Picture Books

Blocks by Irene Dickson (Nosy Crow)

blocks picture book
blocks picture book

A picture book debut, this is a clever and beautifully designed book about a young girl and boy and their favourite blocks. Ruby has red blocks. Benji has blue blocks. What happens when Benji steals one of Ruby’s blocks? Can they learn to share and play together?

The simple yet clever concept, strong writing and eye catching illustrations combine to make this a real winner. Dickson’s colour palette – an attractive warm orange-red, marine blue and Kelly green - is carefully chosen and very pleasing to the eye. Her images are thoughtfully placed on the page and her use of fluid, thick dark brown outlines is unusual and works perfectly. (*** 3 stars)

Bravo Nosy Crow for discovering this exciting new picture book talent.

Tiger in a Tutu by Fabi Santiago (Orchard)

tiger in a tutu
tiger in a tutu

Wonderfully expressive illustrations, gloriously coloured in rose, teal and sunflower yellow make this a real treat to pour over. And the story’s cracking too – the tale of Max, a Parisian tiger with big dreams. Max wants to be a ballerina and when he meets a young girl called Celeste who also loves to dance, his dreams may just come true. (*** 3 stars)

Where are You, Blue Kangaroo? By Emma Chichester Clark (HarperCollins)

It’s great to see new editions of this modern classic. Lily loves Blue Kangaroo but she’s not always very careful with him. But one day she learns her lesson…

Lively illustrations in glorious, happy colours, this is well worth revisiting. (*** 3 stars)

New imprint Two Hoots (Pan Macmillan) has launched with 3 picture books, 1 debut and 2 by established picture book makers.

The debut is the most interesting. Little Red by Bethan Woollvin is a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, but this Little Red is not taking the wolf’s nonsense lying down. The illustrations are highly distinctive, and the colours are so rich they seem to dig deep into the paper. Wolllvin won the Macmillan Prize for Illustration in 2014 and it’s not hard to see why – her work is bold and confident and will thrill young eyes. I can’t wait to see her next book. (**** 4 stars)

A spread from Little Red
A spread from Little Red

Tidy by Emily Gravett is an interesting piece of work. Best known for her award winning picture books, Monkey and Me and Wolves, this book looks and sounds very different. It’s written in rhyme for a start and the illustrations are carefully coloured and the edges of the characters look highly finished, unlike Gravett’s usual lively, sketchy pencil lines. The whole book is a little too clean and polished – from the carefully constructed text to the rather flat illustrations. I’ve always liked the chaos and slightly anarchy in Gravett’s previous books. Wolves is inspired (a 5 star choice).

However parents who enjoy reading Julia Donaldson’s picture books to their children will no doubt love it. (** 2 stars)

The final book from Two Hoots is There is a Tribe of Kids by Lane Smith, best known for (with John Scieszka) The Stinky  Cheeseman and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. It’s not so much a story as a series of lists. A boy leaves his tribe of kids (young goats) and finds a colony of penguins, a smack of jellyfish, a pod of whales, an unkindness of ravens and so on until he finds his real tribe, a group of actual children.

tribe of kids
tribe of kids

The illustrations look timeless - there is a solidity and grace to them - and the colour palette of greens, browns and teals is attractive. It’s playful, fun and beautifully produced, with glittering gold foil on the cover.  (*** 3 stars)

Congratulations to Two Hoots on their launch. I wish them all the best with their new list.

I also enjoyed Dave’s Cave by Preston-Gannon (Nosy Crow), a book full of humour and fun. Written in ‘cave man language’ it tells the story of Dave who is tired of his old cave and goes in search of a new one.

The illustrations are stylish and distinctive. Interestingly Dave’s hair is teal – it seems to be the picture book colour du jour. (*** 3 stars)

I’ll Wait, Mr Panda by Steve Anthony (Hodder) sees the return of Mr Panda. This time he’s making a surprise, but will any of the animals wait to see what it is? Some of the best page turns of any recent picture book, this is a fun book to share with young readers over and over again. (**** 4 stars)

lets see ireland
lets see ireland

And finally, an attractive, quirky new Irish picture book by Sarah Bowie called Let’s See Ireland (O’Brien Press) which I’ll review properly soon. I loved it. **** (4 stars) 

Gen Z + Other Stories: What I Learned at the Children’s Con

On Monday I attended the Bookseller magazine Children’s Conference in the Barbicon, London and here is what I found out. I hope you find it interesting and/or useful.

