The Menu

This poem was inspired by our son’s love of baking, cooking, tasting and creating some truly unique dishes!

The Menu

In my kitchen I can make
Chocolate soup, 
Ice-cube pie,
Spaghetti with banana.

Sandwich milk,
Carrot toast
And dinner for a Llama.

Yoghurt eggs,
Avocado cake,
Cereal with jelly.
Bacon Lemonade
And tea served in a welly.

The specials are
served with broccoli flavoured lollies.

Be sure to bring your appetite,
Your raincoats and your brollies.

The Chapter Book

I have loved writing picture books over the last year – they have proven themselves to be far more complex, exciting and demanding than one might believe of a story, especially one where so much is told through the illustrations and their interaction with the words. 

For now though my picture books are resting – taking a breather and enjoying some space away from my frantic editing and re-writes. I know that for as much as I love my stories we are too close now – like lovers who have spent time in a honeymoon bubble and need some time to step away from one another and remember who they are alone. 

We will reunite once more, perhaps in a few months, with fresh eyes and excitement. Now it’s time to try something new. Creativity does not come from reading and re-reading the same words. It comes from challenging yourself with new ideas, new words and new experiences. From looking at something different and asking questions you haven’t asked yet.

I am currently working on my first chapter book for 7-9 year olds. Just learning this information has taken a disproportionate amount of time in my mind. It transpires that chapter books for children are categorised under two headings – early readers and middle grade. Afterwards you’re moving into Young Adult stories which I’m not grown up enough to write yet. Seems simple enough? Except then you learn that there are different age brackets within early readers and not all agents, publishers or book sellers categorise them in the same way. Mind-Blown. 

If the age range debacle wasn’t enough to get your head around, the gender division within the marketing world of chapter books has left me awake at night with fury. Chapter books – think the Beast Quest series aimed at boys and the Rainbow Magic series aimed at girls. Scary monsters and adventure for boys, fairies and sparkly rainbows for girls. I’m deliberately choosing extreme examples and of course there are a wealth of books which don’t rely on these specific gender extremes but the books are still labelled ‘boy books’ and ‘girl books’ – blue and pink. 

Interestingly, research shows – and this is certainly true of my experience teaching and reading with this age group – that girls will read books aimed at boys but boys are very unlikely to pick up a chapter book marketed for girls. So much so that to find a female lead character in a chapter book aimed at boys is a bit like meeting Santa, whilst cruising through the Bermuda Triangle on the back of a unicorn. 

Would Harry Potter have been as successful as it was if Hermione had been the hero and not the sidekick? Would boys have read that book? Would half of the population have missed out on the awesomeness of Hogwarts because there was a girl in the centre of the front cover?

These are the questions which have kept me awake at night. Looking back at my picture books I realised that Percy, Rufus, The skateboarding Baby, Croc and in fact all of my main characters are male. How did that happen without me realising? Me, who sings of empowering women and the importance of gender equality, how did I miss it? 

Even picture books are gender biased – I’ve read so many picture books with male characters that my brain is on male-character-auto-pilot. Enough is enough. 

I want our daughter (and perhaps even more importantly our son) to grow up reading my books which have amazing, strong, inspiring, awesome characters. I want them to be moved and excited and intrigued. I want them to love my lead characters as much as I do and I want them to see the character first and the gender second. 

Not much of an ask for my first chapter book series then, is it?

Once upon a time…

Whilst visiting a children’s play area this week we stumbled upon this chair and it got me thinking about beginnings.

“Once upon a time” is an opening synonymous with fairy tales. We instinctively know which characters to expect, rule of three to pop up and of course, a happy ending – all those expectations from a four word opener. Once upon a time we were transported to a world of princesses in towers, bears who eat porridge, girls in red cloaks and those four words have stayed with us ready to transport us back to their world in an instance. 

