The Cooking Club Detectives


The pandemic has had a huge impact on food insecurity, and Magic Breakfast predicts that 2.3 million children are now affected. So through The Cooking Club Detectives, as well as writing a mystery (my favourite type of story), I wanted to show how important community is to us all. I also want to make sure my readers know that they should always ask for help if they need it.

Ewa Jozefkowicz

The Cooking Club Detectives is a heart-warming story, which is jam-packed with tasty recipes along the way. It brilliantly covers a range of themes, including: food poverty, community spirit and the importance of family and friends. When Erin must move with her mum to a new area, life becomes challenging due to financial worries and even some online bullying. However, Erin’s unwavering passion for food, inspired by her mother, allows her to make new friends at a local community centre’s cooking club. This new-found friendship comes in handy, when the club is mysteriously threatened with closure. Can the friends solve the mystery and save the centre from closure? A highly gripping read and great conversation starter with children.

I’d like to thank Ewa Jozefkowicz for joining us in the VIP Reading blog to talk about her latest book series, The Cooking Club Detectives.

Firstly, a huge well done for The Cooking Club Detectives, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little bit about the story?

Thank you so much. Yes, of course. The story centres on four friends who come together through their mutual love of food and join a cooking club held at their local community centre, Skipton. When the building is suddenly threatened with closure, Erin, Tanya, Frixos, and Sam, form The Cooking Club Detectives. Their goal is to find out who is behind it all, and their search for the culprit unravels some unexpected findings.

Where did the inspiration for the book come from?

The story is inspired by the work of Magic Breakfast, a wonderful charity which I first came across when I was a governor at a school in North London. It provides healthy breakfasts for children at risk of hunger across the UK. In our school, the teachers spoke of the huge difference that the breakfasts made to the children. They were able to concentrate much better in class, they were more eager to share their ideas in lessons, and they had far more energy.

But another wonderful element of these breakfasts was the fact that they provided an opportunity for socialising across year groups. Our school’s breakfasts were sometimes themed, with a focus on music, creative writing or a whole range of other activities. I could see that it was where many new friendships were formed.

Obviously, food is heavily mentioned in the book and the recipes are such a unique addition. Would you describe yourself as a good cook?

Haha, a great question! I would say I’m a better baker than I am a cook. But I’ve mastered a few dishes. Spaghetti Bolognese and paella are my go-to meals if I’m cooking for guests. I also think some of the simplest dishes can be the tastiest. You can’t beat a really great pancake. That’s why I’ve included my favourite pancake recipe in the story.

Despite their precarious financial situation, we see Erin and her mother trying to make the most of what they have. What was the reason behind the choice of the food poverty theme?

Its such an important issue which has sadly become even more topical in recent times. The pandemic has had a huge impact on food insecurity, and Magic Breakfast predicts that 2.3 million children are now affected. So through The Cooking Club Detectives, as well as writing a mystery (my favourite type of story), I wanted to show how important community is to us all. I also want to make sure my readers know that they should always ask for help if they need it.

We see a big divide in wealth between Erin and her peers? Was this intentional and why did you wish to have this dynamic?

Yes, I wanted to show people from different walks of life brought together through a mutual passion. I was also aiming to highlight how amazing friendships are when they’re with people who are different to us – those differences might be to do with wealth, culture or anything else. We have so much to learn from each other, and can support one another to do great things. 

I was surprised at reading your book how it evoked such strong family memories and one in particular being a young child and being at my grandma’s house (Grandma Peggy) and enjoying her homemade fruit cake, which I used to call ‘burn cake’ due to the spice. Though we never found the recipe, it though it is something I still reminisce about to this day. What recipe is most special to you and what feelings does it evoke?

It’s incredible how food can evoke such vivid memories. My favourite recipe also comes from my grandma. She made traditional Polish pierogi with so many different fillings. Her kitchen always had this amazing smell, and I remember helping her roll out the dough and using an upturned tumbler to cut the shape for each dumpling.  

