Happy Autumn, all! The nights are slowly drawing in here in London and it will be Halloween before we know it, followed by the big rush up to the holiday season. As I write we’re still 85 days away from Christmas (!), however I’m still thrilled to announce that my new picture book The Christmas Tree Wish will be available to order from early to mid October 2019. UPDATE: IT’S OUT NOW HERE ON AMAZON and will be available via bookshops and other online stores from mid October.
This is a heart-warming Christmas tale for ages 3-5+ about hope, friendship and being different 😊. The beautiful pen and ink illustrations by Anne Swift feature little Bruce Spruce, Penelope Pine, Douglas Fir and Cedrick Cypress, as well as a gorgeous Christmas robin and inquisitive squirrel.
Read on to learn more, see images and tosign up for a release date notification.
From the back page
The story behind the story
This is a story that had been going around in my head for years after I saw a small bedraggled Christmas tree left unsold one dark evening a few days before Christmas. My heart went out to the little fellow and I knew I had to write about him.
From the outset I was certain that I wanted hand-drawn illustrations rather than digital, so it was a question of finding the right person. Anne, who is a great friend whom I’ve know for 25 years, is an architect by day, but has always been incredibly creative in other ways – I can’t believe it never occurred to me to ask her to try her hand at children’s illustrations! It was a chance image she drew for her son that made the penny drop!
We’re at the start of the first of two Bank Holiday long weekends this month in the UK — guaranteed to make the nation smile, come rain or shine! However, there are a couple of other reasons why I especially love May. I’ll start with those before sharing other news.
Barnes Children’s Literature Festival – May 11th/12th
May is the month in which we have The Barnes Children’s Literature Festival, conveniently held down the road from where I live in southwest London. It’s in its fifth year and is now London’s largest dedicated children’s book festival.
As well as the many big names this year (Lauren Child, Judith Kerr, David Almond, Jeremy Strong to name but a few…), there’s also a fabulous free events programme. So if you have kids and live within reach of London, do look at the programmes and come along. I’m already looking forward to hearing Judith Kerr and Emma Carroll. Oh and I must book for Hillary McKay too!
Do you have a children’s story in you?
I’ve had great fun running children’s events at Barnes over the years. However, this year for the second year in a row I’ll be running an event for new and aspiring children’s authors on Children’s Book Self-Publishing and Marketing. If you think you have a children’s story in you, or are just curious about how it all works, do come along to find out more about this exciting world. Ages 16-66+ welcome! 🙂 (We had a packed tent last year.) Click here to learn more or book.
The Secret Lake – the magical journey continues
As many of you will know, another reason May has a special place in my heart is that it’s the time that Isabella Plantation, a stunning woodland in London’s Richmond Park, comes into bloom. The woodlands and ‘Still Pond’ (seen below during a 14k walk last Sunday!) were a strong part of the inspiration for my UK bestselling time travel adventure The Secret Lake, which is also now climbing the charts in the US and Canada.
Unbelievably, over 20,000 copies of The Secret Lake have sold in print in the last year and I’ve just signed two foreign rights deals. If you don’t yet know the story and are curious, do visit Amazon UK to read over 100 reviews 🙂 You’ll also find 35 more on Amazon.com.
It’s now almost 20 years since I wrote the first draft, after watching some friends’ children playing in the vast communal gardens of London’s Notting Hill. As I looked all around at the grand houses I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if the children playing there that day could meet the children who had lived and played there 100 years earlier. If you want to know more, or to download a free sample, follow the links below. The reading age is 8-11, but it’s also perfect to read aloud to ages 6 upwards.
For those of you who live in the UK, The Secret Lake is currently on offer on Amazon at £5.29 down from £6.99. It’s also discounted on Amazon in Canada from $10.70 to $9.71. I don’t control the offers I’m afraid, so don’t know how long they will last. If you have a young bookworm at home, I’d say grab it while you can. And, of course, you can also order it from your local bookshop.
Reader fan mail – making me smile!