The first sentence can be extremely daunting to write – hook the reader in, excite them, inspire them, get them to keep reading and set the scene for the story – a fairly big ask when you break it down. I was talking with another writer last week who said he’d repeatedly written, deleted and re-written the opening of his novel. In his mind there was no point in continuing to write until he had the beginning in place. 

When I write picture books they are normally inspired by something someone has said. More often than not it will be our three year old son or one of his peers – they’ve absentmindedly spoken gold dust, often more by mistake than by design. So I magpie the idea, phrase, word, sometimes the whole sentence and it goes straight onto the magnetic writing board on our fridge. 

The board was initially meant to house our weekly meal plan and then later became a general notepad for things we were planning to do in the week. Now it is a garden of poetry, an inspiration board and a starting point. It is where my stories begin.

Sometimes they stay there for months, gathering dust and being smudged until one day the rest of the story arrives. It arrives without warning and often inconveniently at 4am when the sane people are fast asleep. But there it is. The fridge phrase has festered away until images are conjured and words arrive. At this point I might make a few notes on a post-it I keep in my bedside table drawer, but more often than not I do nothing. I just wait. 

It is normally a few weeks and often a month or two before I sit down and commit the idea to paper. At some point the stars align, creativity starts to bubble away and I know it is time to write the story. Funnily enough it is rarely at the time when I have cleared space in my schedule to write, or set aside time to work. More often than not, it will be an infuriatingly ill-timed moment when I realise the story is ready to be written and I will end up scribbling half of it down on old napkins, or sweet wrappers at the bottom of my bag, so I don’t forget the words.  

And then the words are there on the paper and the first draft is complete. A mere three or four months after I heard the initial phrase. Other times I just sit down and write and see where I end up. Drafts of stories which have yet to become anything sit in their own special folder on my laptop, awaiting the day they might be offered a second chance with a new beginning – stories like, “The fly who won’t die”, which was a phrase our son repeated until it manifested itself in quite a dark, political picture book which has no place on a child’s bookshelf.

I never feel frustrated when I write though, whether the words become a story I am happy with or not. As I’ve learnt to appreciate, writing stories which won’t turn into books is as important a part of the creative process as writing the good stories. Committing time to writing, playing around with new ideas and concepts for a text, experimenting with words and language are as good a use of writing time as creating a great first draft. 

I could sit and wait for good stories to come along but more often than not the best idea is just to begin. Begin writing and see what happens, even if your beginning isn’t the one you imagined, it is a starting point for everything else. It’s time to see where the words take you; it’s time to begin. 

Just Read

They say if you want to write well, read well. Read often. Read everything. Read good writing and not so good writing. Read. Read. Read.

Getting transported into a good book is one of my favourite feelings. I have lost count of the times my husband has walked in on me sobbing, clutching a book with total heartbreak, or longing, or love for one of the characters. He even walked in once when, whilst reading One Day for the first time, I hurled the book across the room because I couldn’t believe that David Nicholls could do what he did with such callousness.

Likewise I have often stirred the household from peaceful slumber with raucous laughter in the middle of the night as, by the nightlight glow “I’m just going to finish this chapter” has rolled into 3 more hours of bleary eyed joy, most recently when I was following the story of Don Tillman in The Rosie Project trilogy.

Some nights, sleep has refused to claim me as I’ve been left in nail-biting panic after reading the latest crime-thriller by Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen. Every creak in the house, every pipe gurgling has transported me back into his world and left me unable to reason my way back out.

And that’s before I even get to one of my all time favourite authors – Susan Hill. More terrifying than any horror film I’ve ever seen is the fear she instils in me as I read another of her ghost stories. It’s just words. Words. How can words make me feel with such intensity that I can’t sleep, or stop laughing, or cry inconsolably? Just words.

And then there is my favourite crafting of story – The Picture Book. In less than 1000 words a good picture book author can tell the perfect story with drama, tension, relatable characters, satisfying conclusions and heart. Most importantly, heart. Often they can achieve this with hardly any words at all because of course the joy of a picture book is that perfect pairing of minds between an author and an illustrator.