The relationship is so strong between Erin and her mother, Lara. The diary entries are particularly emotive and we see just how much Erin means to her mother, even prior to her birth. Were these characters based on anyone in particular?  

They were largely based on my mum and grandma and what I imagined their life to be like when my mum was a teenager. My grandma was a single mum and life wasn’t always easy, but they had a very close bond which I’ve always admired. 

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

Yes, I’m working on a new story which is a bit different. It’s influenced by a famous Polish legend. It’s still early days but I’m really enjoying the writing process. 

Can you describe the The Cooking Club Detectives in three words?

Food, friendship, mystery

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

Thank you so much for having me!

Q & A hosted by
Rob McCann

Stupendous Sports: Rampaging Rugby

Robin Bennett

Rampaging Rugby is the first book in an exciting new series called Stupendous Sports, which aims to not only inspire a love of sports but to teach children everything they could possibly need to know about it. This series combines cartoons, player tips, explanations, fascinating facts and funny stories. It has been cleverly written, with care and attention to detail. Upon completing the book, it dawned on me that there was even a fantastic flip book animation in the corner – amazing! There’s also an incredible fact file at the back and helpful glossary. The highlight of the book has to be the player tips, which in this case were written by Conrad Smith a former All Black and two-time Rugby World Cup winner. Regardless of whether rugby is ‘your’ sport, Rampaging Rugby is a humorous, fascinating and an enjoyable read!

Firstly, a huge well done for Rampaging Rugby, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little bit about the book?

When I finally fell in love with reading, late – aged about 11, I discovered very few books I enjoyed about my first great love, sport. So, for years, I wanted to write a fun, funny and not partisan series about sport – the spirit of the games, more than anything.

Where did the inspiration for the book come from?

Part Horrible Histories, part Beano!

I particularly enjoyed reading the pro tips, which are written by Conrad Smith a former All Black and two-time Rugby World Cup winner. These tips really add another layer and give an authentic experience when reading about rugby. What attracted you to working with Conrad and how did it come about?

I spend some of the year in the Pyrenées. The region is rugby mecca in France with a lot of ex internationals playing at club level. Conrad is a friend and we shared the same vision for the book from the off.

I’ve grown up in a household who adore Rugby League, in particular the Wakefield Wildcats. Do you think this book has a greater appeal to non-rugby fans? Do you think it could even persuade some folks to play?

Yes, I certainly hope so. I think there is enough detail to keep fans on their toes but the humour and the stories are definitely designed to entertain anyone. If something seems fun, then it’s got to be worth a go?

Sportsmanship is a theme that runs throughout and I enjoyed Conrad’s mention of ‘play hard but play fair’.  How do you think rugby compares to football in this respect?

Football definitely is the beautiful game: the intelligence, the all-round abilities and the way it can change in a moment, make it a thing apart. But diving and forcing a foul – looking to compromise a player with play acting breaks my heart and, you’re right, it very rarely happens in rugby. Fantastic Football is coming out in 2022 and I hope to put down a few markers for fair play and honour.

There are countless memorable quotes in the books:

‘The difference between football and rugby… in football the ball is a missile, in rugby, men are missiles.’ Alfred E. Crawley. 

‘Rugby will always hold a place of pride for the role it played… during those first years of our new democracy (in South Africa)’ Nelson Mandela.

How important was it to you to include such a variety of quotes?

I think a book like this is meant to be dipped into, as much as read cover-to-cover. Quotes break it up and create memorable moments, nuggets which can be just as much fun as narrative ark.

How important was it to you to highlight the rapidly growing number of females playing rugby? Do you think this book will appeal to girls as well as boys?

Yes, again, the humour helps, I hope. And I love the fact that in a lot of countries rugby is seen as neither a male or female sport. Our daughter plays and our boys played alongside girls until the age of about 14 and didn’t see anything strange in that.

You mention that you’ve always been a fan of rugby; can you give us an example of a favourite memory?

Seeing our eldest take a high catch deep in his 22, run wide, then belt down the touchline to flick a pass to one of his teammates, who scored. He was only 10 and I nearly burst with pride on the spot.