1/ Underestimate Digital Brands at Your Peril

16% of book sales come from digital brands – Minecraft, Zoella etc

55% come from ‘traditional’ books – Harry Potter (before the movies), Jacqueline Wilson etc

14% come from tv brands

8% from film brands

7% from toy brands

(Stats from Egmont’s Cally Poplak based on Egmont’s extensive consumer research in the UK)

For many children books based on digital/tv/movies/toy brands are a way into books and reading. Most parents are happy that their children are reading at all.

All reading is to be encouraged I say!

2/ Children Have a Passion for Print

The Egmont research proves that 75% of children prefer print

I can’t tell you how excited I was to hear this. From talking to hundreds of children in schools all across Ireland I was convinced that this was the case and it was brilliant to hear that this is indeed the case in the UK.

3/ Heritage Brands are Big Business

Walker Books increased the sales of Guess How Much I Love You threefold in 2015, the 20th anniversary of Antrim man, Sam McBratney’s outstanding picture book, illustrated by Anita Jeram.

Last year they doubled sales of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury.

Irish publishers should be celebrating anniversaries too – 10 years of Alice and Megan, 10 years of Artemis Fowl etc.

 3/ All Brands are Big Business

24% of book sales come from the top 20 children’s brands – Minecraft, Lego, Peppa Pig, Frozen etc

Books give voice to a brand and bring characters to life.

 4/ Information Books are on the Rise

Wide-Eyed Editions and Nosy Crow both talked about their excitement about the non-fiction market.

Wide-Eyed are all about Wonder, Discovery and Innovation – and aim to produce books that capture all three.

a/ They talked about books being immersive, tactile reading devices.

b/ They said ‘books aid mental navigation and memory retention.’  Even the spine helps a child navigate through a book – they described them as ‘mini steps through a landscape’.

c/ They said books build concentration and encourage critical thinking.

d/ Reading print discourages children to do other things (unlike reading on a tablet).

e/ Books knit families together – with shared experiences.

As you can imagine, as a print lover, I adored all this positive print-ness.

tell me and i'll forget
tell me and i'll forget

They also talked about involving a child in a book – using the Chinese proverb here:

 6/ Children’s Sales are On the Up and Up

There was a 8.9% growth in children’s sales in 2015 in the UK.

Children’s books are a whopping 27.8% of the UK book market.

Julia Donaldson has sold 1.2 million books to date this year – she is a consistent bestseller and not to be underestimated.

David Walliams is the biggest author in the UK at the moment (after Julia Donaldson)

 7/ German Readers Love Fantasy and Horses

There was a most interesting talk on trends around the world from Rights Manager,  Clementine Gaisman. She said German publishers are very keen on:

a/ Middle Grade (age 8/9 to 12)

b/ Fantasy adventure – Derek Landy and Eoin Colfer were both mentioned

c/ Love stories

But they do not like steam punk apparently!

Brazil is an emerging market and they like:

a/ YA books –they love John Green (who doesn’t?)

geek girl
geek girl

Scout Helen Boyle said contemporary books (family/friendship dramas) are still strong but need a hook. Like Geek Girl.

She said ‘Good quality storytelling and distinctive voices are always of interest.’

According to Helen, publishers are also looking for:

a/ Magical realism – mermaids etc – middle grade

b/ Adventure with fantasy – Eoin Colfer and Derek Landy

c/ Books with horses in them (esp Germany)

 8/ Bookshops in Schools - Why Not?

Tamara MacFarlane from Tales on Moon Lane Bookshop talked about her new project – a bookshop in a school. I found this most interesting and a very exciting idea.

 9/ Snapchat is Growing Fast

Facebook is for ‘old people’ apparently, according to children and teens. (I love Facebook!)

You Tube is also growing fast and that’s where many readers go to look for book recommendations and information.

