I Am the Minotaur

Anthony McGowan

What’s great about Matthew’s school librarian – indeed about all good librarians – is that she understands him as an individual, and has an idea about what he’d enjoy. The truth is that we all have unique tastes, and different books touch us, or leave us cold.

Anthony McGowan

Matthew, Stinky Mog, is a young boy dealing with life as a young carer for his Mum whilst also dealing with bullying at school. He wants to stay invisible. His isolation is heart-breaking to witness but friendships come along and he finally finds his tribe when he needs them the most. A touching novel that sensitively and realistically deals with a wide range of themes: mental health, young carers, poverty, bullying and friendship. A MUST read for this January and beyond!


I’d like to thank Anthony McGowan for joining us in the VIP Reading blog to talk about I Am the Minotaur.

Without giving too much away could you tell us a little bit about I Am the Minotaur?

The idea for the story began with the character of Stinky Mog – someone totally isolated at school, and in a pretty desperate situation at home. He’s based partly on a couple of the kids I knew at school, but also on reading about the situation of many young carers today. From that low place, I wanted to first give him hope, then snatch it away, and finally offer him redemption. The actual mechanics of the plot, which involves an attempt to steal back a stolen bicycle, is based on something that actually happened to me, in real life …

Matthew recognises the hierarchy within the school community: brainiacs, sporty, artsy, golden groups etc. All schools have cliques and groups so which group did you fit into when you were at school?

My school was pretty tough, whereas Matthew’s is a ‘good’ one. I was quite academic, and enjoyed learning, but there wasn’t much kudos in that – in fact it picked you out as a target for the hard kids. But I was also good at sport, and the one thing our school didn’t suck at was sport. So that gave me a certain amount of protection. There were also the cool kids – it was smack in the middle of Punk – and I was a bit peripheral to that, neither cool nor uncool. So it was quite a complicated picture! But the upshot is that even at my rough old school I had a good time. What saved me – along with being sporty – was, of course, friendship. If you have mates at school, you’re always basically OK. It’s why Matthew’s situation is so desperate, at least until the library geeks open their arms to him.

The librarian supports Matthew with fabulous book suggestions like, ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ and ‘Watership Down’. What book would be on your ‘must read’ list and why?

What’s great about Matthew’s school librarian – indeed about all good librarians – is that she understands him as an individual, and has an idea about what he’d enjoy. The truth is that we all have unique tastes, and different books touch us, or leave us cold. So what I’d recommend would depend a lot on the reader. But a Kestrel for a Knave and Watership Down would be good places to start. The book that really got me reading was The Lord of the Rings. But there are many more books around now aimed at teenagers, and the vital thing is to pick up the reading habit. My own son was a reluctant reader. What got him going were the Wimpy Kid books, which I’d rather looked down my nose at. But he raced through them, and suddenly he was a reader. The key is to get children to love reading – to see it as fun, not work – at the earliest possible age. That’s down to parents and carers to read with their kids. I think the greatest books for filling children with the joy of reading are the Mister Gum books by Andy Stanton. 

How much did your own schooling give you inspiration for your books because Corpus Christi appears to have left a lasting impression?

Corpus Christi was a very dramatic and intense place to go to school. There was a lot of violence and bullying, and the teachers kept control with their own violence. But it was also an amazing place, full of great characters. Looking back, I can see how the teachers – most of them, at least – were desperately trying to get some knowledge into our heads in very difficult circumstances. The upshot was that so many experiences and characters got burned into my memory, and when I started to write, there was really no choice but to write about them. Strangely, I am the Minotaur is the first of my YA books not to be set in a version of my old school. Indeed its’ the first one not to be set in a version of Leeds. Although it’s not specified, Minotaur is set in London, and I had in mind an excellent state school in Muswell Hill I’ve visited several times – and which happens to have a great librarian! 

You’ve had a range of jobs, like many of us but what made you want to be a writer?

I wanted to be a writer from my mid-teens. For me it was firstly to do with my love of reading – writing was an extension of that. And then I realised that I was quite good at it, so I got in a positive feedback loop – my essays and stories would get read out at school, which made me want to improve. What I never thought was that I’d be a full-time writer. I always assumed that I’d have a day job, and write in my spare time. But I’ve been lucky enough to be a full-time writer for twenty years now. In some ways I almost preferred the early years when writing was my ‘hobby’ – people rather frown at that word in relation to writing – but a hobby is a thing you do purely for the love of it. When writing becomes your job, some of that love seeps out of the process. 

You’ve been long listed and shortlisted, won prizes for your writing and ‘Lark’ won the 2020 CILIP Carnegie Medal, huge congratulations, and so much of your writing is insightful and has hard hitting themes but which of your books are you most proud of?

I think it would probably have to be the four books in The Truth of Things series – of which Lark is the last I think with them the gap between the aspiration and the achievement is closest. And they touch people. But I’m also fond of my (deeply-flawed!) first novel, Hellbent, which is very rude and funny. And people rather love my second YA novel, Henry Tumour. But my absolute favourite is probably the least successful – Hello Darkness. In some ways that is the definitive McGowan novel, in that it’s a complex comedy about a very serious subject. But it got rather lost on publication, and hardly anyone had read it. But if I’ve got a single favourite character, it might well be poor Stinky Mog from Minotaur. I felt very responsible for him and so – spoiler alert! – I had to give him a happy ending!

Which age group do you prefer to write for having published books both young and adult readers (and those in between)?

I’ve always felt that YA is my core, but I’ve had a lot of fun writing for younger children. And I suspect that I’m going to be writing more for adults as the years go by. The trouble is that it’s very hard for an old codger like me to keep a connection with today’s teenagers. I had my own kids to help for a while, but I feel I’m drifting out of range. Luckily there are many brilliant younger writers coming up who’ll give voice to teenagers and properly reflect their diversity, their changing loves and hates.

What’s next in the pipeline, if you are allowed to tell us?

I’ve recently finished a book called (provisionally), Chernobyl Dogs. It’s about dogs and wolves and people interacting in the contaminated zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant. It’s Call of the Wild meets War and Peace! It should be out at the end of the year, or possible early 2022.

Finally, can you describe the I Am the Minotaur in three words?

Three – hah, Impossible! But try ‘Courage transcends sadness’.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read and answer our questions.


Q & A hosted by
Jack Graves


Edgar & Adolf

Phil Earle &
Michael Wagg

After Phil spotted the badge on Waggy’s cap we started talking about Edgar, and decided to make a badge the starting point for our story.  We love the fact that stories can be found in the smallest, most ordinary things.  You just have to keep your eyes and ears open to them.

