Shinoy discovers that he has the power to bring his TV heroes into the real world. They must unite to fight an evil artificial intelligence lurking nearby. Inspired by gaming and fantasy, this is a sure-fire hit with reluctant readers and perfect for ages 7 – 9. Brilliantly written and superbly illustrated, it’s a must have for school libraries! It truly is a SUPER series!
I’d like to thank the talented Amit Tayal for joining us today in the VIP Reading blog. Firstly, congratulations on the brilliant Shinoy and the Chaos Crew series, which you helped to bring to life through your fabulous illustrations.
When did you first start illustrating and have you always loved to draw?
When I was a kid, I used to love watching He-man & Spiderman animation series on TV and soon the passion followed so that I started to draw these characters myself. I also used to love collecting those stickers representing cartoon characters and started copying them and drawing them too. Even my school books were always filled with such drawings. I even remember using my superhero scribbles to get the special lunch treat or even get my homework done. That was the start of my passion towards drawing. Later on, when I got exposure of Indian comics, this passion grew further. One wouldn’t guess I’d taken up Chartered Accountancy as career and hung on to it too for a while but this crave of mine never let me do anything else for a long time. I always looked up for something related to animation and cartoons in newspapers. I still have no clue how I would start my library sessions from Account section and end up ﬁnding myself submerged in Art books. I knew I wanted to become an artist but didn’t know the know-hows. The iron age of Internet and lack of art school in India kept me away from taking this thing any serious. But the passion persisted and I got an opportunity to get enrolled in an animation institute which opened the door wide enough to turn this into reality.
Of all the titles in the series, what was your favourite book to illustrate?
In terms of books, Creepy Castle is full of suspense, exciting and it has equally funny climax. I totally loved drawing it.
What did you enjoy most about illustrating the series and what were the challenges?
I loved every bit of it. The storylines are humorous and full of adventure. There was this one book where I had to draw doppelgänger of the chaos crew. That was a little tricky to work on. It was challenging to keep the characters close enough look but easy to identify
On average, how long would it take you to illustrate each book?
Depending upon no. Of pages one book of this series took me almost 2-3 weeks to finish.
Where does your inspiration for this comic-book-style of illustration come from?
I grew up reading Marvel, DC and indie comic books and watching Disney cartoons and I love almost all kind of comic book illustration styles. So seems like my illustration style is a mix of Disney animation and Marvel/DC comic books.
Which illustrator do you find most inspiring to you?
I started my career when internet was in its earliest stage so finding stuff to learn from was scarce but I learned a lot from Andrew Loomis books.
What advice would you give to any children wanting to become an illustrator?
Just take inspiration from the kind of work that you like and keep practicing. Take full advantage of internet era, use Google, Youtube for tutorials. There is more material than you can grasp…mostly free. I liked Nick Harris’s work and when I contacted him he was nice enough to share his brushes and painting techniques. Don’t be afraid to work for less money and even collaborations. A lot of people out there are looking for newbies. Think of this time as your practice time. Starting somewhere is more important than starting big.
Shinoy discovers that he has the power to bring his TV heroes into the real world. They must unite to fight an evil artificial intelligence lurking nearby. Inspired by gaming and fantasy, this is a sure-fire hit with reluctant readers and perfect for ages 7 – 9. Brilliantly written and superbly illustrated, it’s a must have for school libraries! It truly is a SUPER series!
I’d like to thank the wonderful Chris Callaghan, who has supported VIP Reading since it beginnings in 2018, for joining us today in the VIP Reading blog.
First, congratulations to you and the Chaos Crew team for producing a wonderful series, which I have thoroughly enjoyed reading. Can you describe the series for anyone interested?
Awww, thank you, that is so good to hear!
This action and adventure series is about a young boy called Shinoy whose favourite TV programme is called The Chaos Crew. He has a Chaos Crew app on his phone, which would normally allow him to play games or watch clips of the show, but it has a glitch! This glitch means that whenever he presses the app, members of the Chaos Crew are transported directly to him at home or at school or wherever. The glitch creates a link between the TV world and the real world, and lots of crazy things start to happen – usually caused by S.N.A.I.R., the Chaos Crew’s evil nemesis! Shinoy’s family and best friend (and dog, Milo) are often brought into the unexpected adventures and chaos follows.
The series touches on themes of fantasy and gaming, but where did the inspiration behind the series come from?
I imagined myself a young lad again, but in the present day, and wondered what kind of things would interest me. I used to love TV programmes like ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ and ‘The Professionals’, so I made up my own modern TV series – The Chaos Crew. I thought how cool it would be to bring your heroes into your own house and go off on adventures with them. The stories had to be contemporary and revolve around the things that kids do today.
