Tag Archives: Dear Scarlett

In Real Time.

Just before Christmas I was aware that I was living through the days that take place in MURDER IN MIDWINTER. There was no snow though. And no murder and no actual thrill. Life was the adult whirl of Christmas preparation with just a hint of Christmas magic but rather too much shopping.

Now we’re on the other side, and I’m about to live through the real time of Bus Stop Baby, and this time, the weather’s obliging with frosty nights, too cold to leave a baby in a bus shelter and the promise of spring and days getting longer to follow.

I’m hoping, that given time, I can fill the whole year with stories.  DEAR SCARLETT, soon to be re-issued, is end of summer term.  THE YOGHURT PLOT is late spring. SAVING SOPHIA is the summer holidays, SHRUNK is Halloween.

Perhaps I need to think about September next.

Happy New Year.


Pillows and mattresses.

I’m currently revising a manuscript that I first wrote in 2008. Yes, that’s right, a book that would now be in year 2 at primary school had it found its feet straight away.  As it is, it’s still an unborn baby of a book, written and re-written and re-written again, shoved in a drawer, forgotten, remembered, rewritten and forgotten again.   In fact it’s been re-written so many times that it has a huge subsection in my document folder that outstrips all the other manuscripts I’ve written .

The reason, I think, that I haven’t successfully delivered it – is that I find it so exhausting.  It is such a huge thing, physically and such a monumental monster to write and edit.

I see it like this:

SHRUNK! and the SHRUNK! books are around 25,000 words.  They are pillows, quite big pillows. In some cases, there are two or three of them, and with the Story Adventure even more,  and they might slip out of my grasp but they are modular, a collection of pillows that need moving up six flights of stairs.  The chances are I will have to go back down and get one, but I will make the trip.

Dear Scarlett and Saving Sophia.  45,000 words. These are single mattresses.  Awkward but fine so long as the telephone doesn’t ring when I’m jammed behind it on the landing.  The mattress doesn’t have any handles, and it does occasionally slip from my fingers and slide all the way down, but mostly the direction is up.  It’s possible to turn the mattress over, invert it, move the beginning to the middle, the middle to the end.

This novel, the baby from the bottom drawer, feels massive.  It’s an extra large kingsize super big, unreasonably heavy  mattress with no handles and lumpy sticky out buttons. Even the first flight takes an age. Every time I change something, there are pages and pages of revisions to make, I slip back down a flight of stairs, and my brain explodes just a little more.  I can actually get lost in the plot and if I’m away from it for more than a day, I’m climbing those stairs from the bottom all over again.


It’s using every scrap of my head.

So I’m sorry if you’re trying to ring me, or arrange something.  And I’m sorry I haven’t answered your email –  but right now, I really have to get this 65,000 word mattress up the stairs.


NOT Birmingham New St Station again?

I’ve been lucky enough to be shortlisted for a few book awards recently. SHRUNK! was up for the Heart of Hawick, debut award. Dear Scarlett made it to the finals of the James Reckitt Award in Hull (you can find out about it here on Liz’s blog) and also to the last 5 of the books put forward for Our Best Book Award in Leicester.

Sadly none of these places are very near Bath.  In fact, Hull is a snappy 5 and a half hours train ride away, so I had plenty of time for thinking in both directions.

On the way up, I mostly thought, why am I doing this?  Am I mad? Someone else will win?  (which they did in all cases, congratulations to Rob Lloyd Jones, Rachel Carter and Tom Palmer) But on the way back I thought about what a totally dedicated bunch librarians are because in every case they were charming, helpful, hospitable, soothing, enthusiastic, hard working, going far beyond the call of duty, and they were passionate about books and reading.

I asked how the awards were put together and I discovered that at Hull and in Leicester, huge piles of books are being read through the year ready for the longlist. Reviews are combed, blogs are read, covers examined.  Age ranges carefully considered  – books included or rejected.  It takes most of the year so between that and the Summer Reading Challenge it’s fairly full on.  And then, in addition to that, they have to organise the actual ceremony.  Persuading us authors to come, hiring buildings putting together activities for children liasing with schools.

All this is in response to a potential or actual drop in reading or achievement locally. The idea is to get the children to vote themselves – give them some power over us, the authors – get the authors up to meet them, engender passion and excitement about reading in the children.  Increase attainment, lifelong love of learning and reading.

At Hull there were 400 children, in Leicester 300 but they’re only the tip of the iceberg because each school could only send a few children – back there, out of sight were masses of children who couldn’t come to the award ceremony, but who, as a result of the awards, had a strong sense of ownership.