Phil Earle & Michael Wagg

Edgar & Adolf is the brilliant and emotive story of an English-German friendship before the start of the Second World War. It is based on the real lives of two footballers who played for opposing teams: Dulwich Hamlet F.C. and Altona F.C. 1893. Phil Earle and Michael Wagg, do a wonderful job of filling in the gaps in what we know about these footballers’ lives, whilst keeping the story believable and heart-warming. We are left with a poignant reminder that even in the most awful of conflicts, a real friendship can transcend anything.


I’d like to thank Phil and Michael in joining us in the VIP Reading blog to talk about Edgar & Adolf.

Firstly, congratulations on Edgar & Adolf, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little bit about the story?

Thanks so much for your support.  We’re really glad you enjoyed reading Edgar & Adolf.  It’s a fictional story inspired by real lives, about a friendship between two footballers, who as you say played for teams in different countries, around 100 years ago.  We asked ourselves the question ‘what if?’ and set our teenage hero, Adi, off on a mission to discover more about them, and to return a simple yet very precious object.  

I read that the inspiration behind the story came from a badge on Waggy’s (Michael Wagg’s) hat, is that correct and can you elaborate?

Yes, it was a small button badge showing the face of the young Edgar Kail, who was a Dulwich Hamlet footballer in the 1920s and 30s.  The amazing thing is that he is a hero to fans of the club today and they still sing about him at every match.

After Phil spotted the badge on Waggy’s cap we started talking about Edgar, and decided to make a badge the starting point for our story.  We love the fact that stories can be found in the smallest, most ordinary things.  You just have to keep your eyes and ears open to them.

You both obviously carried out a lot of research for the book, what were the most surprising discoveries along the way? Did anything have to be omitted from the book?

We love the fact that the real Edgar Kail played for the England team (as does the Edgar in our book) despite playing as an amateur for a relatively small club.  Adolf Jäger played for his country too and was the Germany captain.  We also enjoyed discovering things about their real lives off the pitch – like that Edgar was a drinks salesman and later moved from London to Scotland; and that Adolf owned some shops, including a tobacconist.  We couldn’t include everything and had to decide which elements to use and what we might want to change for the book, to keep the story focused on Adi’s mission.  We hope that readers might want to go away and find out more about the real Edgar & Adolf after they’ve read the book.

In the book, the chronology is cleverly used to flick between present-day and the past in order to tell the story. Was it always your intention to tell the story in this way?

In the story Adi is on a journey of discovery and we wanted the reader to go on that journey with him.  So it felt important to be able to learn things at the same pace as Adi, and in the same way – looking at it though his eyes.  Adi learns about the past by talking to Edgar and by looking through the old letters and newspaper articles they share with each other.  Edgar learns things too, in the same way.  It all happens one afternoon, over a few hours, but by using the things they share we were able to travel back in time, and also help Edgar remember how he felt when he was younger – when he was a similar age to Adi. 

What was it like writing for the new Super-Readable Rollercoasters series with Oxford University Press?

It was great.  We definitely wanted the book to be ‘super-readable’ and we hope it’s a rollercoaster, too!  Supporting your football team can feel like a rollercoaster sometimes.  But most importantly we wrote the book specifically for Barrington Stoke and their new collaboration with OUP, because we know they really care about good stories that are accessible to young people, including those who might be less confident or who find reading difficult because of dyslexia.  

Was this your first experience of writing a dyslexia-friendly book and what were the challenges and the positives of this task?

Phil has written books for Barrington Stoke before and really enjoys working with them, and as we worked together Waggy was learning from Phil all the time.  It was helpful, and rewarding, to keep in mind that we wanted the story to be really clearly told and for it to have a forward momentum – so that readers are keen to turn the page.  I guess we saw each scene as opening a door to the next one, and we wanted the door to stay open.  I think that was helped by the fact that we wrote it together: when one of us sent a chapter to the other, that was also like opening a door into what might happen next.  It was tricky at times to get the structure right, but no-one said it was easy!  It was great fun to write together.

I read that you had endeavoured to include the known facts about Edgar and Adolf, but that you wished to explore the unknown in an imaginative way. Did you ever worry about the fictional events that were added to enhance or fill in the gaps within the story? 

The book is a celebration of these two footballers, Edgar & Adolf, and a celebration of friendship too.  We wrote it out of love and respect for them and we hope that shines through.  Keeping that respect in mind we allowed ourselves to use our imaginations, including some of the facts and changing others as we went along, making it clear at the beginning that our story is a fictional account of what their relationship might have been.  Still we hope that we’re somehow ‘true’ to the spirit of these two real people, by trying to bring them to life as fully-rounded, believable characters.  

In the author notes, you mention that the pair of you have been friends for over 30 years, how did that influence the book?

It made it a lot of fun to write.  We enjoyed bouncing ideas off each other – and the idea of opening the door for the other one at the end of each chapter.  We were also able to encourage each other at times when either one of us might have been struggling to know what to write next.  In the end the story is about a really strong friendship and about respect too, so that made it easier to write – because we are such good friends and we respect each other’s ideas.  We were able to push each other too, to have another go, to try something else, to keep going.

In learning more about Edgar and Adolf, were you surprised to discover that both sets of fans still remember these players in such affectionate ways?

This is the extraordinary thing.  We knew that they’re both still remembered and celebrated by the fans, but yes that still surprises us.  They must have been very special players and people.  If you ever get a chance to go to a match at either Dulwich Hamlet or Altona 93 we’d really recommend it.  The fans of both clubs are very welcoming and the atmosphere at the grounds is great.  Both clubs have men’s and women’s teams and teams for younger age groups.  If you go there you’ll see that the road that leads to the Dulwich Hamlet stadium is called ‘Edgar Kail Way’ and the Altona stadium is named after Adolf Jäger.  

You can sing the song too: “Edgar Kail in my heart …”

On your journey in creating the book, were you able to speak to fans, visit the stadium and speak to people close to the story? How did that shape your perspective on the story?

Waggy has been a Dulwich Hamlet supporter for over ten years and Phil has seen lots of their matches too.  In fact Waggy and his wife got married on the pitch at Dulwich Hamlet and Phil was there that day – he sang a song in the clubhouse before (and after) the wedding!  Waggy also has friends who live in Hamburg and are Altona 93 supporters, so it was easy to talk to people who could tell us more about the players and the history of both clubs.  There are lots of friendships between fans of the two clubs today, and we were able to get a good sense of the spirit of Dulwich and Altona by chatting to them. 

Hypothetical, of course, but if you could meet the real Edgar and Adolf, what would you like to say to them?

Over ‘ere son, on me ‘ead!  

Finally, can you describe this book in three words?

Friendship is everything.


Q & A hosted by
Rob McCann


Rat

Patrice
Lawrence

When my daughter was young, I was a working single parent and found it very hard to keep my head above water – my salary would be swallowed into the gulf of my overdraft within two weeks and I wouldn’t be able to access any money for two weeks. At one point, I was looking down the back of the sofa for money to buy food. We lived in a flat on a council estate and neighbours were incredibly supportive during those tough times. So I definitely wanted to write about the power of community.