It was suggested that writers and people in the book trade should take their books where ‘teens are’ – ie You Tube.

 10/ Generation Z Loves Stories and Books

Generation Z were born between 1995 and 2000 and will drive change according to Emma Worello of Pineapple Lounge – a very savvy and well spoken young lady who has made it her business to talk to teens and young adults for years, finding out how they see the world.

She said ‘Stories are fundamental to Gen Z lifestyles’ and it’s how they engage with the world. They are fans, they follow things. And they love cool formats – collectable books – and the idea of family story hubs and family time with a home library. This is excellent news. When Gen Z become parents, they will definitely build wonderful libraries for their children, full of amazing books!

Lots of great, great news for writers, booksellers and publishers – books are here to stay and long live print!

Yours in books,

Sarah + songbird2
Sarah + songbird2

Sarah Webb XXX

Spring 2016 Children's and Teen Highlights

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Independent. This year looks all set to be a stellar one for children’s books and Irish YA in particular will blaze a trail in 2016. There are new titles from ‘brand names’ such as Julia Donaldson, Eoin Colfer and Derek Landy, plenty of interesting debuts, and some intriguing books from ‘grown up’ bestsellers, Cecelia Ahern and Sheila O’Flanagan.

crystal run
crystal run

The current Children’s Laureate, Eoin Colfer’s Ironman novel for children is due in the autumn from Marvel. According to Colfer, the billionaire playboy Tony Stark is all set to get the ‘Dublin treatment’. Penguin Random House Children’s lead title this spring is Dave Rudden’s The Knights of the Borrowed Dark (March), the first in a trilogy featuring Denizen Hardwick, a boy who doesn't believe in magic until he's ambushed by a monster created from shadows.

HarperCollins is very excited about Cecelia Ahern’s  debut YA (Young Adult) novel, Flawed, set in a society where perfection is everything (March); and Hachette is publishing Sheila O’Flanagan’s fantasy debut for age 10+, The Crystal Run (May). Gill and Macmillan has their first YA novel ever in April, from a writer who is only a teenager herself, sixteen-year-old Eilís Barrett. Her book, Oasis is set in the future and follows a group of teen outcasts turned freedom fighters.


Little Island, the children’s answer to Tramp Press, has been making waves with their strong fiction list, and 2016 is no exception. First up in February is Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan for young adult and adult readers, a novel about child abuse and its aftermath which I read in one sitting. It’s not an easy read for obvious reasons, but like Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It, it’s an important and beautifully written book.

Also from Little Island for older teen readers is Anna Seidl’s No Heros (March), the story of a school shooting and its aftermath, a publishing sensation in its native Germany; and in May they launch The Best Medicine by Belfast woman, Christine Hamill. Twelve-year-old Philip’s mum has breast cancer and he writes to Harry Hill for advice.

Kim Hood’s debut YA novel, Finding a Voice was shortlisted for the prestigious YA Book Prize in the UK last year and her second novel, Plain Jane is out in April from O’Brien Press. The story of a sixteen-year-old girl whose sister has cancer, it’s one I’m particularly looking forward to as I love her fresh, vibrant writing voice.

The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood (Macmillan, May) follows 17-year-old physics prodigy Gottie Oppenheimer as she navigates a summer of both grief and rips in the space-time continuum; and The Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse (Macmillan, April) is a World War II story set in Amsterdam about a young woman who gets involved with the resistance.

Puffin Ireland Editor, Claire Hennessy’s YA novel, Nothing Tastes as Good is published by Hot Key in July and is already creating quite a stir. Annabel is a recently deceased anorexic teen who finds herself assigned as a ghostly 'helper' to Julia, another girl with an eating problem. Brian Conaghan’s The Bombs That Brought Us Together (Bloomsbury, April), dealing with terrorism and war, also sounds promising; and Derek Landy is back with the second book in his Demon Road fantasy-horror trilogy, Desolation (HarperCollins).

darkmouth 3
darkmouth 3

For readers of age 9+, there’s book three of Shane Hegarty’s Darkmouth series, Chaos Descends (HarperCollins, April);  and the latest novel by Brian Gallagher (O’Brien Press, April) called Arrivals, about a Canadian murder mystery in 1928. Ger Siggins is back with another book in his popular sport series, Rugby Flyer (O’Brien Press, February); and Matt Griffin tackles a war between the humans and the ancient fairy race in Stormweaver (O’Brien Press, April).