Speaking from experience, being the scrawny kid at secondary school, the idea of playing rugby terrified me and I didn’t feel like I belonged on the pitch. In the book, you mention that there is a position for everyone – can you elaborate on this idea for our readers?

Certainly. I was a short and stocky (to put it politely) at 9, so I played in the scrum (hooker), until I lost weight at around 13 but found I could run like a rabbit (wing). Then everyone caught up with me – literally – and I bulked out a bit so, at 17, I finally discovered my ‘spot’ (full back).

Rampaging Rugby is part of the Stupendous Sports series. What other sports can we look forward to reading about?

Well there’s Fantastic Football next year, followed by Cracking Cricket. After that, I’d like to look at something a bit more unusual – perhaps skateboarding! Keep an eye out on

Can you describe the Rampaging Rugby in three words?

Fun, funny, factual

Thanks for having me VIP Reading – lovely way to start the day

Q & A hosted by
Rob McCann

The Memory Thieves Blog Tour

We are delighted to be celebrating Darren Simpson’s latest book, The Memory Thieves, in the VIP Reading blog, as well as sharing an exclusive chapter extract from the book. Don’t forget to enter our Twitter competition, with Usborne, to win 1 of 5 copies of the book.

When I was approached by Usborne to be part of the blog tour, I jumped at the opportunity and not just for the reason that Darren’s one of the nicest people you’ll meet in the ‘book world’. Darren supported VIP Reading since its infancy and was one of the first authors to agree to being featured on the website. We both share a common goal in wishing to encourage empathy in children through stories.

I first met Darren back in 2019 to discuss his debut, Scavengers, which is an intriguing story combining 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, we couldn’t put it down!

Darren’s immersive descriptions, varied pace and gritty action, helped to inspire some brilliant writing from my Year 6 class at the time.

Fast forward to August 2021, we are yet again about to experience another thrilling adventure story based around the very relevant theme of memories, in particular trauma. Having discussed this with Darren recently, this theme is quite timely for children with the way children have been affected during the pandemic. Darren described the book as, ‘a book about the risks of repressing your emotions and fears, and the importance of sharing and talking about them, especially with friends and loved ones.’

We hope you enjoy this chapter extract from The Memory Thieves. This is Dose 10 in the book, and a really suspenseful scene!

The Memory Thieves
Dose 10

Cyan and Jonquil took the sandwiches from their packed lunches and munched in silence. They were on the chasm’s sandy base, perched on some dining chairs pilfered from the Serenity

It wasn’t long before the second raft hit the ship’s bow. When Teal and Ruby reached them, Ruby gave Cyan’s shoulder a wallop. 

“There wasn’t a stairwell,” she grumbled. “I checked, after we spent ages dragging our raft out of that pool. You cheated.”

Teal took a seat. Cyan straightened his glasses. “All’s fair in love and…races down giant shipwrecks.”

“No, it’s not.” Ruby’s scowl sent dark freckles gathering around her nose. She kicked a rusty basket at the centre of the ring of chairs, then began filling it with wood from a mound of broken furniture. “I see you didn’t get the fire going. You know the first one down’s supposed to do it. And yet you never do.”

“Um…” All moisture left Cyan’s mouth. He pushed his chair further back from the metal basket, and watched uneasily while Ruby used a lighter and some rolled-up menus to get the fire started. 

Flames were soon rising. Cyan kept his eyes off the fire, but could feel its heat against his hands and face. His shoulders tensed with every pop from the crackling wood and he took deep, discreet breaths to steady his heartbeat. 

What was left of his sandwich sat untouched on his lap. The smoke had killed his appetite and his throat was too dry to swallow. But he noticed Jonquil peering at him, so he put the bread back to his mouth, doing his best to hide his unease.

The four friends sat in silence, until Jonquil used her toe to nudge a fish skeleton half-buried in sand. “Animals,” she sighed.

“Hm?” Cyan eyed what remained of the fish. 