Patrice Lawrence

Gripping and immersive, Rat packs a powerful punch. Written by the award-winning author Patrice Lawrence, it follows a teenager called Al, who’s already faced so much adversity in his life and there seems to be no end in sight. Luckily, his pet rats, Venom and Vulture, give comfort from the outside world. Perfect for developing empathy, this eye-opening book covers a wide range of themes, including: poverty, crime and the importance of family. I was left with the overwhelming wish to save Al. Save him from misery. Save him from anger. Save him from himself.


I’d like to thank Patrice for joining us in the VIP Reading blog to talk about her latest book, Rat.

Firstly, congratulations on Rat, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little bit about the story?

Al is angry. His family is scattered and his only friends are Venom and Vulture, his pet rats. His mum has just come out of prison – again – and promised that this time things will be different. But when she’s caught shoplifting food for supper and sent back to prison, it’s another promise broken. It’s not Mum’s fault, though. It’s down to Mr Brayker, their neighbour, who’s had it in for Al and his mum since they moved in. So Al starts to plot his revenge. After all, he’s got nothing to lose, has he?

Where did the inspiration for Rat come from?

My contemporary stories are always inspired by both personal experience and from more than twenty years working in the not-for-profit charity sector. When my daughter was young, I was a working single parent and found it very hard to keep my head above water – my salary would be swallowed into the gulf of my overdraft within two weeks and I wouldn’t be able to access any money for two weeks. At one point, I was looking down the back of the sofa for money to buy food. We lived in a flat on a council estate and neighbours were incredibly supportive during those tough times. So I definitely wanted to write about the power of community.

I’ve also worked with organisations supporting families and children involved with social services and others working with the families of prisoners – and sadly, there is some overlap. The continued rhetoric about prisons being cushy absolutely infuriates me. Anybody who has visited a prison will know that certainly isn’t the case. (I absolutely recommend Carl Cattermole’s Prison: A Survival Guide for an accurate albeit very funny insight into English prison life.) Although I’ve visited a few prisons, I found women’s prisons toughest. The lovely folk at NEPACS, an organisation supporting the families of prisoners in north east England, gave me a photobook called The Road to Low Newton by Adrian Clarke. It’s a series of photo-portraits of women who had been imprisoned in HMP Low Newton with accompanying text giving an account in the women’s own words of how they ended up in prison. It’s honest, heart-breaking and unsurprising. Although the majority of the women are imprisoned for offences relating to their drug use, many have a history of childhood neglect and domestic violence. Many are also mothers and want the best for their children. Al’s mum, in Rat, has a supportive family, but even so, she is struggling.

How did your experiences prior to becoming a full-time writer, influence this book?

In addition to the above, I’ve also worked with organisations that support families and children with experience of social services child protection involvement. I’ve interviewed a number of families – frequently grandparents – who are looking after children because the children’s parents are unable to, often through imprisonment, addiction struggles or mental health difficulties. Often, these arrangements are sudden and unexpected – a social worker would suddenly arrive with traumatised and distressed children with many support needs.  Again, I wanted to touch on this in Rat.

There are countless themes in the story but which were most important to you and why?

Community, particularly in working class and poorer neighbourhoods. There’s been much talk about ‘community’ during lockdowns, but in many places, it has always been there. I had a neighbour on my block who used to cook a mean Sunday dinner. He gave me great tips about making the best Yorkshire puds. He and his partner used to keep an eye on a young guy who was struggling with heroin addiction, taking food around to him. There was a woman on our block with openly racist views and who would completely blank me when she saw me, but knocked on the door with a present for my baby daughter. 

In my review, I mentioned that I really wanted to jump into the story and save Al from himself and his awful situation. Was Al based on anyone in particular?

Funnily enough, no. I also have no idea why I wanted to write about rats! I have a bit of a rodent-phobia. (It doesn’t help that a mouse once jumped out of a box of Cheerios at me!) Though, with all characters, I take bits of myself. My biological father served a short prison term and he was so ashamed he wouldn’t talk about it. I’ve also felt Al’s sense of outsiderness and loneliness, growing up as the first in my family to be born in the UK and in a predominantly white area in Sussex. Like Al, I’m also often angry but I have outlets for my anger whereas Al is trapped by the decisions made by the adults around him.

The descriptions of poverty, hunger and prison, were hard-hitting. Was that always your intention?

My intention was to simply be realistic. Again, food poverty may be in the news now, but it is and has been everyday life for so many. The estate where I used to live qualified for regeneration money and the forward-thinking head of the primary school employed the cooks directly and bought in organic food. There was also a breakfast club. He knew that money was stretched for many families and wanted to make sure the children had a good meal which consequently supported their ability to concentrate and learn. 

I was also on a secondary school visit in Liverpool in early 2020. The canteen serves hot drinks and toast during the first break; they explained that this may be the first hot meal some students may have that day. They also kept food parcels in the library to support families that needed that boost. It was fantastic that the school provided this, but how can we be in a society that relies on schools to stop children going hungry? I visit both private and state schools and the most shocking difference is the food given to children. I certainly don’t begrudge privately schooled students good food; I grew up in a low income household where my mother and stepdad always cooked fresh food. I wish more schools in lower income areas had the chance to cook great meals for their students too.

I think I actually went easy on prison! In some prisons, there are non-profit organisations that do fantastic pastoral work with prisoners and their families, as the prison service itself is too underfunded and deskilled to really focus on rehabilitation. When prisoners are released, they receive the grand sum of a £46 discharge grant to help with the first few days after release. The amount hasn’t changed since the mid-90s. It doesn’t go far.

Al’s rats, Venom and Vulture, are so important to him. What was the reason for such a choice of pets?

I have been told that rats are much misunderstood! They seemed an appropriate for a boy like Al. I also wanted to show that Al is very capable of love and loyalty even if other only saw an angry young man.

What challenges did you face when writing Rat in this dyslexia-friendly format and what were the positives?

I actually thought as Al as an ideal reader of Rat, so it helped me shape the way he expressed himself. There is a mantra in creative writing that ‘every word counts’ and in these books, it most certainly does! Creating a book for publication is always, to some degree, a collaborative process, working with the editors to make sure that the words on the paper do exactly what they’re supposed to. With Rat, there was more collaboration as it involved editors from both OUP and Barrington Stoke, plus additional editing to make the book dyslexia-friendly as well as attractive to reluctant readers. I knew that I shouldn’t get too hung up on using certain words, so the focus for me was making sure that the storyline was strong enough to play with the way it could be articulated. (If that makes sense!)

We would love to know whether you are currently working on any other books. What are you allowed to tell us?