It’s great to see Cork man, Kieran Crowley back with The Mighty Dynamo (Macmillan, May), about a boy who dreams of being a professional footballer;      and I’m currently reading the exquisitely written Anna and the Swallow Man by New York based actor and writer, Gavriel Savit (Penguin Random House Children’s, 28th January), set during World War II.

And finally for this age group, the outstanding American writer, Kate DiCamillo returns with Raymie Nightingale, a novel about three girls and a friendship that will change their lives (Walker Books).

Poolbeg will add Maebh Banrion na Troda (February) and Sceal Naomh Padraig  (March) to their Nutshell library for younger readers; and the ultimate staying-between-the-lines challenge has to be the Where’s Wally? Colouring Book coming from Walker Books in June.

Sarah Bowie’s picture book, Let’s See Ireland (O’Brien Press, April) has striking artwork; and finally Julia Donaldson’s Detective Dog, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie (Macmillan, June) about Nell, a dog with an extra keen sense of smell sounds just the book to make both children and parents smile.

A Spread from Let's See Ireland
A Spread from Let's See Ireland

Sarah Webb’s next book for children, The Songbird Cafe Girls: Aurora and the Popcorn Dolphin (Walker Books) will be published in March. 

Aurora Book Cover
Aurora Book Cover

More on Writing for Children

This piece will run in Inis Children's Book Magazine - but here's a sneak peek. Hope it's useful, SarahXXX

So You Want to Write for Children? Some Advice for Unpublished Writers by Sarah Webb

Recently I spoke to thirty six-year-olds about my new Panda book, Emma the Penguin at the Dublin Book Festival. It was my first foray into the world of the jitter bugs that are 1st classers, and as I watched fellow Panda-person, Gillian Perdue round up her herd of cowboys and teach them how to line dance, I realised just how much I still have to learn about entertaining younger children. But I’d like to share what I have learned with you, in the hope it will prove useful to other writers, especially to those starting out.

Firstly the bad news, it is no longer enough to write an amazing book. There are over 8,000 children’s books published annually, many of which are also amazing. Some of these amazing books will have a lot of money behind them, some of them will be ‘written’ by pop stars or models. Some of them will be written by authors with a long standing track record.

But do not despair. There is a lot you can do to build your profile or ‘platform’ (as the market-eers like to call it) as a children’s writer before your book is published or even accepted for publication.

I’ll start with some general points. It goes without saying that you should put most of your time and energy into your writing. Write for the child inside you, write remembering just how it feels to be 4 or 7 or 9. Dig deep and use your memory. In a recent edition of Inis (Spring 2010) Sophie McKenzie says ‘I remember exactly what it was like being a teenager . . . (I) can vividly remember the years between 13 and 15.’

Yes, modern children now have You Tube, Facebook, mobiles – but they are just different ways of communicating, but emotions don’t change. After all, your parents may not have had televisions or telephones growing up!

If you want to write for children or teens, talk to children or teens, ask them what music they like, what actors, what books, what telly shows. The average 6th class girl’s favourite show is Desperate Housewives – who would have guessed?

Take constructive criticism on your work from people who read a lot of children’s books. Teens make good critics, but younger children generally want to please. You might find an experienced librarian or teacher who will read your work – take on board what they say.

Write from the heart and don’t be afraid of strong emotion. In Jacqueline Wilson’s books siblings jump out of high towers, killing themselves (My Sister Jodie), mums have nervous breakdowns and take emulsion paint baths (The Illustrated Mum). Oliver Jeffers’s latest picture book, The Heart and the Bottle, features a girl whose father has just died. She does not know how to cope with the grief so she takes her heart out and places it in a bottle for safe keeping. Strong stuff!