Jonquil tipped her head back and gazed at the grey sky framed by the chasm’s mouth. “It took me a while to figure it out – what’s missing. There’re no animals on the island. Not even birds. The sky’s always so quiet. I haven’t seen a single creature since I got here.”  

Teal’s lips curled into a playful smile. “There used to be loads. ’Til Cyan scared them all off with his driving.”

Cyan’s eyes were rolling. “Hardy har.” He looked at Jonquil. “Ignore him. There’s never been animals here.”

“But isn’t that weird?” asked Jonquil. “To have no animals around? Not even bugs or something? All I’ve seen here is bones and shells.” Her forehead creased. “There’s something sort of…dead about this place. Don’t you think?” 

Cyan frowned at the frail, crystallized skeleton. “Probably something to do with the sea being gone. You know, ecosystems and all that.”

Teal nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah. That’s probably it.” 

Jonquil didn’t look convinced. “No. Ecosystems exist anywhere. Life always finds a way. But not here. Here on the island there’s just… There’s just us.”

Cyan was struggling to tear his gaze from the dead fish’s eye socket. Each crackle from the fire sent him deeper into its darkness, and he found himself thinking again about the message in cabin 7270.

A sniff from Jonquil. “Guys,” she began. “I can call you friends now, right?”

Sure,” said Ruby. Teal and Cyan nodded.

“In that case…” 

Cyan managed to look up. Jonquil was kneading her knuckles. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I know it’s not allowed, but I was wondering whether you guys would mind if…if perhaps I talk about what happened to me. You know. Before I came here.”

Three pairs of eyes widened. Teal tensed, pushing himself into his chair’s backrest.  

“No.” Ruby’s voice was firm. “Sorry, Jonquil. You know we can’t do that.”

Jonquil shrugged meekly. “I know. But—”

“You’re not allowed to talk about your past,” interrupted Cyan. “No one is. It’ll compromise your treatment. You might even compromise our treatment.”

“But no one has to know,” insisted Jonquil. Tears were gathering on her eyelids. “I just feel like…like I need to let some of it out. There are things I need to say.” Her voice thickened. “Things I need to share…”

Cyan threw his palms up. “Don’t do this, Jonquil.” His heart was racing again. He’d never been in this situation before; no one had ever tried to talk about their past. But he knew the rules. He’d have to alert the sanctuary if Jonquil kept going. And he wasn’t allowed to listen. 

The legs of Ruby’s chair scraped backwards through the sand. Teal had a hand on the side of his seat and was raising himself from its base. Sweat glistened on his forehead. His chest began to quake with panicked breaths. “The rules…” he croaked. 

Jonquil saw them all shifting. A tear rolled down her cheek. “Please listen,” she croaked. “It happened months ago, just after Diwali. My mum was—”

Teal was the first to flee. Jonquil stopped when Cyan and Ruby followed suit, knocking back their chairs and sprinting in separate directions. 

Cyan made a dash for the Serenity. He glanced over his shoulder, saw Ruby and Teal running for a rocky mound. 

Jonquil was alone by the fallen chairs, revolving on her feet to watch the trio scarper. “Come back!” she wailed. “Pleeeeease!”

But the three of them kept running. 

Cyan crouched in the shadow of the Serenity’s keel. He peered around its edge to see Jonquil staggering back and forth, unsure which direction to run in. 

“Mum was driving us home!” she screamed. “Me and my sister! My beautiful little sister…” She fell to her knees but continued to wail. “Mum was in a bad mood ’cos we’d—”

Cyan threw his palms over his ears but could still hear Jonquil’s dull screeching. He pushed an ear against his shoulder and used his free hand to yank his locket from  his trousers. After thumbing it open and pressing its screen, he held it to his mouth and panted, “Disclosure! It’s Jonquil! Disclosure!”

He made out a few words that flew from Jonquil’s direction – something about an argument – and thrust the locket into his pocket before slamming his palm back against his ear.

