Category Archives: Fiction

Unicorns, Centaurs and Pegasus: why are we still fascinated by magical horses?

For much of recent human history, horses were a vital part of our daily lives: essential on farms, for transport and communication, and in battle.

But for most of us, nowadays, horses are almost irrelevant economically and horse-riding is a hobby for a small number of people. Most of us will go days, weeks, even months – especially if we live in a city – without seeing a horse. Yet horses are still a vital and passionately beloved element of our stories and culture.

Many 21st century children will never ride a pony, most will never groom or muck out a horse, but they still love stories about them, and particularly stories about magical and mythical horses.

I know this because when I ask classes of kids about their favourite magical creatures, unicorns almost always top the list, usually followed by winged horses and centaurs (and kelpies, if I’m in a Scottish school) mixed in with dragons and werewolves.

Why is that? Why do horses still appear so regularly in our stories and our imaginations and why do horses lend themselves so well to being given magical attributes?

Is it because of their beauty? Their size, strength and speed? Is it because of their mix of gentleness (a horse’s lips taking an apple off your palm) and potential danger (you don’t want a horse standing on your foot, and you really don’t want a startled horse to kick you)?

Is it that they can plausibly play such a wide variety of roles in stories – wise guide, essential transport, symbol of wealth and power, friend and companion or threat galloping towards you – because they have played so many roles in our history.

Is it because the horse’s importance in many cultures, for much of our history, means they have starring roles in a vast variety of folktales, myths and legends from all over the world? (I tell horse stories from Persia, Ukraine, Gambia, Russia, Australia, Tibet, Greece … and sometimes even Scotland.)

Is it all the vivid ways that storytellers in the past have added little bits of memorable magic to horses: the horn of a unicorn, the wings of Pegasus, the shapeshifting mystery of a kelpie? Are we all dazzled by the amazing and lasting pictures those magical additions leave in our imaginations?

Is it because of the unique relationship between rider and horse, and their dependence on each other? (In many of the ‘horse and hero’ legends I tell, the way the rider treats the horse reveals their character and whether they really are a hero or a bully.)

Is it because a horse, magical or not, can plausibly be a genuine and multi-faceted character in a story, not just a plot point or a magical MacGuffin? (My favourite magical horses as a child were Bree and Hwin in The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis – talking horses who aren’t just modes of transport, weapons or possessions, but characters with goals, moments of heroism, and distinct voices. Those Narnian horses are the protagonists in the story just as much as the two human children.)

Is it that horses are a powerful symbol of freedom, of escape, of traveling the world? We might use buses or bikes now, but the horse’s four fast powerful legs still carry that promise of adventure and freedom.

Despite all the research I’ve done into horse lore and mythology, and all the time I’ve spent discussing magical horses with children, I still don’t have a definitive answer to why we love magical horses. Perhaps they mean something different to each of us…

But I am sure that I’ll be discussing fiery, winged, shapeshifting, horned, talking and ghostly horses with kids again next term. Because whenever I say ‘magical animal’, the horse, in all its mythical and folklore forms, is the animal that leaps straight into their imaginations.

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I’m also sure that no matter how many wonderful magical horses there are in traditional tales, a class full of 10 year olds can always come up with a few new ideas to invent their own 21st century story-horses (laser eyes? snake’s tail? cat’s paws? time-travelling?) and to imagine their own unique adventures.

And I’m sure that even though real horses are no longer part of many of our daily lives, magical horses will star in our stories for generations.

 

Lari Don is a Scottish children’s author and storyteller. Her book, Horse of Fire, gathers her favourite ‘magical horse’ folktales myths and legends from all over the world, and is out in paperback now.

Check Out Bloomsbury Education’s YouTube!

The Bloomsbury Education YouTube channel has TONS of brilliant videos to get stuck into; from five top tips for surviving in teaching to dramatic readings of poetry, animated trailers for up-and-coming fiction to suggestions on how to incorporate more kindness in the classroom.

Here’s a quick run-through of all the exciting videos on offer:

Bloomsbury Young Readers

Meet the characters, authors and illustrators behind the Bloomsbury Young Reader series, our book-banded stories for children aged 5-7. There will be pirate ships, there will be canine birthday parties, but most importantly, there will be some children flying into space!