My next full length contemporary YA is published in summer. Splinters of Sunshine takes the character of DNA-Dad from Eight Pieces of Silva on a road journey with a son, Spey, he wants to get to know but who is completely different from him. They are trying to find Spey’s vulnerable friend, Dee, who is caught up in ‘county lines’ drug-dealing on the sough coast. It contains Queen anthems, wildflowers and forgiveness.

Finally, can you describe Rat in three words?

Not for musophobes!


Q & A hosted by
Rob McCann


Free Resources

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The Mab

Matt
Brown

The tales in The Mab are so good and we’re so lucky to have some of the very best storytellers working on them. They are so rooted in the history and culture of this country that I hope to see copies in every classroom and home. I can imagine someone being given a copy as a child, reading it themselves, then years and years later sharing it with their kids or grandchildren.

Matt Brown

Today, we welcome Matt Brown into the VIP Reading blog to discuss the exciting collaborative project, The Mab. As described on the crowdfunding site, Unbound, it is ‘Eleven epic stories from the Mabinogion, retold by Welsh writers and beautifully illustrated.’


For those of us who are not familiar with The Mabinogion, can you give us an idea of what to expect from these Welsh stories?

The stories in the Mabinogion were first written down nearly a thousand years ago but were part of the oral storytelling tradition for centuries before that. They are stories of adventure and magic, and feature knights and evil wizards, dragons and giants, women made of flowers and cauldrons that can bring the dead back to life. That kind of thing. King Arthur makes his first appearance in the Mabinogion, which is really cool. All the stories speak of a time when the real world interacted with the supernatural world. Sometimes good things happened, sometimes bad.

The Mab will be told by an impressive team of award-winning authors and writers including: Eloise Williams (Children’s Laureate Wales and author of Wilde), Sophie Anderson (The Girl Who Speaks Bear), Catherine Johnson (Freedom), PG Bell (The Train to Impossible Places), Alex Wharton (Rising Star Wales winner 2020), Claire Fayers (Storm Hound), Hanan Issa (My Body Can House Two Hearts), Zillah Bethall (The Shark Caller), Darren Chetty (The Good Immigrant), Nicola Davies (The Day the War Came), and Matt Brown (Compton Valance). Who was the brainchild of this project and how did the collaboration arise?

The idea to retell all the stories of the Mabinogion came to me when I tried to find a copy to read to my 11 year old son. He likes Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and so I thought he’d love these stories. I was really surprised to find that an English-language version of all eleven stories didn’t exist. I thought then that it would be a good idea to create one. The first UK lockdown gave me the time to think about the project and I got in touch with Eloise Williams to see if she would help me. She was incredibly supportive and loved the idea and we then set about trying to get our dream team of writers.

You recently gave supporters a taste of The Mab, with a wonderful reading of The Prince and the King (and the other king) which tells of how Pwyll, the Prince of Dyfed, became the Prince of the Otherworld. Have all of the authors been designated a story that they will be responsible for the retelling of?

Yes they have. So, here’s the full list. I’ve put the stories in the order that they’ll appear in the finished book.
The First Branch – me
The Second Branch – Sophie Anderson
The Third Branch – Nicola Davies
The Fourth Branch – Eloise Williams
Peredur, Son of Efrog – Darren Chetty
The Dream of Emperor Maxen – Alex Wharton
Llud and Llefelys – Zillah Bethall
The Lady of the Well – Catherine Johnson
Geraint, son of Enid – PG Bell
Culhwch and Olwen – Hanan Issa
Ronabwy’s Dream – Claire Fayers

Having read The Prince and The King (and the other king), I can see that these stories would be enjoyable both in the classroom and the home environment. Who are you hoping will read and enjoy the stories?

I think these stories will be read and shared and loved by everyone who likes reading and telling stories. The tales in The Mab are so good and we’re so lucky to have some of the very best storytellers working on them. They are so rooted in the history and culture of this country that I hope to see copies in every classroom and home. I can imagine someone being given a copy as a child, reading it themselves, then years and years later sharing it with their kids or grandchildren.

Being the son of an Irish immigrant, I grew up listening to my father retelling Irish stories that had been passed on by previous generations. How important is it for you and the team to share this aspect of Welsh cultural heritage?

One sad thing about the Mabinogion is that the stories have been neglected over the years, even in Wales. I know so many English-speaking Welsh people who have never even heard of the Mabinogion before. I want The Mab to change that. I want the stories in The Mab to be loved and shared by generations to come.

My favourite Irish legend was of Finn MacCool and the Giant’s Causeway. A story in which the Scottish Giant is fooled by the Irish Giant pretending to be a baby, and giving the impression that the unseen adult giant must be enormous! Is there a particular Welsh story from the Mabinogion that made a lasting impression on you?

One that I think about a lot is the story of Blodeuedd (pronounced Blod-ay-with). Her story appears in the Fourth Branch. She is a woman conjured from flowers (Blodeuedd means ‘flower faced’). Hers is an exciting story but a sad one. It is full of adventure, love and betrayal. It was the inspiration for Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, for those old enough to remember.

The cover of The Mab is superb, what can we look forward to from Max Low?

One of the things that Eloise and I agreed on, right from the start of the project was that, while the stories will all be set in the medieval world of the Mabinogion, we wanted the book to look fresh and new. The Mab is going to look incredible because of Max’s amazing talent. His illustrations are so vibrant and exciting and I can’t wait to see what he does with the stories. I think people are going to love it.

Working with such a talented team, what are the advantages of such a collaboration and can you foresee any challenges?

The advantages are that we have the best writers working on the project. For example, Claire Fayers won this year’s Tir Na N-Og award and Sophie Anderson won this year’s Wales Book of the Year. The challenges have already started. We are crowdfunding this book, so that means that we have to raise all the money before we publish.

What can people do to support The Mab?

You can do one of two things to support The Mab. First, you can choose a reward from the website. Or, you can share the website link with friends and family who you think would like it.

There seem to be some exciting rewards for those people who decide to support the project. Which rewards are you most excited about sharing with your supporters?

I really love the Bookplate Mab, that’s where you get a copy of The Mab with a bookplate designed by Max Low and signed by all the writers. I’m also really excited about the School Rewards. Schools can support The Mab and get downloadable content and author visits as well as copies of the book. And everyone who supports The Mab at whatever reward level will get their name in the book. I think that’s really special.

Who has been the most surprising supporter of The Mab so far?

Well, we’ve had some amazing support from people you might have heard of. Philip Pullman, Dermot O’Leary, Cerys Matthews and Michael Sheen have all supported. I can’t wait for the launch party!

Finally, can you describe The Mab in three words?

Thrilling, funny, and weird.

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. We wish you and The Mab team the very best of luck with the exciting project. We hope to feature this brilliant Welsh book on the VIP website soon!


