I hope you’ve had a good start to 2023. Here in London the huge magnolia in our garden is in full bloom, and the daffodils and crocuses are out — and, of course, the days are gradually getting longer. I love this time of year!
Earlier this month we celebrated UK World Book Day week where I had five days of in-person school visits meeting children from Reception Year (kindergarten) up to Year 6 (fifth grade) around London and the south-east. One of the joys of writing across so many age groups is being able to meet pupils from across the whole school. All the children I met were a delight, with the little ones adoring the live fox footage that’s included as part of my Ferdinand Fox storytime, and pupils in the older year groups asking so many wonderful questions about writing, where I get my inspiration, and how books get made.
Return to the Secret Lake — Double Celebration!
I can hardly believe that this month marks the first anniversary of publication of Return to the Secret Lake — how time flies! It has sold over 11,000 copies in English, and is proving extremely popular in German — and will be published in Czech later this year. There is also another foreign offer in discussion. It was also recently shortlisted as a Finalist in the Wishing Shelf Book Awards, judged by UK Primary School Children and teachers. I love the finalists’ medal, seen below!
Thank you so much to all of you who have left ratings and/or reviews online — your feedback has been wonderful! And special thanks for not giving away any spoilers, which is so easy to do with this plot!
Cornwall Writers’ Retreat
In other news, I have just returned from a week in Marizion in Cornwall with a group of six fellow authors who write mostly for adults (or YA and adults). The house we rented looked out to St Michael’s Mount, which you can walk to when the tide is out. The St Aubyn family, which had owned the island since the mid 1600s, gifted it to the National Trust in the 1950s but still live in the castle on a lease arrangement with the island operating as a visitor centre. The current residents, Lord and Lady St Levan (James and Mary St Aubyn) have been there since 2003. If you choose the right day to visit you can take a tour inside the castle, and climb to the top.
There are a few other homes there with residents all working on the island and children going to school on the mainland. (One of the boatmen doubles up as a teacher in the local primary school — what a great way to get to work!)
It was wonderful to get away. Most days were rainy and blustery, with one day of glorious sunshine. But it didn’t matter. Looking out onto rolling waves provides all the inspiration and calm you need to focus. Much work was done by all — writing, editing, plotting and research. We also held an impromptu marketing meeting, seen in the image above.
For my part I was steeped back in Edwardian London where I am researching and planning for book 3 in The Secret Lake series. 😊 We did, however, get out and about! Below you can see the causeway that leads out to the island, and more from a spur of the moment hour’s walk I made into Penzance.
Zoom visits around the world
In between World Book Day week and heading down to Cornwall I squeezed in various zoom sessions: two with elementary schools in the USA who have been reading The Secret Lake, and one with an English language school in Bulgaria where the children have been reading Eeek! The Runaway Alien. Both sets of pupils had such interesting observations about the stories and the Bulgarian pupils had completed activities showing which new English words the text had taught them. The first time I met the Bulgarian pupils was when they were in Kindergarten, with my Ferdinand Fox picture books, so I really feel as if I’m watching them grow up! It was also wonderful to receive thank you letters from the pupils below from Columbia Virtual Academy in Wyoming!
Do get in touch if you’d like to find out more about my Zoom school visits at home and abroad. I love meeting my readers, wherever they are in the world. I can speak with whole schools (as seen below) or small book groups of a few children!
Authors love reviews 😊
If your children or pupils have read one or more of my books but not yet reviewed them online, if you could find a moment to help them do so it would mean a lot— a short review is fine, whether on Amazon, Goodreads, Toppsta or your other preferred site! It will help other families, teachers and children discover my stories. Children also really enjoy seeing their words published online! Thank you!
And finally — our magnolia
I can’t sign off without including a picture of the glorious magnolia tree in our garden. They bloom for such a short time, —I just love them in the days before the buds fully open up. I hope you enjoy, along with my Mother’s Day flowers!
Hello from a cold and crisp London, where the Christmas season is upon us. I hope your holiday season plans are well underway and that you’re all staying safe.
The Secret Lake: Sequel 😊
After much plotting and planning, and following many requests from children and adults, I’ve had my head down for the last three months writing the sequel to my bestselling middle grade novel The Secret Lake,
I’m thrilled to say that I finished editing the final draft two days ago (you can see the printout on my desk below!) and it is now with a small number of beta readers before, no doubt, further polishing, then on to my professional editor. Coming in at 50,000 words it will be approximately twice the length of the first book.
As you have guessed, writing a children’s book takes a lot of time, and effort — children are always surprised when I tell them just how long! Luckily this time around I had an outline plan before I started, which made life a lot easier than first time around when I had no plan and went round in circles with the plot for many many months. I do not recommend writing this way!
Why did it take so long to write The Secret Lake sequel?