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Happiness and Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom

Adrian Bethune, the author behind Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom, brings you a series of videos on how to create happiness, stillness and positivity in the hive of chaos that is a primary classroom! From tips for teaching kindness to writing your ‘what went wells’ at the end of each week, Adrian is awash with ideas on how to foster happy and healthy children!

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Meet Daniel Sobel

Who’s Daniel Sobel, you may wonder. Well, wonder no more. The inspiring author behind Narrowing the Attainment Gap and Leading on Pastoral Care describes his wonderful work on inclusion and how you can apply his ideas to your school.

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Andrew Brodie Apps

We have a have a terrific range of apps for primary learners, written and designed by the legend himself, Andrew Brodie (full range here). These confidence-boosting apps for home and school cover telling the time, spelling, times tables and mental maths, and are a brilliant way of prepping students for SATS. Want to know more? Here’s a video to show you…

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Teacher Toolkit

Want to hear from the UK’s leading education blogger? We’ve got you covered. Ross Morrison McGill, aka Teacher Toolkit, shares tips, tricks and techniques from his bestselling book, Mark. Plan. Teach.!

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Poetry from Joshua Seigal

He’s hilarious, he’s insightful, he’s brilliant…

Joshua Seigal is the mastermind poet behind Little Lemur Laughing, I Don’t Like Poetry and I Bet I Can Make You Laugh, and here he is reading a variety of poems. From Addicted to Chicken to Love Letter to a Lychee, there’s nothing quite like them!

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Make Your School an Excellent One

Rob Carpenter, author of A Manifesto for Excellence, has created a series of videos on how to make your school bloomin’ excellent. From creating an aspirational school environment to the importance of mindfulness and wellbeing, there are a plethora of great takeaways to enhance your teaching and inspire your pupils.

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Philosophy: 40 Lessons to Get Children Thinking

Fancy a whole lesson at your fingertips, FOR FREE?! Esteemed founder and CEO of The Philosophy Foundation and author of 40 Lessons to Get Children Thinking and The If Machine, Peter Worley presents a 44-minute video where he undertakes a sentence activity with a primary class, encouraging the children to think about meaning, structure and relationships.

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How to Survive in Teaching

How does one survive in teaching amidst the long hours, endless paperwork, demoralising colleagues, stress and anxiety? Ask Dr Emma Kell, author of How to Survive in Teaching and general unwavering optimist, who will teach you how to survive, nay, THRIVE, in this brilliant profession.

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Let’s Perform!

Loosen those limbs and begin those warm-up exercises, it’s time to get dramatic! Watch Cath Howe’s collection of original monologues, duologues and poetry in action, performed by the shining stars of Fern Hill Primary School!

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Head over to our YouTube channel to browse!

Saved by a Writer from the Past, or How I Learned to Love Widsith the Poet

Whenever I write a new story, I often seem to reach a point where inspiration dries up and I get stuck. It’s almost as if a voice in my head says over and over again, ‘Why are you writing this rubbish? And what makes you think you’re any good at writing stories anyway?’ I like to think it’s an essential part of the creative process, the temporary triumph of the self-doubt that surrounds any attempt to create something. Get through this, I tell myself, and everything will be fine. But that doesn’t always make it any easier to deal with.

The dreaded moment came early with Winter of the Wolves, my latest Flashback. I had already written two Flashbacks – Revolt Against the Romans, the story of Caractacus’s rebellion in first-century Roman Britain, and Attack of the Vikings, a tale of action and adventure set in the west of Scotland in the Viking Age. I also had a good idea for the new book. It was going to be about the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, seen through the eyes of a young boy, an orphan who is taken in by a chief of the Angles. I was keen to make the Beowulf story part of the plot too. I’m a huge fan of the poem, and I wanted to come up with a suggestion for how it might have been brought to these shores.

As usual I did plenty of research and came up with an outline. I wrote a decent chapter one, moved on to chapter two… and then found myself grinding to a halt. The words stopped coming, the characters wouldn’t speak or do anything interesting, the story refused to come to life. But I didn’t panic. I’d been in the same position many times before, and so I tried the things that have helped in the past – taking a break, reading my notes again, thinking about the characters from a different angle. Doing more research also sometimes helps – it might be that I haven’t immersed myself in the period enough.