It was great.  And even as I passed through Birmingham New Street Station for the fourth time in a fortnight, I gave thanks for librarians, for libraries and for award ceremonies and all those who work so hard to put them together.

You’re all pretty incredible.


Letters from children and Blue Peter


When I went to St Anne’s on Sea, with Storyteller’s Inc and SHRUNK! I visited this school where the children presented me with this fantastic book of their work.

Here are two of the poems:



When they gave me the booklet, I was so amazed I almost cried – and now it sits on my desk alongside my copies of my own books.

Today – at Hot Key Books HQ They’ve received a pile of handwritten, illustrated pen and paper letters from Yr 3 children at a school near London who have been reading SHRUNK! – I’m dying to see the letters so that I can read them, and write back – but I’ve seen some tantalising scans of the work, and read some wonderful comments.  I suspect their teacher has encouraged them to write, and that she’s hoping a reply from me might encourage them to write further.

I think it’s a really good idea and I really hope it works.

Years ago – I think Blue Peter realised this, frantically replying to the thousands of letters from devotees of Shep and Petra, that arrived every week alongside the cascades of forks, spoons, bottle tops and sticky back plastic.


This letter I received from Biddy Baxter (BP producer) herself, was so thrilling, that I still feel excited when I handle it today.  And it’s hand typed – can you imagine?

So if you’re a teacher – or a librarian – I really do welcome letters from children – send them to the publishers, depending on which book you read – and I promise to write back.

That’s pen and ink and a stamp – and possibly even handwriting.

P.E. Teachers – lovely or otherwise?


What did you think of your PE teacher?  Lovely? Encouraging? Fun? Or did he/she come from the generation that missed their vocation as shouting sergeant majors – teetering on the edge of sadism?

I had one of each. At secondary school, we had the lovely Rosie Finn – a delight – who taught us yoga, and laughed when you dropped the ball in netball.  She was in fact a basket of kittens, pretending to be a PE teacher – far too nice, far too lovely.  She would stick her toe in the swimming pool, declare it too cold and bring us all inside for a chat about boys and periods.  She was in fact, a human being.

I appreciated Rosie because before her, at my junior school, were the Misses O.  Twin sisters who ruled by shouting and whistling and barking at us – their whippet thin bodies wrapped in tiny red skirts barely covering old mottled skin.  They carried huge sports bags laden with lacrosse sticks and tennis racquets. They poked us with them instead of using our names, and their tyranny was especially obvious in the gym.

In those days we had to do these things called BAGA awards.  For the first stage you did:

Forward Roll

Backward Roll



Climb a rope.

I couldn’t climb the rope  Never did my feet get above that huge scratchy knot that dangled six inches from the gym floor and without climbing the rope, I wasn’t allowed to go on to the next stage – vaulting the horse.   The misses O never helped.  They just watched. So week after week I ran through the forward roll, backward roll, handstand, headstand thing – and stalled on the rope.

Everyone else – it seemed – could eventually climb the rope.  Every Monday, before lunch, I went through the same humiliating experience – alone at one end of the gym, while everyone else flew over the vaulting horse and swung somersaults on the bars.


Finally, one dismal Monday as I approached the end of what was then called the third form (yr6) Miss O, the nastier, asked me to demonstrate my technique.  Oh how they laughed.  How they scoffed – how they rolled around on the floor watching my embarrassment.

I vowed then, that I would avenge myself.

Sadly my plans to burn down the school were thwarted by living too far away, so it had to wait 40 years until I wrote Dear Scarlett – but I didn’t choose to make Scarlett like me.  Scarlett is physically competent – she can scale gym bars, swing from ropes, vault horses.  Instead I chose to make Mrs Gayton like the Misses O.  Mean, vindictive and humourless.

It’s been a great journey – digging into the painful past and re-examining the horrors of my pre-teenage years, but I have realized that I was not alone – that lots of other people had similar experiences, ones that mean we only have to hold a hockey stick to feel incompetent.

So I’d like the dedicate the character of Mrs Gayton to all those that ever had to suffer out there on the hockey fields in their little shell of fear, berated by a red faced teacher wielding a whistle and a bat, and I’d like to thank all those PE teachers that went the human way.  Like Rosie Finn.  To you, I am eternally grateful.  May you and your kind continue to flourish.

The Fragile Ego…

On Saturday we went to buy a telescope and the poor man in the telescope shop was exposed to my daughter’s unflinching honesty.