Cyan wasn’t sure how long he’d been waiting before swells of wind began racing along the chasm. The air pulsed and howled, and he peeked around the keel to see Jonquil standing rigid with her back to him, her long hair flailing in the gale. Up above, the sanctuary’s helicopter appeared at the chasm’s mouth.

Its steady descent whipped up a storm of salt and sand. Cyan could only just make out Mr Banter as the helicopter’s side door opened. 

Jonquil backed away through miniature cyclones. Mr Banter stepped out casually, brandishing something in his hand. Cyan squinted through whorls of yellow and white. It was some sort of cartridge; rectangular, plastic and pale. 

Mr Banter aimed the cartridge at Jonquil and a long needle sprang from its top. Its thin metal winked in the helicopter’s lights. 

Jonquil screamed and turned, but Mr Banter was too quick. He leaped forward and smothered her head in his giant forearm. 

A surge of sickness hit Cyan’s stomach. The violence of Mr Banter’s grip sent him out from cover, and as he ran to Jonquil he saw her eyes – wide and white with terror and betrayal – fall upon him. 

He continued to run with his arm stretched towards her, and cried out when Mr Banter plunged the needle into her neck. 

The screaming stopped. Jonquil stiffened, then dropped to hang limply from Mr Banter’s arm. He dragged her into the helicopter and slammed the door shut before it rose through sand and shadows. 

Cyan fell to his hands and knees. His chest heaved and his ribs felt brittle against his hammering heart. 

With the helicopter tilting and soaring above them, Teal and Ruby emerged to join him. Ruby’s face was rigid with shock. Teal watched the helicopter’s tail disappear. He hugged himself tightly, trembling with emotion.  

The drone of rotor blades faded, leaving only empty sky.

The Memory Thieves is available to buy now – don’t miss it!

Hosted by
Rob McCann

Shinoy and the Chaos Crew


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.

Chris Callaghan

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!

Finally, can you describe the series in 3 words?

Fan. Flipping. Tastic.

Q & A hosted by
Rob McCann

VIP Book Boxes – contains spoilers!

May 2021

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.

July 2021

Three incredible #FoodPoverty books to choose from. 20% of the profits from these boxes will be going to the Trussell Trust.

September 2021

Three fab #Memories book boxes to choose from. Featuring brilliant contents, including engaging home/educator activities.

November 2021

Three ‘Spooky’ themed book boxes to choose from! Pre-order or subscribe to a book box now, to receive a FREE TOTE BAG and BOOKMARKS designed by Keith Robinson!

4+ book is The Haunted House

7+ book is The Beast and the Bethany

9+ is The Bewitching of Aveline Jones

January 2022

Three ‘Friendship’ themed book boxes to choose from! Pre-order or subscribe now!

4+ Picturebook – ‘Leilong the Library Bus’ written by Julia Liu and illustrated by Bei Lynn.
7+ Book –  ‘Clementine Florentine’ written by Tasha Harrison and illustrated by Mya Mitchell.
9+ Book – ‘Stuntboy, in the meantime’ written by Jason Reynolds and illustrated by Raul The Third.

March 2022

Three ‘InspirationalWomen’ themed book boxes to choose from! Subscribe now and also receive a FREE WRD Magazine and exclusive print designed by the illustrator Nat Smillie!

4+ book: This Girl Can Do Anything

7+ book: Fantastically Great Women Artists and their Stories

9+ book: My Story: Princess Sophia Duleep Singh

May 2022

Three ‘Changes’ themed book boxes to choose from! Comes with three exclusive 10cm premium stickers designed by Nat Smillie and Keith Robinson! Subscribe now and also receive a FREE WRD Magazine while stock lasts.

4+ The Boys by Lauren Ace & Jenny Lovlie

7+ The Bear Stylist by Steven Butler & Jacob Souva

9+ Every Cloud by Ros Roberts

Extinct – The Story of Life on Earth (series)

Ben Garrod

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.

Ben Garrod

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?  

Life keeps going.

Q & A hosted by
Ben Morgan

Circus Maximus: Race to the Death


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.

Annelise Gray

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)

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



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