That’s what did the trick this time. With Beowulf in mind, I looked up lots of other Anglo-Saxon poetry, and came across a poem I’d forgotten about. In The Traveller’s Song we meet Widsith, an Anglo-Saxon poet of the sixth century, and he tells us of all the royal courts he’s visited, and the important kings and chiefs and warriors he has impressed with his poems and songs. Widsith is a great character – he’s vain and boastful, and the poem reads like a glorious promotional leaflet aimed at getting him more work. At any rate, it really spoke to me across the centuries, perhaps because I’m a freelance writer too. I’ve certainly met a few writers like Widsith, and I have a feeling he never got stuck.

So I put Widsith into my story as an old blind scop – that’s the Anglo-Saxon word for a poet – who becomes a friend and mentor to my central character, Oslaf. Poets were greatly respected in early Anglo-Saxon culture, as praise-singers for warrior chiefs, but also as guardians of the tribe’s history. Widsith quickly became a very important figure in Oslaf’s story, and to a large extent the plot only works because of him. While I was writing the story I kind of felt that Widsith was looking after me too. It was almost as if I had a co-writer  I could turn to – ‘What do you think of this bit, Widsith?’ I put a quote from his poem at the beginning of the book, but really his name should be on the title page as well.

The rest of the story came fairly easily after that, although for me that means inching ahead at a rate of about 500 words a day. But you get a feel for how well a story is 9781472953780.jpgprogressing, and I knew this one was going to be all right. I’m not usually boastful about  what I do, but I’ve decided to emulate Widsith and say that I think Winter of the Wolves is one of the best stories I’ve written. I certainly enjoyed writing it enormously, and I think the cover (by Illustrator Rob Ball) is brilliant. If you want to find out more about Widsith there’s an excellent Wikipedia article about his poem. I’m thinking of starting a Widsith Fan Club – after all, I really do owe him a favour!

 

Tony Bradman is an award-winning author who has been involved in children’s books for 35 years. His latest novel, Winter of the Wolves, is out now!

Why the Golden Horsemen Came Riding

Growing up, I knew almost nothing about Baghdad and the Middle East except that an author there had written the 1001 Nights, or the Arabian Nights as my Year 4 teacher used to call it. It’s a wonderful anthology of fairytales that has filled the heads of many a child with the notion of flying carpets, thieves hidden in wooden barrels, genies and magic lamps. I received the Bancroft Classics edition for my eighth birthday, which I re-read endlessly. No author was credited with the work on the front cover but I hardly noticed. I devoured the Sinbad films on telly too, especially the Ray Harryhousen versions which had incredible special effects. But of the real Baghdad, I remained mostly ignorant.

In my teenage years, the Middle East started to feature on the news, but nearly always shown in a bad light. Uprisings and terror attacks flickered across the television screens. News reports showed tanks lumbering across deserts, flat-roofed houses being blown up, grim-faced youths hijacking planes. Not surprisingly I never connected those images with the magical lands of ‘Open Sesame’ and delicious lakoum.

Fast forward a few decades and I am doing an author visit at a school in Bradford where I lived for over ten years. Most of the children were of Pakistani and Indian origin. It was a warm day and we were eating our lunch out in the playground. We got to talking about our most cherished wishes. One boy said in a broad Yorkshire accent, ‘my biggest wish is to go truffle hunting with my father in the Afghan mountains.’

It turned out the boy’s father was Afghani. Trapped in the fraught and long-winded process of sorting out his immigration paperwork, he still lived in Afghanistan. The son visited once a year but never during the truffle hunting season.  It was a Eureka moment for me. It brought images of a magical Middle East flooding back into my head. Not the clichéd magic of genies and flying carpets, but the enchantment of real life still tied to the land and the seasons.

I started reading up on life in Middle Eastern countries, now and in the past and I fell for its charm all over again. Baghdad especially drew my interest. Based around the ‘beyt al Hikma’, meaning ‘house of knowledge’, a world-famous library built in the 9th century, it established itself as a world leader in the arts, science and innovation.

As I started sharing my discoveries in my talks to schools, I learnt that most children, even those of Muslim heritage, were unaware of Baghdad’s glorious heyday, of its massive contribution to the worlds of science, mathematics, medicine, poetry and translation. Without its scholars and their mentors, including the powerful caliphs who built the libraries and schools, much of the writings of the ancient world would now be lost forever.