Both bringing their own talents to the page and, when done well, bringing out the best in one another’s work. It is a common misconception that a picture book is a story with pictures which show the reader what the writer has written.

How condescending that would be when the audience of young children, and the adults who are reading the story to them, are capable of absorbing so much more. Let me give an example…

Erik sat on the bench eating his sandwich. [Image: boy sitting on a bench, eating a sandwich]

Now we have a picture to match the words. It’s not that this is wrong but it’s not exactly inspiring is it? Children are naturally curious. So let’s give them something to be curious about…

Erik sat on the bench eating his sandwich. [Image: boy sat on a bench, eating a sandwich. Crumbs from the sandwich are on the floor and an octopus like arm is reaching out from under the bench to pick them up. The boy is unaware.]

Which image would have you turning the page?

There are some amazing picture books which utilise this picture-word relationship. Rosie’s Walk, for example, tells the story in writing of a hen walking around a farmyard. It would make for a fairly uninspiring audio book I can assure you. At no point does the text mention that there is a hungry fox following Rosie the hen around the farm, but we know he’s there because we can see him.

The author-illustrator goes one step further because not only can we see the fox which is never mentioned, we are left questioning whether or not Rosie can also see him.

Is it coincidence that the fox falls into several traps along the way? Or did the seemingly unaware hen know exactly what she was doing walking around the farm and leading him into danger?

Pat Hutchins captures perfectly in Rosie’s Walk the symbiotic relationship between pictures and words – and perhaps as he is both author and illustrator this journey is one step easier – he could see the bigger picture, as it were.

As an author writing picture books I am still learning the craft of ‘leaving space’ for the images. When I write I picture the words on the page and can imagine the characters and how the images might look. Yet, were I lucky enough to get to the collaboration with an illustrator stage, I am sure they would have different ideas of how the text should be brought to life.

After all, I am sure when Julia Donaldson wrote The Gruffalo she had an image of the Gruffalo in mind as she crafted the story. Indeed she tells us certain key details in the text – “purple prickles all over his back” – but it is Axel Scheffler’s Gruffalo that is the image we know and love.

When I first started writing picture books I found myself drifting between not enough written narrative and too much. Now I always have the mantra “leave space for the pictures” in my head. And if in doubt I just read what I’ve written aloud. Why have I included that detail? Is it information which would be better told through an image?

The same goes with the emotional journey I want to take the reader on. If I want to make them laugh then I could use words or I could leave it unsaid for the image to evoke as a page is turned and something funny is revealed. More often than not a combination of the two, and best of all when the two work hand in hand, is what brings the story to life; text and illustrations combining to create magic on the page.


Teaching children at primary school how to edit their work is not an easy process. For them, the first draft is the only draft.

“You asked me to write a story about a mythical creature, Miss. So I did. Now it’s done. Is it break time yet?”

Something happens quite early on in children’s learning which I saw time and time again with children who arrived in my classroom. By the age of 7 (and often long before) children have categorised themselves into two camps – good at maths and bad at maths. It happens much sooner with maths than writing.

Why? Because when you look at a page of maths working it has been marked one of two ways – right or wrong. As a young child you are not interested in the process, the method or the working. It is irrelevant to you whether or not you got the first step right because you are looking for one thing and one thing only – did the teacher give me a tick or not?

Ticks equal confidence and once children lose confidence in themselves it can be very hard to rebuild. Some schools have abolished ticks and crosses in a bid to ease pressure on children, but guess what – highlighting in two colours or using dots and lines creates the same problem. The symbol might be different but the outcome is the same.

So we work hard to build resilience and teach children that it’s okay to make mistakes; it’s okay to be wrong. We praise the journey and not just the finished product. Learning to edit work celebrates this process. Children should learn that the first draft is exactly that – not right or wrong, just the starting place.