We authors love hearing from our readers. Above is a lovely hand-drawn postcard I received from a nine-year-old pupil, Grace, from Richmond, Texas, USA. I was travelling in Vietnam when her card arrived and my son sent a photo on Whatsapp — I was thrilled and have since written back with the ‘head in the clouds’ (that’s me!) giraffe card you can see. I’ve also just received an envelope full of letters from school children in Wiltshire, UK — most asking for a sequel after they read The Secret Lake in class! This was a wonderful surprise, especially as I’ve not visited that school.
Eeek! The Runaway Alien cover makeover
In more news, Eeek! The Runaway Alien (my fun illustrated story about a soccer-mad who runs away to Earth for the World Cup) has a had a minor cover update, with a football added. Goodness knows why we didn’t have one before! To mark the occasion, my illustrator created this animation. I hope you enjoy!
Last, but not least, it’s Hedgehog Awareness Week here in the UK next week. All year round we’re doing what we can to look out for them as they are now an endangered species.
We’re lucky to have quite a few hedgehogs in my local London village of Barnes, and there’s a huge campaign to encourage homeowners to create holes at the foot of garden fences, to allow the hedgehogs to travel to find food. This creates a ‘hedgehog highway’. The video below of a hedgehog running up the side of my family home last summer demonstrates just how far they like to go in search of food!
Click below to view a video of a hedgehog out looking for food – my brother kindly captured this for me last summer 🙂
Hedgehogs and foxes – early learning
If you have a toddler in the house, or children/grandchildren up to age 6 my gentle rhyming picture book Ferdinand Fox and the Hedgehog, about a baby hedgehog that meets a fox one night, ends with eight fun pages of photos and facts about foxes and hedgehogs including how to build nests and safe places for hedgehogs to hibernate in your garden. It’s always a huge hit at my school visits — not least when they come to learn what foxes and hedgehogs like to eat for breakfast and supper!
Do you have hedgehogs where you live? I’d love to hear about them or see some photos if you do!
That’s it for now. I hope you have a relaxing May bank holiday weekend if you’ll be getting time off where you are. And, for those of you in the US, I hope the children have been getting stuck into reading more than ever over the last week!
With very best wishes,
PS If you or your children have read any of my books already, it would mean a lot to me if you could help them leave an honest review on Amazon or your other preferred store. Doing so means that Amazon and other stores will show it to more people. Every little really does help! Thank you!
They say the best things come to those who wait: it’s seven years this month since I published my time travel adventure The Secret Lake and I couldn’t be more thrilled that it has become an Amazon UK children’s bestseller both in print and as an eBook over the last four months. (The print book is ranked at just over 300 in the whole of the Amazon UK Store as I write – though this changes by the hour and the bestseller badge comes and goes as a result.) Now feels a good time for any new followers to tell you how I came to write it, how it was rejected, and what happened next…
It’s almost 20 years since I wrote the first draft of my time travel adventure The Secret Lake in which Stella (age 11) and Tom (age 8), while trying to find their elderly neighbour’s missing dog, discover a time tunnel and secret lake that take them to their home and the children living there 100 years earlier. And it’s seven years to the day since I self-published it. (Amazon shows the print publication date as 4th August but that is wrong – that’s the date I registered the ISBN, but I clearly did something wrong!)
The story was inspired when some friends moved to an apartment backing onto communal gardens not far from Notting Hill in London. When I walked out and saw the children playing there I couldn’t help wondering what might happen if they could meet the children who had lived and played there in Edwardian times.
The lake in the story was inspired by a pond in a magical woodland in Richmond Park, close to where we live. We used to take our boys there to play when they were younger and it reminded me of the sense of freedom I had had as a child growing up in the Hertfordshire countryside. Even before we’d left Notting Hill that day of our first visit, this magical woodland setting had become connected with the story that was already forming in my mind…
There were many drafts in the early days (I didn’t plot, and things got very muddled!), and it was many months before I felt ready to show the story around.
My first step was to submit it for comment to an independent manuscript appraisal service, The Writers’ Advice Centre for Children’s Books. Thereafter – and several rewrites later – I sent it off by post to a half a dozen publishers only to be told that the story was “too traditional”, “not what children are looking for these days” or “not for our lists”. After the six- to eight-week wait to hear back, I was despondent – and many reading here will know that awful feeling of rejection!