Can you name a few of your favourite titles from the series and why they mean so much to you?
Oh, this is so difficult! The very first Shinoy story I wrote was ‘The Day the Rain Fell Up’, so that will always be special. It also became a kind of benchmark and was often used as an example of the sort of wacky and surreal sense that we wanted in the rest of the stories. Similarly, the very last story I wrote (from the reading books) was ‘The Day of the Risky Rescue’ and that was a pleasure to write. Even though the books can be read in any order, this had a Season Finale feel to me. Shinoy gets to go into the Chaos Crew’s world with his dad and come to their rescue for a change, which was great fun.
But of the graphic novels, ‘Mission: Mega Meteorite’ appeals to my sense of humour with an unexpected event in the Science Museum. Also, as I’ve always had in interest in the Moon, it was great to write “Mission: Lunar Lander’ where Shinoy and his family accidentally arrive on the Moon in their car. As you do!
Shinoy finds that he has the power to summon his TV heroes into the real world. Where did the inspiration for him and his ‘super’ friends come from?
The name Shinoy came about after looking for days and days through lists and lists of names. I wanted something distinctive and short (as I’m lazy and knew I would have to type it out a gazillion times!) and I came across this Hindu name that meant ‘peacemaker’. This seemed an appropriate name for the main character in a series of adventures between good and evil. It’s also a great word to say out loud. Try it, it’s very pleasing!
I’ve always loved superhero comics and I think we have recently seen a golden age of superhero films. I wanted my own batch of heroes, but to make them different. They don’t have superpowers but have their own special abilities. They fight the powers of chaos using their experience, science and cunning. And there’s a talking dog too!
With such a large series, many people have been involved. What was it like collaborating with other talented folk?
A real joy of this process has been working with so many incredibly talented people. I got on immediately with my Editor, Zoë Clarke (who also wrote seven of the books). We have the same sense of humour and were always on the same wavelength – we often emailed each other, at the same time with similar ideas – weird! But the whole team at Collins Big Cat were hugely supportive and everyone just wanted to make these books as good as we could.
It has been especially wonderful seeing all the artwork from our amazing illustrator, Amit Tayal. His art is such a massive part of these books and really make them stand out. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve said, “Wow!” whenever I see his stuff. It’s been an honour to work with such a friendly and professional bunch of people and I have learned a LOT.
Aimed at reluctant readers, this series is keen to engage them in things that may be of interest. Where did you start when planning for this audience?
I was a reluctant reader when I was young, although that term wasn’t around then. Like most writers, I write what I would like to read. So, I’ve always made stories that get straight into the action. I think a lot of reluctant readers have huge imaginations and want to get into the story quickly and they see reading as a slow way of doing that. My debut novel, The Great Chocoplot, has often been mentioned in getting reluctant readers reading. Therefore, planning for reluctant readers didn’t really happen, it’s just the way I naturally write. I believe this was one of the reasons I was asked to create a new Big Cat series. I hope it works!!
What was it like writing a book-banded series for Collins Primary?
Thankfully, the good people at Collins just wanted me to concentrate of writing fun stories. Even though these are technically ‘educational’ books, the emphasis has always been on engaging young readers. The lower banded books are only 600 words long, which are staggeringly hard to fit a complete story into! But as the bands increased, so did the wordcount and we were able to put more descriptions and complex ideas into the stories.
The team at Big Cat are so experienced at producing fabulous books that they guided me along without it ever feeling like it was a chore.
Writing such a large series of books, I can imagine there must have been challenges as well as some exciting positives. What were they?
Oh yes. So much time and effort has gone into making each story completely different from the others. In a large series this has been so much hard work but such a great challenge. Whenever some similarities did creep in, Zoë (my eagle-eyed editor) would spot them, and we’d think of something else.
Also, because of the global market hopefully awaiting Shinoy’s adventures, we had to be considerate of so many customs and superstitions. For example, when writing the stories, I often wanted someone to give a simple ‘thumbs-up’ sign, but in some places of the world this means something very different, so we couldn’t do it. And because of some belief systems we couldn’t mention sausages, which I usually forgot about. I’ve surprised myself how often I want to write about sausages!
What do you hope children will get from reading the Shinoy and the Chaos crew series?
Most of all, I’d want them to have FUN! But I would love it if children, who don’t normally pick up a book or who don’t enjoy reading, would feel a sense of achievement by finishing a story and realise that reading can be a pleasure. Hopefully, they might pick up another Shinoy story to read. Then another and another. Then maybe find other books to read. That would be amazing!