Many children and adults have asked me over the last few years why I hadn’t written a sequel. The reason is that I had promised myself I would only ever do so if I thought any new story would be as magical as the first. Also, I tend to have to wait for stories to come to me… and that can take time! That apart, with so many other projects to juggle, it had been difficult to sit down and find the time and space I needed in order to let my imagination run wild, then plan and research. This summer, I finally had that time.
Going back and spending time with the original characters — and meeting a couple of new ones — has been an absolute joy, with scenes unfolding that I hadn’t planned, and new characters popping up unannounced, as happened the first time around!
I’m hoping for a release date in spring 2022 and, of course, will keep you updated via this newsletter. In the meantime, if you’d like to apply to join my advance reader team to help make the launch a success, please email me via my contact page with the subject line ‘The Secret Lake 2’ and I will send you details of how it works closer to the time.
Teachers — I will be creating some interesting lesson plans to go with the book. More on this in a later newsletter! 😊
In other Secret Lake news, I have just sold foreign rights to Romania, meaning it will soon be in translation in nine languages!
Also, I couldn’t resist the gorgeous little mole, seen sitting on the shelf in the first image above. I found him in one of the gift shops where I live in Barnes village and couldn’t leave without him! As readers of The Secret Lake know, moles are integral to the magic of the story. ❤️
The Christmas Tree Wish: A heartwarming tale for ages 3-6 🌲
Back to the holiday season — if you’re looking for an extra special gift for your younger children or grandchildren, please do take a look at The Christmas Tree Wish.
This heartwarming tale about hope, friendship and being different was inspired by a small, bedraggled Christmas tree I saw one dark and wet Christmas Eve, unsold and looking very lonely. As is usually the case with my stories, I couldn’t get this little fellow out of my head, and knew I had to give him a happy ending!
The Christmas Tree Wish comes with links to free downloadable colouring sheets of the tree characters to keep children or grandchildren occupied in the run-up to Christmas, using Anne Swift’s stunning illustrations. Hopefully, the reviews speak or themselves! 😊 🌲
Click or tap below to watch a short video about The Christmas Tee Wish.
The Tell-Me Tree — continued praise from teachers and parents ❤️
Thank you so much to all of you who have bought The Tell-Me Tree and shared with me how it has touched children’s lives, or how you have been using it in schools to help children open up about feelings. Below are a few examples. I’m also bowled over that a simple Facebook promotion has been shared and commented on over 1,000 times!
With the uncertainties all of our children are living with these days, The Tell-Me Tree aims to help ease worries through encouraging a habit of regularly talking about feelings, whether happy, sad or anywhere in between.
This story and activity bookcomes with free download templates to help children draw their own Tell-Me Trees and copies of activity sheets from inside the book to encourage them to draw or write about how they are feeling as often as they would like. Available everywhere online, or via your local bookshop or your school ‘s usual channels.
If you have used The Tell-Me Tree and found it useful please feel free to send me pictures, or tag me if you post about it and I will share.
📚 Eeek! The Runaway Alien discounted to £3.95! ⚽ (RRP £6.99)
Finally, a quick heads-up for my UK followers looking for stocking fillers to let you know that Amazon UK has just discounted Eeek! The Runaway Alien to £3.55 (RRP is £6.99).
Eeek! is perfect for girls or boys aged 7-10 looking for a fast and fun read, and a good laugh! (It’s also available as an audiobook and eBook.)
It was voted book of the month by LoveReading4Kids UK at launch, and favourite book club read three years in a row in one London primary school, and now comes with a shiny new cover! It is also fantastic for reluctant readers, and comes with fun black and white illustrations throughout. 😊 👽
That’s it for now. I hope you have a wonderful holiday season and I look forward to providing you with updates on The Secret Lake 2 soon 😊 .
With very best wishes,
PS: Remember, if you’d like to know more about joining my launch team for The Secret Lake 2, please email me via my contact page with ‘The Secret Lake 2’ as the subject line, and I will send you further details in due course.
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…)
I’ve done quite a few school visits in recent weeks – but one in particular had special significance for me. This was a day spent at Norland Place School in Notting Hill – the area in London that first inspired the story of my time travel adventure, The Secret Lake.
If you’re not familiar with Notting Hill, much of this part of west London is made up of tall and elegant terraced Victorian houses that back onto vast communal gardens for the owners’ shared use. (If you’ve seen the film ‘Notting Hill’ with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant you’ll know what I’m talking about – I think the pair hop over a communal garden fence at one stage to steal time in one of the gardens!)
Most of the Notting Hill communal garden houses have now been converted into apartments. Those on the ground floor have direct access to the gardens from their own patio gardens – other residents have a key for access via a separate gate.
Inspiration for The Secret Lake
The Secret Lake came about after some friends moved to one of these Notting Hill apartments many years ago when our children were around age five and seven. The moment we walked out into the gardens I was struck by their magical atmosphere. The sound of twigs cracking underfoot echoed all around as children raced across the woodland lawns playing chase, or hide and seek, while others (often younger) huddled inside bushes, making secret dens.