I had better luck with my next story Eeek! The Runaway Alien (a humorous chapter book about a young alien who comes to Earth for the Word Cup), with Bloomsbury asking for more material, and an agent asking for a further version. However, when this eventually came to nothing I decided the odds of getting published were stacked against me in a very large, slow-motion lottery — so I packed everything away and went back to my day job as a business writing consultant where I knew I would at least earn from my writing.
After that The Secret Lake, Eeek! and various other stories lay in a wooden box under my office window for over 10 years. I used to glance at that box from time to time and think what a shame it was that no one would ever know the magical story of The Secret Lake. I also recall fleetingly wondering if one day my great-great grandchildren might discover it and bring it back to life.
Discovering self-publishing and gaining control
In fact, it wasn’t the future grandchildren who would breathe new life into The Secret Lake. I took a yearlong sabbatical from my consulting work in late 2010 and pulled my stories out again. Around that time self-publishing via Amazon’s CreateSpace was being talked about online and, once I delved deeper, I knew it was for me: it would put me in control and allow me to get my story in front of children instead of sitting unloved in someone’s slush pile.
It was a lonely business back then – no Facebook Groups or self-publishing organisations to join to swap expertise and frustrations! And book formatting tools were few and far between — and extremely clunky compared with what’s on offer today. I had lots of setbacks but The Secret Lake was finally born in print and for Kindle in September 2011.
The long road to discovery – and how children know best!
Once The Secret Lake was out, I set up a website, contacted and visited local bookshops and sent press releases to local magazines, newspapers and community newsletters, taking care to point to where it was stocked locally. My first event was a reading in our local library. I was terrified that no one would turn up – or that I’d have hordes – and I burst into tears from nerves the day before. In fact, there were seven children, seven adults and the library staff. It was perfect. The librarian even served tea and cakes!
Thereafter I began connecting with local schools, which entailed a lot of research and persistence. Gradually (very gradually) it began to pay off and my local author brand started to grow.
Then and now – children still know best…
My instinct that children still hanker after a good adventure story had proven itself long before its recent rise through the Amazon ranks. By the end of 2017 I had sold over 7,000 copies through a combination of school visits, local independent bookshop sales and signings in six branches of Waterstones (a major UK book chain) around southwest London – plus a steady trickle of online store sales in print and for Kindle in both the UK and USA. During this time the then Head of Independent Commissioning for children’s CBBC also read and enjoyed it, and recommended I pitch it to the BBC and/or to independent production companies. It didn’t get chosen by the CBBC in the end, and life and other writing got in the way after that. However, pursuing the second option is now high on my task list and I’ve even had an enquiry from Hollywood recently. (I am sure this will be case of ‘watch this space for a VERY long time’, so I’m not get excited just yet…).
What changed in 2018?
The Secret Lake has always been my bestseller at school visits but raising its profile beyond face-to-face events and my local bookshops has, until this year, been by far the hardest part of being an independent children’s author. And if people farther afield don’t know your book then they don’t know to look for it – be that online or in high street bookshops. This in turns means that children won’t know about it in sufficient numbers around the UK to spread the word and so fuel further demand.
I have Amazon UK to thank for the breakthrough. When they opened up sponsored product advertising to independent authors alongside traditionally published titles in early 2018 I was finally able to make The Secret Lake visible online where parents are looking for similar children’s books. The effect was almost immediate and the book began to climb slowly and steadily through the ranks. (This was before I updated the cover in May, though the new design has undoubtedly worked extra magic since and I couldn’t be happier with it.)
By the time I started promoting it, The Secret Lake had 45 reviews, gradually built up over the years. These undoubtedly helped encourage sales once the book became visible, and the review numbers are now slowly growing. I’m so grateful to those parents and grandparents who have taken the time give their feedback, or help their child give their feedback. As any author will tell you, it means so much after all the hard work – and particularly in the case of children’s authors where our readers don’t have access to the online reviews platforms. So, thank you if you have left a review recently or in the past!
Not just Amazon…
I’m especially delighted to report that word-of-mouth customer requests have also led to independent and high street bookshops outside of my locality placing orders for The Secret Lake through wholesalers, with around 70 recent UK sales and similar in the US this way when I last checked. This is great news for bookshops and readers alike. For once, Amazon seems to be helping high-street bookshops make more sales.