‘No, Mum – you can’t buy it, it’s just another piece of old junk to clutter us up.  You ‘ll look through it once and we’ll have to live with it forever – and it’s really ugly.’

The man scratched his head and went back to explaining equatorial mounts.

I felt for him; In the last few days, I’ve found myself exposed to similar clear thinking criticism and it’s hard.

Normally, when I write a book, I get to go back to the beginning and re-write before ANYONE else sees it.  I can iron out all the hideous bumps, excise a character, whip out a weak joke. Not so, the Story Adventure.  Already the prologue and the first two chapters  are out there, anyone can see them, anyone can comment.  It’s actually quite scary.  And has required an instant thickening of the skin.

Yesterday, a child said of the first chapter:

that is quite good but i think it could have more description and imagination in it

It  made me feel like eating an entire packet of Tunnocks Tea Cakes and hiding under the duvet.  I panicked and wondered just how I could face writing the other 18 chapters under such critical gaze.

So I had to look up a nice review on Lovereadingforkids – to make myself feel better.

Dear Scarlett is an extremely funny book. I like how it’s something that wouldn’t happen every day but yet it’s really realistic.  If  I had to sum it up in one word I would say unputdownable.

From another child – which made me feel better.

And then I went back to the Story Adventure and flicked through the comments. And breathed in the enthusiasm and generally felt much more able to face the next 18 weeks – after all – the on-line version is not the final book, the final book will be better, it will have more excellent ideas that have time to mature and wind their ways properly into the story.

It will be more story and less adventure.

In the process of looking through all the comments, I found this.

This is a really great experience to actually be helping an author write their book!! It’s Brilliant!! It will be Great to see what the book turns out to be like!! Thanks Fleur xx

And remembered why I was doing it. 

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The Next Big Thing

This blog is my entry for The Next Big Thing.  I was tagged by Catherine Bruton, (We can be Heroes) along with Maudie Smith  ( Opal Moonbaby)  We’ve all been parents at the same primary school, so you might expect us to write really similar books, but actually, we’re quite different writers even though we all write for children.

The Next Big Thing is like a relatively painless chain letter, ( I always broke the chain and was sure I was going to die) – which gives everyone a week to think about what they’re going to say, and we all answer the same questions. In theory, every published writer in the country should end up doing it at least once.

Because I’m lucky enough to have two publishers, Nosy Crow and Hot Key Books, I thought I’d tell you about my next book to be published, rather than the pieces I’m working on at present.  So here goes:


What’s the title of your next book?

Dear Scarlett is out in February 2013 (assuming all the end of the world people are indeed barking and we’re all still here to see the snowdrops out of the ground.)

Where did the idea come from?

I’ve always had an image of a child with a pushchair breaking and entering. I keep picturing her outside some enormous gates – a box of diamonds hidden under her baby brother. Dear Scarlett isn’t quite that story, but has elements of – the innocent doing something not at all innocent. Mix that with views of watercress beds from the Hampshire/Wiltshire trainline and the story’s there.

What genre does your book fall under? 

Adventure/humour for 9-12s  almost certainly for girls.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie?  For the children, I don’t know, someone young and unknown, and good at heights –  but the adults – Uncle Derek would be a young Kevin Whatley, The Chauffeur, George Cole (he of the original St Trinians films), Mrs Gayton, evil form teacher would be played by a thin man, maybe an aged David Tennant.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?  Girl seeks father through burglary, instead – finds alternative father and lasting friendship. 

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?   It will be published by Nosy Crow in February 2013  (gorgeous cover don’t you think?)img057

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?  About 4 months – but then ages to re-write it…

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?  It’s a bit of Hilary McKay (Saffy’s Angel) meets Tammy and June (1970s girl adventure comic – I was an addict)

Who or what inspired you to write this book?  My editor at Nosy Crow – Kirsty Stansfield, my agent -Kate Shaw, a tiny dark coffee shop, an animated caffeine fuelled discussion and some cake.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?  At the heart of the story is the relationship between fathers and daughters, at one point Scarlett says that girls need mothers more than fathers – but I don’t actually agree with her.  I like to think that any girl, of any age, who loves her dad, or has lost her dad, will find resonance in this story.

Who are you passing the baton to for next week’s Next Big Thing?

The totally brilliant Lydia Syson is my only runner – but a very special one: She’s recently published A world Between Us with Hot Key Books, and it’s a fabulous read – all about the Spanish Civil War, about which I was shamefully ignorant.  She’s had fantastic and well deserved reviews from the Guardian amongst others – check it out.

A WORLD BETWEEN US - Lydia Syson - Jacket