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?
Ha! I’d love to return to Shinoy’s world at some point. There were lots of ideas that we couldn’t fit into the series, and they have been so much fun to work on. But it’s been lovely returning to a story I was writing before the Shinoy adventures took over my life. It’s about a young boy who discovers his teacher has a secret. It’s a good secret and it’s a BIG secret! But then I also have a story in my head about a girl who has a particularly crazy thing happen to her … sorry, I’ve said too much. Us writers like to keep our ideas to ourselves! I have so many bonkers things whizzing around in my head that I’m trying to type out. We’ll see what happens!
Our first box: A stunning Steven-Lenton-themed #VIPbookbox featuring his author-debut book, Genie and Teeny. This box has been lovingly designed by a team of educators, experienced in the teaching of reading. Whether this is a box to be used at home or school, rest assured that your child will enjoy this lovely book about friendship and magic.
A truly gripping and awe-inspiring series of books. Professor Garrod takes us on a journey of evolution and extinction, dating back hundreds of millions of years. From rapid mass extinctions via devastating volcanoes to extinctions lasting millions of years. Meet incredible creatures such as Hallucigenia and the formidable Dunkleosteus along the way. An awesome way in which to learn tons and have a great time doing it.
I’d like to thank Ben Garrod for joining us in the VIP Reading blog to talk about his latest book series, Extinct.
You write about various things happening millions of years ago, such as carbon dioxide levels dropping massively. How is it possible to know these things when they happened so long ago?
We know this, and much more, because science, and scientists, are awesome, basically. We have so many incredible techniques which we can use to unlock secrets from unbelievable fossil discoveries. We can do things, which vary from looking at rates of breakdown in radioactive elements in prehistoric bones which help us detect what the atmosphere was like, to analysing the internal structures of rocks to look for the unique types of crystals created by an asteroid impact. The exciting thing is that we are developing new techniques and finding new fossils every day, so our understanding is always growing.
How sure can scientists be that the different fossil fragments they are piecing together actually go together?
Ha ha, they’re not always sure, and in many ways, that’s part of the scientific process. When we think of extinct animals, it’s all too easy to think about huge dinosaur skeletons in museums, completely intact and cleaned up. The reality however, is very different. Most fossil discoveries, even from big species which lived just 70 million years ago, such as the ever-so-famous T. rex, are often pieces and fragments. Imagine how much more difficult this is with a small fossilised species. A small species which lived hundreds of millions of years ago will be even harder to piece together. Plus if that small species lived hundreds of millions of years ago, and was soft-bodied and had no skeleton, then it’s almost impossible to be certain about what it looked like and how it behaved. It was decades after its discovery that we finally understood what Hallucigenia, the small worm-like animal from nearly half a billion years ago looked like.
What is the most fascinating fossil you are aware of and why?
That’s such a tough question to answer. There are so many fantastic fossils which tell us so much. There’s a very famous fossil for example called the ‘Fighting Dinosaurs’, which shows a Velociraptor and Protoceratops which both died while fighting. For me, it’s the fossils that aren’t famous that fascinate me the most. In my local museum in Bristol, there’s a Scelidosaurus fossil. This armoured herbivore, lived during the Jurassic period, and is so well-preserved, you can still see the food in its throat 190 million years after it died.
If you could take a walk during any period from prehistoric history, when would it be and why?
These questions are all so difficult to answer! I’d love to go back to see what it was like at many points in prehistory. I’d like two stops in my time-travel adventure, if that’s okay. First, I’d stop around 101 million years ago and head to Argentina to see the mighty long-necked, long-tailed herbivore Patagotitan which, at somewhere between 55-75 tonnes, may have been the largest land animal ever. My other stop would be in East Africa, around three million years ago. I’m fascinated by our early human ancestors and would love to see what we were like then. We were at a pivotal moment, where climate change had completely altered habitats, turning endless forest into much drier grasslands. With that came massive changes to our anatomy and behaviour, all leading us to where we are today.
With all we know of the evolutionary history of the world, what are your predictions for the evolutionary future?
That’s a dangerous game to play ha ha … Evolution is unpredictable and wild and just because you can look back to see what has happened in the past, does not mean you can predict what’s coming next. If we were suddenly zapped back in time to when the dinosaurs roamed the planet, there is no way anyone would ever have been able to say that one day, in the blink of an eye in geological terms, some weird, hairy, little ape would move down from the trees, lose its hair, learn how to make and use tools and would come to dominate the planet as we do. Predicting evolution and expecting it to happen that way is a game for suckers. The beauty of evolution is that you never know what’s coming next.