The natural editors in the classroom tend to, in my experience, be the confident mathematicians. The children who don’t mind the crosses or the orange highlighter, the ones who can bounce back and have another go.

I was not a confident mathematician. When I was at school my nose itched for most of my maths lessons, especially the double period on Friday afternoons. Itch. Itch. Itch.

When I don’t understand something my nose itches. I am told it is a displacement technique my brain has invented to distract me from the fact that I can’t work something out. The same thing happens when I try and read maps. Thank you World for the wonder that is Satnav.

So when I started writing, editing my work became a bit like solving a maths problem. I didn’t really know where to start. It turned out I was one of the, “Work’s done: Playtime now,” children. I couldn’t see past the first draft.

Was the second draft meant to be a proof reading exercise? Or should I put the end of the story at the beginning and see if it’s better that way around? Maybe I needed to start again completely and rework the entire thing so it’s a farm story set in space.

Suddenly my nose was in itch-overdrive.

So I did what I encouraged the children to do when I taught them how to edit their writing…

I showed someone else. Actually, I showed a few people. They say it’s best not to show your work to friends and family because they won’t be objective; good manners and social kindness etiquette will replace productive and useful criticism.

So you need to show the right people. My husband is one of my biggest fans but he cannot let a grammatical error, spelling or punctuation mistake go unannounced. I could write a truly terrible story and he would tell me it was wonderful but I know I can trust him to tell me when a comma has lingered too long or an ellipsis has overstepped the mark.

He didn’t disappoint. But once the fundamentals were in place that left me with the story. The big bit. How would I start editing that?

Time helped. Leave your writing for long enough and you can come back to it with fresh eyes all of your own. I left some of my stories for 8 months this year and when I came back to them I saw them in new and interesting ways.

Time helps most things – wine, cheese and apparently picture books. I had to overcome my usual impatience and need to “just get it done” and the pay off was the magical second draft.

The wine and cheese have long gone but I persevered with the picture books and let time do its magic. The third draft, well, that’s a whole other story. Literally.

Website Why?

After reading several articles which declared that all writers should have a website – whether published or not – I decided to take the great plunge into the vast ocean where dreams come true.

So I followed the WordPress step by step guide and, with an ease which surprised my technophobic brain, made a website and launched my ship.

Except now that I’m out here my cruise ship feels worryingly like some bits of old 2×4 tied together with fraying rope, floating around with no clear direction. So why exactly did I make this website? A sudden burst of imposter syndrome struck as I logged onto it for the hundredth time to read the content I had already committed to memory.

So I messaged two friends. The first a self-taught photographer who reminded me that if you are good at what you do then you are good at what you do, and that half the battle is believing that you are good enough.

Still, those self doubts creep in and fester like woodworm, burying themselves into an already rickety vessel. What if I’ve made a website to promote myself as a writer but I’m not actually a good writer?

Rejection letters from publishers and literary agents line the back of my mind and whisper ‘character building’ and ‘give up’ in equal measure. And now I have a website but to what end?

The second friend I messaged worked in publishing, commissioning books and promoting authors before taking a career break when she became a mother. Her take on a website? Not as important as my research suggested. So why have one?

I expect it would have been helpful to work out why I wanted a website before I started sailing but as usual I have jumped in before checking the water. So here I am, floating along and wondering why. Here are my conclusions:

The Destination – to be a published writer. I don’t believe having a website will do that. I believe writing a good book will lead there and, as my friends reminded me, self belief and a little bit of luck.

The Journey – I know I work best when I feel accountable to someone or something. Right now I feel more determined to write more, write well and justify to myself that having an author’s website was worthwhile.

So this website is my sail, my oars and my helm. It’s going to keep me focused on the destination and enjoying the journey. I don’t think I will magically arrive at Destination Published by getting on the boat but I know that being on the boat is better than standing on the shore.