9781472955999.jpgToday the Golden Age of Islam is part of the National Curriculum in KS2. It’s the perfect opportunity to explore the real history of a culture we in the West so often overlook. My book The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad was written to accompany the subject. Like my other works for Bloomsbury Education, it’s a rollicking adventure but it is also packed with information and insight into the culture and the period. I hope you all enjoy it.

 

The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad is bestselling historical fiction author Saviour Pirotta’s latest novel. Out now!

Re-Booting Rainbows

An interviewer once asked Roald Dahl: “How is it, when you’re writing for eight-year-olds, you can catch and hold their attention so completely?” Roald looked surprised at the question. “I am eight-years-old,” he explained.

Or whatever age was called for, apparently.

This ability to adjust so readily to a specific target-group is as handy for a children’s author as it is for a class teacher. After all, whatever our chosen destination, we’ll be arriving there alone if we don’t begin where the kids are.

Not that I envisaged any such problem with my story Rainbow Boots. I’d just been re-reading the Brer Rabbit stories of Joel Chandler Harris and was keen to write a ‘trickster’ story of my own. Already, in fact, an idea was forming in my mind. It would be about a kid called Denzil who’s so desperate to share in the latest craze for fancy, rainbow-coloured leisure boots that he’s prepared to lie, to cheat and even to con his best friend Nadeem to get hold of a pair. Clearly, a task for my long-ago top-junior persona if ever there was one!

What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot as it turned out. Because, for some reason, my long-ago top-junior persona kept slipping the name of Len Shackleton into my mind. Len who, do you ask? Exactly! I’d barely given Len a thought since my fledgling days as a football fan. I’d read at a sitting his autobiography The Crown Prince of Soccer– a great title for a book about a player who was as famous for his jokes, on and off the pitch, as he was for his football skills. It was Len who back-heeled a penalty kick into the corner of the net having sent the goalie the wrong way. It was Len who often used a corner flag to make a return pass to himself and leave an opponent bamboozled. It was Len who once brought a match to a complete stop by putting his foot on the ball while he pretended to check his watch and comb his hair before he casually took a shot at goal (he scored, of course).

Now there was a trickster to reckon with!

Not that Len’s antics impressed everyone. Despite his brilliance, he won only five international caps for his country because “England play at Wembley not The London Palladium” as one of the England selectors snorted.

All lovely stuff for a story, yes. Pity it wasn’t the story I was trying to write. This was about a fashion victim not a celebrity soccer player. Having got all my ducks in a row – the characters, the primary school setting, the pace and shape of the story-line – the last thing I needed was a show-off like Len Shackleton kicking my tale into touch.

Wait, though.

Suddenly, out of the blue, another of Len’s flicks-and-tricks popped into my head. It was a routine trick so eye-catching it became one of his trademarks. When he left the dressing room after a match, he often entertained the fans who were waiting for his autograph by dropping a coin onto his instep, flicking it from one foot to the other, keepsie-upsie style, and finished off by flipping it into the top pocket of his club blazer. What a climax that would make! And what a way to point up the difference between a pair of boots that were strictly for decoration and those that were made for playing.

Hmm…

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Which is how, with a bit of careful re-writing on my part, a Len Shackleton figure,  under a different name, makes a guest appearance in Rainbow Boots after all. For me, it’s a reminder of how mysterious and unpredictable the writing process is. We should never forget that forward planning is fine up to a point. But we must always allow for an enlivening change of direction – not least if it springs from our own childhood experience. Wily old Roald didn’t need a reminder about this. He seems to have known it deep in his bones!

 

Chris Powling’s has written more than sixty books for children, and his new book Rainbow Boots publishes on 7th February.

 

History is All About King What’s-His-Face, Isn’t It?

I’ve spoken to lots of people and groups over the years and I always ask if anyone in the audience doesn’t like history, a question which is always followed by a forest of raised hands that seem to grow out of the faces below them, all looking bored, snotty or argumentative. And then when I ask exactly why they don’t like history the answers are usually ‘coz it’s boring’ or ‘it has nothing to do with us today’ or ‘it’s just about a load of blokes with power and other blokes who want power’.