The world has experienced several mass extinctions in its history. Do you predict another one any time soon (relatively speaking)?
Just look around you. At least one million species are endangered right now …
Who would win, Dunkleosteus or Megalodon?
Ah, that’s easy.
If you were able to bring back one extinct creature, what would it be and why?
I never use the word ‘creature’ as it implies it was created and for that, you need a creator. Instead, species evolve as a result of a never-ending supply of random mutations, the effects of their surroundings and their interactions with other species. It may sound controversial, but I wouldn’t bring any extinct species back. That’s the easy option. Instead, every species we’ve lost should serve as a reminder to us that extinction is forever, and now, more than ever, our actions have consequences.
If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give them?
Be weird, be geeky, be different, and definitely don’t follow in my footsteps! Instead, make your own footprints and have fun on your own journey. I’ll give you the advice my mum gave me when I was much younger. Find a career where you wake up each day and look forward to the day ahead, because you love what you do so much. I love what I do, but I’ve tried lots of things along the way. I’ve tried different jobs, have lived in different parts of the world and have changed more than a few times now. You only have one life, so take the time you need to make sure you spend that life doing what you love. Also, don’t be too mature all the time. Remember to be silly!
What’s next? More books in the Extinct series? A new series? Or something completely different?
There are eight books in my Extinct series, which will be coming out over the next 12 months. Each book tells the amazing story of a mass extinction and one of the animals lost each time, from the largest shark to the most successful animals that have ever lived. As well as these books, I’m always at work on more ideas and have some exciting TV and radio projects in development. I’d love to tell you all about them, but they’re secret and you’ll just have to wait and see what they are …
Can you describe the Extinct series in three words?
This is a rip-roaring historical adventure full of action and intrigue. A brilliant children’s book debut from Annelise Gray and the first in an exciting new series. Dido dreams of becoming the first female charioteer to race in the Circus, the greatest sporting stadium in the ancient world, but only the best can compete in this deadly race. This fabulous, fast-paced and gripping book is a sure-fire hit.
I’d like to thank Annelise Gray for joining us in the VIP Reading blog to talk about her latest book, Circus Maximus: Race to the Death.
Firstly, congratulations on Circus Maximus: Race to the Death, which we anticipate to be very popular. Can you tell us a little bit about the story without giving too much away?
Firstly, thank you so much for the lovely welcome.
Circus Maximus: Race to the Death is the story of a 12 year old girl called Dido who dreams of becoming a charioteer at the Circus Maximus, the greatest sporting stadium in the ancient world. But being a girl, she’s not allowed to compete. Her only consolation lies in helping her father Antonius, who’s the head trainer of the Green faction, one of the top racing teams. She has also befriended a tempestuous black stallion called Porcellus who no one at the stables can manage except for her. One tragic night, Dido’s world turns upside down when she sees something she’s not supposed to see at the Green stable, putting her life in danger. She is forced to go on the run, leaving behind everything she loves, in order to escape the men who would silence her. But she doesn’t give up on her dream, and the book follows her quest to become a charioteer, against the odds, while staying one step ahead of the men trying to hunt her down.
Are you able to tell us where the inspiration for the story come from?
There were two main sources of inspiration. The first came from the horse and pony adventures stories I loved when I was a kid. I was obsessed with one in particular, Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet, which is about a girl called Velvet Brown who wins a horse in a raffle and dreams of riding him to victory at the Grand National. I grew up to be a huge armchair fan of sport in general and it was while watching a Formula One race on TV one day that the second spark for the story was kindled. I was wondering rather wistfully whether one day there might be a female equivalent of Lewis Hamilton for me to cheer on, when suddenly my main character, Dido, popped into my head. I started imagining a brave, scrappy girl, a bit like Velvet Brown but living in ancient Rome and hoping to race to break into the all-male world of chariot racing. That’s how the book was born.
There is a wealth of historical detail within the book which adds a real authenticity to the story. How long did the research process take and the story as a whole?
I did quite a bit of research before I actually started writing. Although I have a doctorate in Classics, I knew next to nothing about the sport of chariot-racing, and I spent a quite a few months in London libraries building up a bank of research notes to draw upon so that I could paint as accurate a picture of possible of what went on at the Circus Maximus. After that, I tried to write through the first draft without stopping too much to check on things. Then I did another research stint during the editing process to help me paint in more of the sorts of period detail that would make you feel like you were part of Dido’s world – the everyday sights, smells, sounds and tastes of ancient Rome.