Q & A hosted by
Rob McCann


The Griffin Gate

Vashti
Hardy

Exploring family in its many forms seems to be a recurring theme in my stories in some shape or form. Growing up as one of four children, sibling relationships fascinate me. I love that family can be messy, complicated, come in all shapes and sizes, that there can precious bonds, and sometimes, an important heritage to live up to!

Vashti Hardy

The eagerness to follow in others’ steps can be daunting and for Grace all she’s ever dreamt about is being a warden. Sadly, she’s too young and can’t yet be trusted. Until one day, everything changes and she gets to show her family what she is truly capable of. The Griffin Gate is a great adventure story about the importance of family and togetherness. With the usual splash of fantasy and sci-fi from the brilliant author Vashti Hardy, and fab illustrations by Natalie Smilie, it’s a joy to read.


I’d like to thank the wonderful Vashti Hardy for joining us today in the NEW VIP Reading blog. Vashti has supported us since the start and we are delighted to have featured many of her books in VIP Reading so far.

Firstly, congratulations on The Griffin Gate, which I thoroughly enjoyed like many others people have. What gave you the inspiration to write this story?

Thank you so much for your lovely support! I’m so happy that you enjoyed The Griffin Gate. As you know, I love books with maps and I’d been thinking for a while that it would be great to have a story where characters could teleport into a map. When the lovely people at Barrington Stoke approached me about potential ideas, it seemed like the perfect time to develop this idea and create a new adventurous story world.

Family is integral to the storyline as we see Grace constantly worry about her family members. Was this theme important to you?

Yes, it was. Exploring family in its many forms seems to be a recurring theme in my stories in some shape or form. Growing up as one of four children, sibling relationships fascinate me. I love that family can be messy, complicated, come in all shapes and sizes, that there can precious bonds, and sometimes, an important heritage to live up to!

Grace’s character is so strong-willed, was she based upon anyone in particular?

Well … she might just be a teensy bit like me in that way. In my family I’m renowned for having a bit of a strong will! Not that I am, but I love that Grace is so assured in her capabilities, although it does get her into a bit of a pickle. Also, I think that sometimes we underestimate what children are capable of, and Grace is a good example of proving to others that where there’s a will, there’s a way!

Watson, the raven, acts as Grace’s protector and sidekick and is such a brilliant character, who reminded me of Zazu in the Lion King. Where did the idea for Watson come from?

Ha! I love that comparison. For me, Watson is that little voice we all have sitting on our shoulder sometimes, warning us of danger, or making the wrong move, and keeping us in check. Sometimes we need to shush that voice because it can hold you back, and sometimes we need to listen to it.

What was it like writing for the publisher Barrington Stoke?

Barrington Stoke are an amazing publisher and I’ve long admired what they do. They are utter experts in their field, producing dyslexia friendly books using careful language edits, tinted paper and specially developed font. But also, their books are, of course, for everyone to enjoy. Sometimes we all prefer a shorter read and I think it’s important to integrate these books among others on the book shelves of schools.

The Griffin Gate is your first dyslexic-friendly book published. What challenges did you face when writing this book and what were the positives?

The first challenge for me was not to short change on concept and world-building simply because the books need to be shorter (The Griffin Gate is around a sixth of the length of something like Brightstorm). The team at Barrington Stoke were brilliant at helping me tighten the overview to simplify in certain areas in order to achieve this. A great positive of having to achieve more with less words is that it makes you tighten your world-building description. For example, describing the village that Grace travels to as looking like it had fallen out of a fairy tale. I know this worked well as Natalie Smilie produced the most amazing cover and internal images from very little description, yet I felt like she had stepped inside my imagination!

How have you felt about the great reaction to The Griffin Gate so far?

It’s far surpassed my expectations! I’m mostly thrilled that my stories are reaching a wider audience and hopefully inspiring a joy of reading and fantasy worlds to some children who may not have discovered it yet.

Your books do allow children, and adults too, to escape to these wonderful fantasy worlds. What advice would you give children who want to be able to write in this particular genre?

The biggest piece of advice I can give in this area is to remember that writing is about so much more than sitting at a desk with a pencil or at a laptop tapping away. I draw maps, collect images, listen to music and sounds, read books with facts, watch nature programmes, all to help me create the worlds and their satmospheres, and to grow my imagination.

After the success of this book, will there be a sequel to The Griffin Gate?

Yes, The Puffin Portal is out September 2021 and I’ve already finished it, hooray! There are puffins, portals and more family adventures (oh and a new character…).

I’m sure that we would all love to know whether you are working on any other books. What are you allowed to tell us?

2021 is going to be a busy year! My new 7-9s series is out 1/4/21 with Scholastic. It’s called Harley Hitch and the Iron Forest and is highly illustrated by the marvellous George Ermos, and takes place in an imaginative world called Inventia. I had so much fun writing this book and creating locations for Harley to have inventive adventures in, including the school Cogworks, the star chatter observatory (where you can talk to the stars), and the rusty river where you can fish for inspiration (and of course there is a map!). For 8-12s I have a new story called Crowfall, published by Scholastic too. It’s full of adventure and invention with a big ecological heart. Orin Crowfall finds himself cast out from the island of Ironhold, where mechanical technology rules everything, and he is alone adrift in the middle of the ocean. There is a mechanical sea monster and a very unexpected creature which I hope will surprise you all and make you think deeply about humans’ relationship with nature…

Wow! Sounds like 2021 is going to be the much-needed exciting year, Vashti. We have loved welcoming you into our blog to talk about #TheGriffinGate. It has been fascinating!

Thank you for your awesome questions VIP crew. Keep up the wonderful work and wishing everyone a marvellous Christmas with lots of reading time!


Q & A hosted by
Rob McCann


The Creature Keeper

Damaris
Young

We live in a loud world, with so much going on around us, especially in 2020. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and out of control. I have two dogs, and when my thoughts begin to tangle, I spend time with them, walking in the woods.

Damaris Young

The Creature Keeper is the fantastic new novel from Damaris Young, author of the highly acclaimed The Switching Hour. The story follows Cora who becomes responsible for a menagerie of extraordinary creatures at the mysterious Direspire Hall when she becomes the new Creature Keeper. However, what looks like a dream role challenges her whole way of thinking as she realises that the animals kept in captivity at Direspire Hall are suffering and need to be released back into their natural habitats. With strong themes of conservation and its important message about the need to urgently address habitat loss The Creature Keeper will inspire a love of the natural world and all the wonderful creatures that live alongside us. It inspires us to realise that we are all the keepers of these extraordinary creatures and that it is up to all of us to help protect them. With its magnificent menagerie of magical beasts and important environmental message this is a thrilling adventure that is highly recommended.


Without giving too much away could you tell us a little bit about The Creature Keeper?