If you want to write commercial children’s fiction, you must have an eye to the market. Read children’s books – especially in the age group/area you are interested in writing for – library/bookshop recommendations, modern classics, bestsellers and award winners. There are many good guides out there to help you pick fantastic books to read, my favourites being the Ultimate Book Guide series published by A & C Black, a must for anyone serious about writing for children or teens.

This reading will also help you be aware of what modern children like and are interested in – and what works in a book. And also it’s fun; some of the best books out there are children’s books. It will also help you work out what age group you are writing for: early reader, confident reader, teen reader. This is vital. Children’s books are categorised in most shops and libraries by age. Young readers are aspirational – they like to read about children older than they are. If your character is 11, your readers will probably be 7/8 to 11.

Are there any gaps in the market? In a word, yes. At a recent Irish Pen event called ‘New Kids on the Block’ event, Svetlana Pironko, Director of the Author Rights Agency, Siobhan Parkinson, Children’s Editor at Little Island (New Island’s imprint for children and teens), and Paddy O’Doherty, Children’s Editor at Puffin Ireland, explained what they were looking for.

Paddy would like to see fiction for the 7 to 9 age group, but especially 8 to 12 fiction. She says ‘read Puffin books’ and see where the gaps in the list are – and try to fill the gaps! She is very interested in good animal and child stories like Charlotte’s Webb, humour for girls – Louise Rennison type books (she kindly mentioned my own Amy Green books as the type of thing she is looking for), and Fantasy. She said the books must be ‘well written, original ideas and voice, with a real sense of control’. She wants to feel that the author knows what she (or he) is doing, they have a sense of authority. And overall she is very keen on reading more manuscripts from new authors – all good news!

Siobhan Parkinson is looking for novels for age 9+ and teens. She is personally not a huge fan of fantasy, she prefers realistic novels and she, like Paddy is looking for ‘originality, a strong voice, someone who is in control of their writing’.

Svetlana, however is a big fantasy fan and finds this sells best to international publishers. She also likes teenage/crossover fiction and says universal stories are vital; she is interested in books that can travel. In the UK, the publishers are veering towards ‘brand’ authors, authors they can work with over a number of books. And this goes for the picture books as well as novels. Oliver Jeffers for example has just signed a four book deal with Harper Collins for his new picture book series, The Hueys. Cathy Cassidy’s new book, Cherry Crush, will be the first book in a new series for girls.

Once you have written your book, what next? While awaiting publication (or your manuscript to find a home), there are many things you can do to start building your profile. Of course, you must start working on your next book, that goes without saying. But you can also begin creating an on-line presence. A website, a blog or both. A Facebook, My Space or Bebo page. Down the line, your readers should be able to find out more about you online and contact you – it’s part of the job of a modern children’s writer.

Blog about what interests you – whether it be books, writing, music, fashion, the universe – as long as it’s interesting! Decide your blogging market – are you targeting parents, teachers, librarians, or children themselves? For blogging inspiration, check out David Maybury’s blog, the children’s literature blog of record.

Reviewing children’s books for Inis magazine is a good way of keeping in touch with current books and also getting your name out there. And it goes without saying, do join CBI and attend some of the wonderful events and workshops. Attend author events and hear other children’s authors speak about their work. Immerse yourself in the children’s book world and you will have a better chance of spreading the word about your book to the right people when it is published.

Start reading your work to children right now. Think about what you have to offer as a performer. If you want to write for children, these days you have to connect with them LIVE. Find your own special way of doing events – standing in front of children and reading is not enough. The first and only commandment of doing events is: Thou Shalt Not Bore.

I use a lot of show and tell during my talks. I show the audience photos, toys, books and clothes from my childhood and talk about what I was like as a child and teen. Then I use these stories to explain how I became a writer.

Finally, be optimistic and have a strong constitution. You will probably be rejected many, many times before you make it. Even after fifteen years and twenty-seven books some of my ideas are still turned down. Write because you can’t not write. Multi-award winning writer Patrick Ness says write with joy. I would go further, I would say write as if it’s your last day on this earth. Give 100% every time you sit down at your desk. And hopefully your joy, passion and dogged hope will translate onto the page. Good luck and keep the writing faith!

For marketing and publicity tips for published writers, see another of my articles on the CBI website – CBI Info section -