Reflecting on my adventure
As The Secret Lake continues to land on hundreds of doormats in the UK, US and Europe (notably Germany) each week, I can’t help thinking back to those early rejections. I truly felt there was a gap in the market for more classic adventure stories – the sort I’d enjoyed as a child, but with a modern twist. I’m so glad that children, parents, librarians and teachers have confirmed my suspicions and given this story the chance to breathe.
In short, without Amazon and self-publishing, this story would still be in its box — how very sad would that be? (Oh, except, of course, for those curious future great-great-grandchildren! 🙂 Hmm, and therein might lie another magical time travel story…)
We’ve all been enjoying the sunshine today – I hope it’s shining where you are!
It’s been a while since I’ve posted here – life is always so busy, what with new books to get out, school visits and all of the marketing tasks I have to keep up with. However, I promised to keep you up to date with what I’m doing and wanted to share two pieces of children’s books news – and to remind you about the World Cup!
Ferdinand Fox and the Hedgehog: a rhyming picture book for ages 3-6
Firstly, I have a new rhyming picture book out for ages 3-5+ Ferdinand Fox and the Hedgehogwhich introduces Hatty the hedgehog and her baby son Ed.
It’s already proving extremely popular with children, parents and grandparents and the rhyming story comes with eight pages of hedgehog and fox photos and facts to share with little ones – including how we can all help hedgehogs survive. If you have children or grandchildren in this age range, do take a look at the online reviews on Amazon UK . It’s also available in the Amazon.com store and all other stores worldwide. You can also order it at your local bookshop.
Inside the book you’ll find a link to free colour posters to download and print off…
I took the story along to the Barnes Children’s Literature Festival the weekend before last where it was a huge hit with little ones!
A magical new cover for The Secret Lake
The beautiful Isabella Plantation woodland in Richmond Park near London (where Henry VIII used to ride out) is in full bloom right now – see my images below from a visit last week – it’s where we used to take our boys to play when they were small.
To coincide with the season, I’ve recently updated the cover of my best selling time travel adventure The Secret Lake, which was partly inspired by a magical pond at Isabella, called ‘Still Pond’.
I asked for children’s votes on the cover at eight schools during my World Book Day visits in March this year and they overwhelmingly went for this one over a couple of other options – I hope you like it! I wanted to bring it up to date but also retain the classic feel that the story has, and I think my illustrator, Damir, has achieved this.
The Secret Lake has now sold over 9,000 copies and continues to be a firm favourite with girls and boys aged 8-11 – oh, and with grown-ups! It’s even been hitting best seller lists on Amazon UK in recent weeks which I’m especially proud about 🙂
The Secret Lake up at Isabella Plantation last week for a little tour
While here – just a quick reminder: with the World Cup coming around in June, if you have any soccer-mad boys or girls aged 7-10 at home do check out Eeek! The Runaway Alien – about an alien who comes to Earth for the World Cup 🙂 It has a huge surprise at the end (but don’t tell the kids!) and has been praised for getting both keen and reluctant readers turning the pages. LoveReading4kidsUK describes it as “Laugh-out-loud funny!” and it has been used in the Get London Reading campaign. I shall be posting a new crossword puzzle to go with it on my site in the next couple of weeks, so look out for that — I just need to consult with my husband on a few minor details…
Other news – helping local causes
Finally, one thing I love about being an author is getting involved with community projects, or doing what I can to help with fundraising relating to literacy. Below you can see me at Brandlehow Primary School in Putney a couple of weeks ago, close to where I live in London. The PTA is raising funds for a new library and asked a few local authors if we’d come and run some free workshops that both children and parents could attend. The money they raised through donations is going towards the library, and stood at over £700 when I last heard! The children also got to buy signed books, so everyone went home happy.
My next task for today is to drop off a signed copy of each of my books for prizes in a fundraising quiz being held this week at Greenmead Primary, a special needs primary school in south-west London for children aged 2-11.
I’m also extremely excited to have sponsored a bookshelf for a new literacy library being built in London by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education – a charity that works to improve literacy in primary schools.