Creepy Direspire Hall sits glowering on the moors – and if you stray too close then beware the growls and scary sounds from within… When animal lover Cora learns that Direspire’s mysterious owner is looking for a new Creature Keeper, she realises this might just be the chance she’s looking for to save her parents’ farm. But Direspire Hall is a spooky place and the strange creatures who live there are nothing like Cora is expecting. As Cora settles into her new life, it soon becomes clear that Direspire has its secrets, and that somebody will do whatever it takes to keep them…

On page 21, Cora describes Tilly as being like a wolf without the good bits. If you were to describe yourself as an animal, what would it be and why?

Great question! I often imagine myself as different creatures depending on my mood. When I’m feeling cold and tired in winter, I’m a grouchy bear who needs to hibernate. If I’m feeling particularly sunny then I’m a meerkat, who likes nothing more than hanging out with their friends and soaking up the sunshine.

At the start of the story we begin to see Cora’s affinity with animals when she says, ‘I could think more clearly and untangle thoughts from each other in a way that I couldn’t with people.’

Do you have an affinity with animals and find solace in their company?

We live in a loud world, with so much going on around us, especially in 2020. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and out of control. I have two dogs, and when my thoughts begin to tangle, I spend time with them, walking in the woods. Sometimes, all it takes is hugging one of my dogs and my thoughts grow calmer.

I loved the fact that Cora has the ability to mimic the calls of the animals and creatures she encounters. Can you mimic any animal calls?

I used to be an avid bird watcher when I was younger. My parents bought me a pair of binoculars and a book about birds and I would go on rambles with my dad. I learnt the different calls of different species of birds, and I would mimic their calls by whistling. The trilling song of a house martin or the chatter of a magpie. The robin has the most amazing songs, with different tunes depending on the season or mood.

What characteristics do you think you need to be a good Creature Keeper?

Good creature keepers have bucketloads of empathy, never-ending patience and fierce determination! Cora shows immense courage in overcoming her fears when she leaves home to work and live amongst all the extraordinary creatures as the new Creature Keeper at Direspire Hall.

What things are you afraid of and can you give an example of how you have faced or overcome your fears?

I write about the things that scare me. My first book, The Switching Hour, was all about my fear of forgetting special memories as we grow older. The Creature Keeper centres around the fear of not fitting in and the frustration of not being understood. By writing about what scares me and allowing the characters to overcome those fears, it makes me feel brave enough to face them myself.

I have read that you were influenced by the key-stone species of our world. Could you tell us a little bit about the research that you did for your book and how you came up with the ideas for all of the extraordinary creatures and the habitats of Four Realms?

Research is a really important part of writing and it is one of my favourite things to do. I became a member of the World Wide Fund for Nature when I was ten, where I first learnt about keystone species. This sparked my interest in the natural world and wilderness preservation. For The Creature Keeper, I researched a species that has a huge impact on an ecosystem, like the elephant, and all the wonderful things it does to help other animals and plants thrive. Through researching real-world animals, I came up with lots of imaginary extraordinary creatures, like the seacat and the glass dragon! I loved the Pangolin and the fact that as a real creature it contrasted so brilliantly with the host of extraordinary creatures you created.

Which of the creatures at Direspire Hall is your favourite and why?

I love the pangolin too! I think Fern is my favourite, as she’s curious and mysterious and magical.

It’s clear that we all have a responsibility to help wildlife survive and thrive. What advice would you give to the future Creature Keepers of our world?

Cora is a fantastic creature keeper because she is curious about the world around her. She understands that the world isn’t just her home, but home to lots of other creatures too and she fights for their right to live free. Learning about all the amazing creatures that live in our world is the first step in becoming excellent creature keepers.

At the end of the book Mrs Cavendish begins to recognise the creatures are much more than specimens to be studied and agrees with Cora that the creatures should be returned to their natural habitats in the Four Realms. Do you think you will be writing a sequel to the Creature Keeper that follows their release back into the wild?

I would love to go on an adventure into the wilderness with Cora and the extraordinary creatures. Maybe one day!

What do you see as the biggest threat to our natural world?

Climate Change is a big one but also habitat loss through deforestation. Small things, like planting wildflowers in your garden or on a windowsill planter can make a difference to the bees and other insects.

Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?

I read Beyond the Deepwoods by Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart when I was younger and I immediately wanted to write stories like that, full of adventure and fantastic creatures.

Can you tell us: a book that you will always love, a book that you have enjoyed reading this year and a book that you would love to read?

I will always love Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge. I’m re-reading it for the hundredth time right now! I really enjoyed reading When Life Gives You Mangos by Kereen Getten this year, it’s a beautifully written story full of mystery and friendship. I’m looking forward to reading The Boy Who Met a Whale by Nizrana Farook which is out next year.

Finally, can you describe The Creature Keeper in three words?

Mysterious, magical and fun!

Thank you so much for taking the time to read and answer our questions.


Q & A hosted by
Kevin Cobane


Crater Lake

Jennifer
Killick

This year has been strange in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I was writing Crater Lake. I hate that people have missed out on so many lovely things, including their residentials, but I hope they have found some unexpected joys to compensate a little.

Jennifer Killick

In the midst of the world pandemic, Crater Lake by Jennifer Killick was published and gave many of us a welcome distraction. The story takes place at Crater Lake Activity Centre as a group of unsuspecting children uncover the centre’s shocking secret. This story has it all, and the reader does go through a range of emotions from fear-induced goosebumps to pure hysterics. Having read this book with my Year 6 class, I know that EVERY child loved this book, which seems to be the common theme across the country.


I’d like to thank Jennifer Killick for not only joining us in the NEW VIP Reading blog, but for the support shown to VIP Reading from the very beginning. Firstly, congratulations on the huge success that Crater Lake has had so far. Why do you think it has been so popular with schools?

Thank you very much! I’m so happy that Crater Lake is being enjoyed by lots of readers. I think there’s a bit of a gap in the market for scary stories for primary aged readers, at the moment. There are a few brilliant books out there, but if you compare the number of spooky stories available with the number of fantasies, for example, it’s so much lower. In my opinion, children now are different in many ways to children twenty, or even ten years ago. It’s a different world, and books are competing with epic movies, and computer games that look like movies. Many children want to experience the same instant rush of excitement and adrenalin in a book that they would get from playing a game, and why shouldn’t they? I think scary books can provide that.

For anyone that hasn’t read Crater Lake, what tantalising information would you give them to encourage them to read?

Crater Lake takes a familiar situation, and turns it into something full of fear, horror, and humour. Imagine being far away from home, with no help nearby, and being hunted by your teachers and classmates. What if the fate of the world rested on your shoulders? How would you cope? And then imagine being bone tired – more tired than you’ve ever been in your life – but not being able to rest. Because if you fall asleep at Crater Lake, you change into something awful. No matter what happens, you must stay awake.

What gave you the inspiration to write Crater Lake?