As to how long the book took to write, the answer to that could be anything between five years and about eighteen months, depending on your perspective! I have a file on my computer from 2015 which contains the first draft of the first couple of chapters of the book. But after that I took on a senior management role at the school where I teach and little writing got done for the next couple of years. Dido kept calling to me though and in the end I decided I needed to ditch the senior management job and finish the thing I cared about the most.
Both your previous books had a Roman theme, though they were for the adult audience. Where does your fascination with this period in history originate from?
I knew next to nothing about the Romans (other than their myths) until I was thirteen. Then I was given the chance to study Latin at school. Our textbook was all about a family living in Pompeii in the months leading up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. I remember so vividly being on tenterhooks in the last chapter, waiting to find out which of the characters would make it out alive. I think that experience was instrumental in making me see that the study of the Romans was actually the study of real people who once lived and breathed and felt things just as you or I might. I was also lucky to have been inspired by some brilliant teachers, both at school and later at university.
Can you tell us more about your inspiration for the character of Dido, the protagonist who has been dealt more than her fair share of tragedies?
I have always loved books about brave, rebellious girls. Dido’s closest literary cousin is probably Velvet Brown but her characterisation has also inevitably been influenced by the female characters from the books and films that made a big impression on me as a child (and indeed as a grown-up). These include Anne Shirley from the Anne of Green Gables series, Jo March from Little Women and Lyra Silvertongue from His Dark Materials.
The descriptions within the story are incredibly vivid and atmospheric. What roles or experiences have you had prior to writing Circus Maximus, that helped to shape the book?
I wish I could say that I’d drawn on my experience of racing chariots, but to be honest, I’m extremely risk averse and moving at speed intimidates me. However I get incredibly invested in the drama and high stakes of watching sport on TV – which I think helped with a lot of the action scenes in the book. I’m also intensely competitive in my own way, and I’ve always got a huge kick out of books or films that celebrate the underdog, which is the role Dido is forced into. The other experience that helped me was the years I spent riding horses when I was young. I’ve barely sat on one since, but I’m still endlessly fascinated by them. I’d love to have Dido’s skill as a horse whisperer.
As your debut in children’s fiction, how did this feel and compare to writing for adults?
It’s been a joyful experience. To be honest, in some ways it feels like I’ve shed a skin. I’m very proud of the two books I wrote for adults (one non-fiction and one fiction) but I always felt quite uncomfortable in the guise of grown-up Classical ‘expert’. As soon as I started writing Circus Maximus: Race to the Death, I knew that I had found my authentic voice as an author. I still love the historical research but it just feels now as though I’m writing simply and truly from the heart, trying to craft the kind of story that I might have loved as a child.
The issue of gender stereotypes and equality are themes featured in the story, as Dido has to constantly fight to have the same opportunities as the boys around her. How important was this theme to you and do you think it was possible there could have been a real Dido?
It’s a very important issue to me. The senior management role I spoke of earlier (the one that almost stopped me writing the book) was essentially being a kind of gender equality czar at the school where I work. I feel passionately that gender stereotypes are harmful and limiting for children and nothing gives me a bigger kick than to see them being confounded. It’s something I try to underline whenever I get the opportunity.
Could there have been a real Dido? Historical sources would tell you no and I don’t have any grounds to contradict them. But who knows….history is full of women who have found ways to live their lives against societal expectation, leaving their peers none the wiser.
Many people, myself included, will be wanting to know more about the next instalment. What can you tell us about Circus Maximus 2, which is coming out in 2022?
I have just handed in the first draft to my editor so I probably can’t say very much. All I can reveal is that many of the characters from book 1 return, and some new ones are introduced. I planted a little seed in book 1 that gives you a big clue as to the plot and theme of book 2 – you’ll have to see if you can spot it.
Finally, can you describe Circus Maximus: Race to the Death in three words?
(Can I borrow some indefinite articles?)
A girl. A horse. A dream…
Thank you so much for taking the time to read and answer our questions.
My pleasure! Thank you so much for asking me.
Q & A hosted by Rob McCann (Review by Kevin Cobane)
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.
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?
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.
Please find below a collection of free resources we put together to support children’s love of reading. A note for educators: PDF Quizzes can be shared online with your students on Class Dojo, SeeSaw and Google Classroom. Children can type their answers or annotate. Perfect for class stories!
Free VIP Summer Loyalty Cards
These fantastic loyalty cards have 5 different designs and can be printed double sided. Children could receive a stamp for each book read. Also, these fit the standard-size teacher stamps!
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!