That’s it for now – I’ll be in touch again, but not too often. In the meantime I hope you have a great rest of week – and let’s hope the sun stays shining in the UK for our upcoming bank holiday!
PS If you think your school would like a school visit – in person or via Skype – please ask them to get in touch and/or to look at my school visits page
I’m often asked at school visits what I enjoy most about being a children’s author. Last week when I visited the delightful St Osmund’s Primary School in my local village, Barnes, the question came up again in several sessions and I thought I’d say a little bit more about it here.
Before I carry on, I should say that the second best thing about being a children’s author is going out and meeting young readers at school visits and other events 🙂 We writers spend a lot of time alone – or perhaps I should say “alone” given all the characters that fill our heads! Getting to meet the audience you’ve been writing for and watching as they fall silent – absorbed in the world you have created as you share your story – is truly magical. And the children never cease to amaze me with their thoughtful and intelligent observations and questions – not just about my stories and being an author, but also about the joy they get from reading for pleasure and writing their own stories.
So what’s the best thing about being a children’s author?
Most of all, I love the freedom I have to ‘make believe’ absolutely anything, from laugh-out-loud funny tales, to adventure, mystery or magic in this world – to discovering and visiting ‘other worlds’ (and their inhabitants) that lie hidden behind secret doors, down forgotten passages, in tumbledown buildings or deep in the forest.
As I write, I love getting lost in these make-believe worlds as they come alive with noisy, bossy, funny, crafty, happy, sad, timid, bold, kind and clever characters (humans, animals, wizards, aliens…) who breeze in and out of scenes, or plod, run, hop, skip, jump or even fly across my virtual page. A casual passer by looking through my window would have no idea just how much my head is buzzing as I sit in silence tapping at my keyboard, watching and listening as my story unfolds!
And what’s most exciting – just as in a really good book or a great movie – is that new characters often appear without warning or behave unexpectedly, stubbornly refusing to follow the plan I had for them. It’s as if they’re saying “Not that way, Karen – it’s this way we need to go! And, yes, I know that may cause problems for you, but I’m afraid we’re going there whether you like it or not!” Or “Well I’m here and I’m staying whether you like it or not, so you’ll just have to get used to it and get on with the story!”
I’m thankful that my characters don’t always co-operate, because that’s what’s usually makes a great story – all the tension and problems and sorting out that has to be done to fix the new direction they insist on taking!
During the writing of The Secret Lake, both Jack (seen in the boat below) and Lucy (who we meet later on in the story) appeared unexpectedly after Tom and Stella climbed down the time tunnel that led them to their home in past time. I hadn’t seen them coming, yet each of these characters took the story off in new directions, leading me around twists and turns that I couldn’t have made up without their help.
In Eeek! The Runaway Alien, sci-fi mad Sid Spiker who spots Eeek! through his telescope came as another surprise. He popped up in my planning stage unexpectedly and caused all sorts of trouble when he planned to kidnap Eeek! at posh Sophie Marr’s fancy dress birthday party. But he also helped drive the plot and make it a great story!
The joy of getting lost in a story
Back to my school visits. As I said earlier, the children often talk about their love of reading and getting lost in stories. What I always tell them is that, as a writer, you get to enjoy that very same experience – but, as well as watching what’s happening (just as a reader does) you’re also in charge, and responsible for shaping what’s happening into a tale that will engage and absorb your readers from start to finish. It is great fun, and very challenging – and it requires lots and lots of rewriting. But once you’re done the feeling is fantastic. Whether you’re the writer or the reader, there really is nothing like getting lost in a great children’s story!
Stories to share and get lost in….
For my new followers, if you don’t know my stories or would like to introduce them to your children, simply click on the fun interactive book ‘widgets’ (called ‘biblets’) below to read free samples directly on your phone, tablet or desktop. As well as early chapters they include video and (for Henry Haynes) audio. I hope you and the children will enjoy 🙂
Quick Question Survey on book biblets
I’d love to know what you or your children think of book biblets as a way to share information about children’s books. If you have 60 seconds to spare after you’ve tried one or more biblet it would be really helpful if you could come back at some stage and complete the 5-question survey below. (The data is collected anonymously.)