All of my stories are inspired by familiar everyday things, and Crater Lake started that way. I was watching my oldest son, Stanley, with his friends in Year 6. They were in the playground and about to go on their residential. They were such a tight group, having been friends since Reception, and all very different characters. I loved that it was such a turning point in their lives – so much history behind them, and huge changes looming ahead, and I wanted to write a story to capture that. I absolutely love hostile alien stories, and liked the idea of there being an activity centre that was the starting point for an alien invasion. I’d watched a documentary about parasitic wasps and the horrific things they do to the creatures they lay their eggs in, so I used that as a basis for my aliens. And I’d wanted to write a story for years where the characters were unable to fall asleep, no matter how tired they were, because something terrible would happen if they did. This seemed like the perfect set up for that. I absolutely love sleeping, and the idea of being too afraid to sleep really horrifies me. It’s always good to explore your own fears for story ideas.

This is your fifth book published for Firefly Press, what did it feel like when you were given the green light on Crater Lake?

I actually wrote Crater Lake well over a year before we submitted it to Firefly. I’d always had a feeling that it could be successful, but I’d been busy with Alex Sparrow and Mo and Lottie, so my agent suggested we hold it back for a while. It was also something a bit different to my previous books, so I was very nervous about it. I was absolutely over the moon when my editor at Firefly got in touch to say she loved it, and we were both always on the same page with it, which made edits and cover suggestions a really positive experience. Honestly, every time I get the green light for a story, it feels as exciting as the first time.

At times, this book feels apocalyptic which many people are drawn to. I suppose it brings out people’s true nature. What were your reasons for writing such a book?

I love books and movies set at the end of the world, or in post-apocalyptic landscapes. I love the idea of life being much simpler, in a way, with all the day-to-day things we stress over, like tests, or getting a hole in your favourite top, or being annoyed about someone pushing in front of you in a queue, becoming unimportant. All that matters is survival and protecting the people you love. Situations like that bring out the best and worst in people, and from a story point of view, that’s very exciting and interesting.

Crater Lake is quite a change from writing humorous books, how did you find the change?

I never really set out to write a particular kind of book. I get ideas for stories and develop them, and go along with whatever they grow to be. I knew Crater Lake was going to be darker than my previous stories, but I wanted to give it a try anyway. If it had turned out badly, I still would have learnt a lot – I like to think that my unpublished stories are as important as my published ones. Writing Crater Lake turned out to be really fun, and actually easier than most of my other books, so I guess it fit with me and my writing style in a way I wouldn’t necessarily have predicted.

The characters in the book are very relatable, were they based on any real people?

Yes, most of my characters are based on real people. I don’t take people I know and copy them, but I do use them as starting points and then develop and add and change them until they’re fully formed characters in my mind. The group of friends in Crater Lake are based on children that I have met over the years, and I’m very fond of them.

How do you feel knowing that in March, when Crater Lake was published, this was the only Y6 residential centre that had ‘visitors’ due to COVID 19?

Oh gosh, this year has been strange in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I was writing Crater Lake. I hate that people have missed out on so many lovely things, including their residentials, but I hope they have found some unexpected joys to compensate a little.

I’ve seen you’ve taken part in a whole range of virtual author visits. How have these been for you?

To me, author visits are as important as the writing. Going into schools and working with children is wonderful, exhausting and inspiring, and I know that spending lots of time with the people I’m writing for makes my writing better. I’ve had some really tough visits where I’ve felt unwelcome, and some where people have been horribly rude. When I’m alone in a strange city, a long, long way from home, I find being treated like that especially upsetting. Fortunately there aren’t too many like that, and some of my days spent in schools have been absolutely magical. Of course all my visits are virtual at the moment, which has been a huge change and taken some getting used to. Virtual sessions aren’t quite the same as being in a school, but they can still be brilliant. I’m really enjoying them.

My own class are eager to know more about Crater Lake 2, what can you tell us?

Thank you – I’m so pleased that they’re interested! Book two is called Crater Lake, Evolution and is set six months after the events at Crater Lake, in Lance’s hometown, Straybridge. Lance and the gang are all in Year 7, having spent a term at their secondary schools, and a lot has changed. The tight-knit group has fallen apart as people have been struggling to adapt to life after Crater Lake and all the changes that high school has brought. Lance really misses his old friends, but has made a great new friend called Karim. It’s almost Christmas and it should be a time of cosying up, eating nice food and watching movies, but something happens that rocks the town of Straybridge. As events escalate, Lance starts to worry that something evil made it out of the crater and all the way to Straybridge. It’s smarter, stronger and meaner than before, and if Lance is going to face it and defeat it, he needs to get the gang back together…

We should be revealing the cover very soon – I am so excited for everyone to see it because it is AMAZING. Anne Glenn who created the cover for book one has just hit it out of the park again.


Q & A hosted by
Rob McCann


Scavengers

Darren
Simpson

The fact is, I’d spent ten years trying to get published before that email hit my inbox. I’d written several novels before Scavengers – none of which quite made it – and I was so close to giving up. 

Darren Simpson

In March 2019, Darren Simpson’s book Scavengers arrived on the scene. It’s an intriguing story that combines a love of adventure, mystery and science fiction. Set in what feels like a dystopian world, a young boy, called Landfill, must live his life in accordance with a set of rules designed to supposedly protect him. He soon realises that there are life-changing consequences to breaking these rules. This book was very well received in the reading community and praised across the board. When I shared this book with my Year 6 Class in December 2019, we couldn’t put it down!


I’d like to welcome Darren Simpson today into our NEW VIP Reading blog. It’s a pleasure to have you with us, Darren.

The pleasure’s all mine!

For those people who haven’t read Scavengers yet, how would you best describe the book?

I often describe Scavengers as a junkyard Jungle Book. It’s a grubby, gritty adventure novel that raises many questions, with the relationship between a feral boy and his cantankerous guardian – who are hiding out in an industrial wasteland overrun by nature – at its heart.

When you were first told that Scavengers would be published by Usborne, how did you feel?

Words can’t describe the moment I read the email from my agent saying Usborne wanted to buy Scavengers. I was honestly shaking with adrenaline for hours, and don’t mind admitting that I wept a little too. I was ecstatic, of course, but the main thing that had me shaking was relief. The fact is, I’d spent ten years trying to get published before that email hit my inbox. I’d written several novels before Scavengers – none of which quite made it – and I was so close to giving up. I still remember telling my wife that Scavengers would be my last shot at getting published. So with that one little email from my agent, all the hard work – all those years of graft and all the faith my loved ones had shown me… It finally paid off. 

I heard that your inspiration for Scavengers came from a visit to a rubbish tip. Can you elaborate?

It’s true. While dropping garden waste off at our local recycling centre, I saw some cats fighting over a bit of sandwich a worker had just tossed away. It got me thinking about animals that build habitats in the places we leave our waste, and I was hit by a mental image of a man living with these creatures in a cave of rubbish. That man became a central character, Babagoo. 