Good answers. I used to feel the same, but then one day something stupidly obvious occurred to me…history’s actually about people! Not just rich people with power, but all people. All of us today make up part of what will become the history of our time. We all make it, like house bricks, which when they’re all put together, make a building, sometimes a huge building! King What’s-His-Face, and Queen Thingy-Ma-Bob wouldn’t have got or kept their power without the ordinary people to help them. Kings and Queens and Presidents and Generals are just the bodies who give a name to whichever part of history we’re looking at; most of the real makers of history are people like us.

So, why do I write about Kings and Queens? Because they’re like the key that opens history’s door and shows us exactly what’s inside and also who’s inside. In The First King of England, I talk about Athelstan Cerdinga (what a mighty name), but I also tell of Edwin the shoemaker’s son. Not a person you’ll actually find mentioned in any of the history books, but a character who’s based on the ordinary everyday people who helped to make the history of their time.

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They lived when the Vikings were raiding and pillaging and taking the land from the Anglo-Saxon people who lived on these islands. And when you ask anyone today about these times, if they think about it at all, they believe the Vikings were unstoppable and that the Saxons spent their time running away from these nutters armed with axes. And at the beginning that was mainly true, but then came along a group of men and women who learnt how to fight back. So began a time of powerful people with wonderful names like Alfred the Great, Edward the Elder, Aethelflaed the ‘Lady of the Mercians’. Leaders who took back control from the Vikings, but who could only do it with the help of the ordinary people of those times who were just like you and me.

But if you think the Saxon people drove out the Vikings after they’d defeated them, you’d be wrong. The Saxon rulers allowed them to stay as long as they acknowledged them as their rulers too. This was the beginning of the country that would become known as England. A country made up of different peoples from different lands, just as it is today. And King Athelstan Cerdinga was the very first ruler of that new land. Read about him in The First King of England.

 

Stuart Hill is the author of the Icemark series of historical fantasy novels and winner of the inaugural Watersone’s Children’s Book Prize. Stuart’s newest book, The First King of England, publishes on 6th September.

 

 

Just Be Yourself

I am a writer. I see the world differently and this causes me to document my experiences. But as a teen growing up in a Caribbean family in Birmingham, I wasn’t always so sure of my identity.

When I went to secondary school, being eager to learn was seen as “acting white”. I listened to Evanescence, Linkin Park and Nickelback. I enjoyed fish and chips and chilli con carne which weren’t exactly Caribbean food. On Saturdays my mum or even my Nan, who lived with us for a short time, would fill a pot with tropical vegetables and meat. They made “Saturday soup,” which was something I didn’t really enjoy and to this day still don’t. At school it was all about Nelly, Ashanti and of course Beyoncé. I was obsessed with Busted and was subsequently devastated when they broke up. My cousin introduced me to manga which I loved.

George, Misfit‘s main character, is mocked for liking different things and in some ways, so was I.

Growing up, I was aware that there were rules about being cool and fitting in that I didn’t understand or couldn’t be bothered to follow. While my family weren’t as harsh as George’s, I was aware of my difference. I was the eldest, but all my younger siblings knew what was “in” and knew how to “act”. I didn’t use many slang words like “rinsed,” “packed” and “blud”. George also finds himself straddling two different worlds. He is at grammar school but finds himself going to the local secondary school. He sees how difficult it is to present yourself in two different environments which is a challenge a lot of young people face.

My three reasons for writing Misfit are….

  • To encourage those “misfits” to be themselves. I questioned why I didn’t fit in for years, now I’m glad I stand out. More than anything, I’m hearing how cool it is to be a geek, or to indulge in alternative entertainment. Suddenly my pastimes are considered interesting. The message of the book is to explore your differences and learn to accept them.
  • To help others accept that different people have different likes and interests, especially when it deviates from your community. Whether the message is that we shouldn’t like reading or rock music because they aren’t part of our culture; we need to accept that our interests can vary.
  • To remind young people that bullying is never ok, regardless of the source. Bullying occurs within George’s family, and freedom came with acceptance. While there are many ways to deal with bullying, you may feel as though you don’t belong for a long time. Something I have found out for myself.

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The message of the book overall is: be yourself.

It isn’t about whether you act the same way as your peers, it’s about finding out who you are and accepting that. It’s about conquering your fears, standing out and being proud of how unique you are. We’re all different and while we might be encouraged to fit in, it strikes me that writing a book counts as standing out.