I started researching people who live in rubbish in real life, and learned about the huge communities of scavengers that live on landfill sites in many developing countries. The children there really moved and inspired me; not just because of their plight, but also because of their dignity. I knew then that Babagoo would be raising a boy in his landscape of trash, and the story just evolved from there.

In the book, we feel the great sense of isolation and desperation from the characters Landfill and Babagoo. What inspired you when creating these characters?

Landfill and Babagoo are indeed very isolated, to the point that they have their own dialect. But while Babagoo is serious and desperate, I hope Landfill’s troubles are balanced by something more irrepressible, childlike and pure. Sure, he has strict rules to follow and Outsiders to fear; but at the same time, he also loves cuddling up to Hinterland’s dogs, chasing its squirrels and splashing in its gully. And this all came from those children living on real-life landfill sites. I was so moved by photos of kids as young as five not only digging through rubbish to survive, but also playing games with the balls they found, helping each other, hanging out and laughing together – all the while surrounded by filth and junk. This said so much to me about childhood and humanity, and I tried to pour that into Landfill’s character. 

Babagoo came to me fully formed. I had a clear image in my head of this filthy, bristly, bearded man in a plaid coat and trapper hat, and I always knew he’d be cranky, coarse and perhaps a little damaged. But he also developed a very complex, affectionate streak when Landfill came along. There’s a bit of Oliver Twist’s Fagin to him, I guess – along with some Jethro Tull, believe it or not. I really loved the idea of Babagoo being cultured, wry and puckish beneath all that grimness and grime.

As a father, did having children impact you during the planning stage and writing process for Scavengers?

Massively. My sons are both scamps, and they inspire me every day with their budding perspectives, which are less jaded than mine and often far wiser. Plus it’s fascinating to watch them follow their curiosity and develop their own views on the world. 

This all fed into Landfill, of course. But in a wider sense, the relationship between Babagoo and Landfill is an exaggeration of my relationship with my sons – a way to probe the complexities of parenting, particularly in terms of protecting versus smothering.

Landfill and Babagoo live according to a set of rules. I’d love to know whether you feel any of these rules are applicable today?

While many of Hinterland’s rules keep Landfill safe, they also nurture fear and stifle curiosity:

Babagoo’s always right. Respect your fear. Never rise above the wall. Believe only Babagoo. 

I think these sorts of rules are incredibly applicable today – not in the sense that they should be followed, but in the sense that they should be questioned, and sometimes even ignored. Scavengers is largely a book about challenging the fear, hate and blame stirred up by others, and this is as crucial now as ever.

One of the best features of this book is the mysteries. As a reader, and with my class, we were constantly trying to predict what would happen next. Do you enjoy keeping secrets from the reader and was this your intention?

Questions are excellent engines for narratives. If readers can be made to care about the answers, they’ll keep on reading. In Scavengers, I tried not only to make readers as curious as Landfill about the questions the story raises, but also to keep them on their toes with the occasional twist. It’s certainly a lot of fun to toy with readers’ theories and assumptions, but also very difficult. Clues and red herrings need to be positioned in just the right places, and there’s a tricky balancing act involved; you need to provide a resolution that’s not too easy to see coming, but which also comes together in a satisfying way.

I’ve seen many schools – including my own – reaching out to you to request author visits, and then saying they had a wonderful experience. Have you been surprised by the great reaction to Scavengers?

The reaction to Scavengers has blown my mind. I’m so pleased that it’s resonated with so many readers of all ages. It’s received several accolades that make me feel incredibly privileged, such as being a Guardian Best Book of 2019, or being selected for 2019’s Summer Reading Challenge. It’s also now been shortlisted for the 2020 Northern Ireland Book Award.

I cherish every ounce of kudos, along with the recognition that comes from more unexpected angles. Seeing the Literacy Trust use Scavengers to nurture reading in less privileged schools, for example. Or UNESCO recommending Scavengers as a book that brings the UN’s sustainable development goals to life, and then discovering that a sustainability forum all the way in India has used Scavengers to launch a reading initiative. And what really lifts my heart, of course, is hearing from children about how much they loved the book. That stuff is priceless.

Have I been surprised by all this? I suppose I have, possibly because of my insecurities as a writer (not at all uncommon in authors), and more probably because – when you finally get published – there’s only so much more you dare to wish for.

Since its publication, how has life changed for you?

I don’t have a mansion with a guitar-shaped swimming pool. Nothing like that. But my life has changed in more profound ways. On the practical side of things, I’ve been able to reduce my day job hours, which gives me more time to be an author. The writing momentum this allows me is precious, as I’m a slow writer at times.

On the emotional side, there’s a giddiness now that bubbles constantly at the back of my mind. I mentioned before how close I was to giving up on writing, and to now be in a position where I’m writing for an audience is incredible. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel blessed. And as well as feeling blessed, I feel incredibly driven. Writing for children happened somewhat by accident (Scavengers was originally intended for adults), but I’m so glad things went that way, as getting children into reading has become a cause I’m genuinely passionate about, and I love being part of the children’s fiction community.

It’s recently been reprinted by Oxford University Press. How is this version different?

The OUP edition is another of those wonderful things that took me by complete surprise. This summer, Scavengers was added to OUP’s Rollercoasters range: a selection of books aimed at the classroom to keep pupils reading. OUP’s edition of Scavengers has the same story as the original edition but – as well as having a beautiful new cover – features additional classroom materials at the back, including student-friendly notes, special insights, and an exclusive interview with the novel’s baffled but hugely grateful author. On top of that, this edition has a free, downloadable resource pack of teaching and learning materials. It’s honestly such an honour, especially as other Rollercoasters authors include the likes of Anthony McGowan, Geraldine McCaughrean and Malorie Blackman. Unbelievable.


Finally, we are all eager to know when your next book will be out. Without getting into too much trouble, what can you tell us about your next book?

Many people ask whether there’ll be a Scavengers sequel, but I’m afraid there won’t. Scavengers ends very intentionally as it does – though I hope the story might continue a little in readers’ minds. 

I’ll say as much as I’m allowed about my next book, though I’m afraid that isn’t much! It’s quite a different novel to Scavengers, in some ways, but also similar in its use of a striking, unusual setting to explore its themes. It’s also on the darker side of middle grade fiction, while still offering plenty of adventure, humour and hope. 

Here’s something my wonderful editor, Stephanie King, shared on Twitter about it:

“I just finished the final draft of Darren Simpson’s second book, coming out next year. Honestly, it is unlike anything I have ever read. Original, magical, mesmerising and chilling, prepare to be wow-ed.”

So yes, all being well, it’ll be out next summer!


Q & A hosted by
Rob McCann