 

Misfit, Kimberly Redway‘s debut novel, is out now. Part of the Bloomsbury High/Low series, it is ideal for readers aged 11+ with a reading age of 9+.

And Another Thing…

One of the many joys of being a children’s author is fan mail. From painstaking prose in elegant cursive to almost illegible print (not unlike my own scatty hand), they delight and fascinate and rarely fail to make me smile. Even the ones that pick me up on typos or factual errors (I know now that Viennetta was NOT invented until the 1980s and that you do NOT get Bounty bars in a Mars selection box). Until, a year or so ago, this landed on my doormat.

 

Well, why indeed? I wondered. Or rather, why not? Because, was that actually a rule? And, if so, why? And, oh, hang on, I’ve just done it again.

So I thought about it. And I thought about it some more. And I realised a couple of things:

Firstly, that I’m of a generation that missed out on grammar lessons at school. I say missed out, but, what I really mean is, we weren’t taught the rules, just to read, and then encouraged to write our own stories. And we’ve done okay overall.

But, secondly, that I’m a trained proof and copy editor, and a former government speechwriter and journalist, and not once have I ever pulled anyone up or been pulled up on this. Because, and here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change the sense of a sentence. It isn’t grammatically incorrect. What matters is the story. What matters is imagination. What matters is making the words work best. And if that means starting a sentence with an ‘and’, then so be it.

And so I wrote back:

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The letters went viral – a few po-faced people disagreed, but in the main the support from teachers and parents (in the middle of dealing with SATS and the horror that is SPAG) was overwhelming. And so I’ve done it again. And again. And again.

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In It Wasn’t Me, my new Bloomsbury Young Reader, I’ve counted seven in Chapter One alone, not including the dialogue. I may also have used a comma splice. I may even have split an infinitive somewhere. I’ve certainly not ‘displayed my knowledge’ of semi-colons or used a plethora of ‘wow words’. What I have done is used my imagination, in a story that is all about thinking big, and thinking wild, as Alfie blames all his misdemeanors on a gremlin called Dave, whom he claims lives in his sock drawer. Admittedly, Alfie gets his comeuppance for telling big hairy whoppers when Dave appears and causes real mischief and mayhem. But, throughout, we side with him, understanding the urge to tell stories, to break rules, to do it our way. The pay-off being that,Joanna Nadin- Alfie while Alfie fesses up, he doesn’t entirely mend his ways.

And nor should our young readers and writers. Let them break grammar rules. Let them mis-spell. Let them use capitals in the wrong places. Above all, let them loose their imaginations and fall in love with story itself. The rules and boundaries – the necessary ones – can come later. But for now, words should be playthings. For some of us – the lucky ones – they will remain so forever.

 

Joanna Nadin is a former broadcast journalist, speechwriter and special adviser to the Prime Minister. Since leaving politics, Joanna has written more than 70 books for children and teenagers, including the award-winning Penny Dreadful series, the best-selling Flying Fergus series with Olympic champion Sir Chris Hoy.

Her new book, It Wasn’t Me: A Bloomsbury Young Reader, publishes on 18th October 2018.

From Pirate Sword to Pen

Pirates of Poseidon, the third book in my Ancient Greek Mysteries, has recently published. It’s one that I really enjoyed writing because it twins my two biggest literary passions: Ancient Greece and piracy. It is also set on one of my favourite islands: Aegina.

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I grew up on an island rich in pirate lore. Malta sits right at the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, half way between Europe and North Africa. Any empire that wanted to conquer the exotic lands of the Barbary Coast used Malta as a base for their naval operations. The island has been ruled by the Phoenicians, Romans, Carthaginians, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, English and French. All this activity drew the attention of pirates, of course. For thousands of years, they plundered the sea around Malta, attacking ships as they bustled between the two continents. They left an indelible mark on both the Maltese landscape and psyche. Every corner of the island has a pirate story to tell. Here’s a house where a bride was kidnapped by pirates on her wedding day. Here’s a cave where a young girl hid from corsairs on her way home from the fields. That light at the bottom of the sea? It’s streaming out of a church that tumbled off a cliff after the holy saint in its painting came alive to rescue a boy from the evil pirates.

It’s no wonder, then, that I grew up fascinated by pirate stories. When I first had the idea for the Ancient Greek Mysteries, a good many years ago, the first image that flashed through my mind was of Ancient Greek pirates fighting two boys and two girls on a burning ship. I knew the pirate captain would have a highly polished sword that flashed in the moonlight. He would wear a golden mask to hide his true identity, one very much like the ‘mask of Agamemnon’ found in the ruins of Mycenae.  But who were the plucky kids? I toyed with all sorts of ideas: they could be actors in a touring company, or acolytes in a temple. I even thought of making them athletes, travelling around the ancient Greek world to take part in festival games and contests. But how would they come across the pirates? Why would they be fighting them?

For inspiration, I travelled to the Peloponnese islands. On the ferry from Athens, I chatted with a man with a shaved head and a snake tattoo on his right forearm. He claimed to be a detective, heading to the island of Poros.

“On holiday?” I asked.

“No, work.”

Having read that Poros is a sleepy island with a population of less than 4000, I couldn’t for the life of me think what he could possibly be investigating there. I tried worming some information out of him but to no avail. Later in the week I bumped into him a second time, at the famous temple of Poseidon on the northern side of the island. Was he on a break from his detecting duties, I wondered, or was he visiting the sanctuary in search of clues?

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Suddenly I had a role for the children in my stories. They would be detectives.  The boys would be Sherlock Holmes and Watson transported to Ancient Greece when the temple of Poseidon was at its height. They could travel all around Greece solving mysteries and every story would feature a famous temple hiding a vital clue.

In the end, I never did use the temple for the series. A few days later I visited the nearby island of Aegina, and decided to set one of the stories there.

It took me well over fifteen years to find the time to collate all my travel notes and work out proper plots for the Ancient Greek Mysteries. Other projects got in the way. But I never forgot that first meeting with the mysterious detective on his way to Poros. He was the inspiration for Thrax, one of the main characters and the lead detective in the stories.

Like the man with the snake tattoo, Thrax is someone who keeps his cards close to his chest, and he has a shaved head. Not to look cool but for an entirely different reason. A reason that ended up being the backbone for the whole series. Want to find out what it is?  Nico, the narrator of the stories, would love to tell you all about it…

 

Saviour Pirotta is the author of nearly one hundred titles, including Ancient Greek Mysteries Mark of the Cyclops and Secret of the Oracle. His most recent book, Pirates of Poseidon, is out now.

What Kids are Reading and Why we Commissioned the High/Low Series by Hannah Rolls (Commissioning Editor for Fiction & Poetry at Bloomsbury Education)

I’m always interested to hear more about what books children are reading so I was excited to see the recent release of the 2017 ‘What Kids Are Reading’ report: perfect reading matter for a reading geek like me!

The report looks at the reading habits of over 800,000 primary and secondary school children over the last year and is fascinating to those of us who spend our days trying to figure out how to get children as addicted to books as we are.

One of the things in the report that makes me particularly sad is the list of the most read books by struggling readers. These are children who are reading well below the expected level for their age, but I can’t believe that 9-11 year old children are excited to be reading The Gruffalo (the second most read book by struggling readers in year 5 and the third most read by struggling readers in year 6).  Obviously Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s masterpiece is a modern classic but these are children whose classmates have moved on to Roald Dahl, David Walliams and the Wimpy Kid series.

One of the things I’ve been working on here at Bloomsbury education over the last 18 months or so is improving what we have available for struggling readers so that (I hope) children can find something age appropriate to read, with just the right level of challenge.

The books in our new Bloomsbury High Low series have a higher interest age than their reading age – making them perfect for struggling readers, those with dyslexia and those with English as an additional language. Both the reading age and the interest age are printed on the back next to the barcode to make it really easy to tell who a book is for.

We’ve used tinted paper and a font from a list suggested by the British Dyslexia Association to try and make things a bit easier for children with Irlen syndrome or dyslexia. And we’ve worked with literacy experts from the charity Catch Up to make sure the text is perfectly tailored to suit the needs of struggling readers.

Most importantly, we’ve worked with brilliant authors and illustrators to make these books as engaging as possible – I really hope all children will find something they can get excited about here.

For more information on the Bloomsbury High/Low series and the brilliant new titles please visit http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/education/series/high-low-fiction/