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Mistress of the Storm by Melanie Welsh tells the story of Verity Gallant. Verity knows that she will never be quite as pretty or as popular as her sister Poppy. But, when she discovers a mysterious stranger who hands her an ancient book, everything changes. She becomes entangled in a web of dark magic and intrigue; while she also meets new friends, in the form of Henry and Martha. Young readers will undoubtedly identify with social outcast Verity. Her character evokes empathy, while her courage and strength of character are also evident. Overall, the book is well-written and young adults will enjoy this compelling story. Melanie also kindly agreed to give us an insight into writing for children and Mistress of the Storm.


1. Did you always want to be a children's writer?

Yes, always. Looking back I'm not sure why it took me so long to actually get on with it. The problem with wanting something really badly is that it often feels like an unattainable dream.

I think I chose to write a novel for children because those are still the kinds of stories I enjoy the most. The great thing about being an author is that you get to put in all the scenes and elements that you used to find most exciting or interesting.


2. What is your favourite children's book?

This is a tricky one because it tends to change all the time. The last time I was asked this question I said The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis but I've been writing about books that influenced me recently and I'm currently trying to find a copy of The Pigman by Paul Zindel. In between times we are also reading George's Marvellous Medicine by (of course) Roald Dahl to our four year old son Joe. One of the things I always loved about Dahl's stories as a child was how wonderfully honest he was. He made no bones about the fact that some grown-ups are just thoroughly repellent and totally irredeemable. That was definitely an idea that influenced the character of Grandmother in Mistress of the Storm.


3. Where did you get the idea for the book and for the character, Verity Gallant?

Verity just popped into my head one day when I was out walking on the marshes at Walberswick with my husband. I can't remember exactly when it was but I do recall going in to work on the Monday and buying myself a new shocking pink notebook which I used to scribble down details about Verity's life. She's very much her own person these days - her conversations with Henry in particular always make me feel as if I'm just listening to them talking.

The thing I was particularly interested in at the time was the idea of a girl whose Grandmother comes to stay. And of having a family past that had been kept a secret.


4. How long did it take you to write the book?

It took about three years in total from typing the first sentence to holding a printed book in my hand. Although the original idea for Verity came to me about six years ago, I really only started in earnest once my first son Joe was born. I made a new year's resolution (which I have never done before or since, because I'm not a great believer in them) that I would write the first three chapters and a synopsis and send them to an agent. I agreed with my husband that if I got an agent he would help me find the time to write the first book ...and that if I didn't I would call it a day, and not mention it any more. Luckily I did find an agent that year, and the year afterwards she helped me find a publishing deal with David Fickling Books, which was absolutely thrilling because they are an imprint I admire hugely.


5. What's next for Melanie Welsh?

I'm incredibly fortunate that the German language rights to the Verity Gallant series (there are four planned in total) have been bought by Oetinger for the Erika Klopp imprint. So I've decided to take two years out of work to focus on being an author. I finished a fortnight ago, so I'm just getting used to it as the minute. I think I'm going to miss work and my colleagues a lot - but it's lovely being able to see my sons every night.


6. Do you have any tips for aspiring children's writers in particular?

Start now! That would be my first tip: because the process of getting a book published is an incredibly lengthy one. I think three other things that I've found helpful, and may therefore be useful to others are:


1.      Practice writing as much as you can. Try to look on every opportunity as a positive one. Even having to write documents or letters at work will teach you something about deadlines and taking into account other people's view of your writing style.

2.      Read as much as you can and keep your mind open to influences. Luckily my day job was as a Creative Planner for an advertising agency. It's a fascinating job because one of the things you have to do as part of it is listen to, watch, read and absorb a lot of different media and ideas. I like to think it's come in useful for character development because it gives you an insight into points of view other than your own.

3.      Take some time to learn about the craft of writing. There are an awful lot of things about plot structure, story arcs etc. that I really wish I'd known about before I started. I chanced upon a copy of Beginnings, Middles and Ends by Nancy Kress, which had been left in our old London home by a former inhabitant and I have to say it probably helped preserve my sanity! But there are plenty of good books out there on the subject.

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  wisdom of dead men large.jpg Born in Dublin in 1973, Oisín McGann works full time as an author and illustrator. He has written and illustrated numerous books for young children, including the Mad Grandad series and The Forbidden Files series. His latest book The Wisdom of Dead Men, is out now.


What inspired you to become a children's writer and illustrator?


I started writing stories almost as soon as I could write, and because all the books I read at that age were illustrated, I quickly started illustrating my own too. I just loved reading, and the experience of a story being spun in my imagination, so doing it myself seemed an obvious progression. I loved that feeling of lying in bed, long after my parents had told me to go to sleep, unable to close a book because the story held me in its grip. It expanded my mind and put an overactive imagination to good use. And if there was rain or wind blowing against the window, it all helped. I just thought it would be a great buzz to do for others what these writers were doing for me.


Who were your favourite authors as a child?


I hate this question, and writers get asked it all the time! The problem is that it would be impossible to list all the writers who influenced me. The ones who stick out now were the ones I read over a long period, or who wrote long stories or series of books, such as Dr Seuss, Richard Scarry, Beatrix Potter, Norman Hunter, Enid Blyton, CS Lewis, Roald Dahl, Jules Verne, JRR Tolkien, and then 'grown-up' novelists such as Stephen King and Louis L'Amour.  But there were so many brilliant one-off books too, that don't get mentioned so often, like The Iron Man by Ted Hughes or The Silver Sword. I was plied with the classics as a kid, and loved stories such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and Herman Melville's Moby Dick, or Masterman Ready by Frederick Marryat (all books set on or around the sea - it's amazing I didn't turn out a sailor). I also read a lot of comics too, written by people like Alan Moore, Pat Mills and Frank Miller.


What is a typical writing day for you?


I wish I had one. I like routine when it comes to writing, but many people might be surprised that working full time as a writer and illustrator doesn't mean you actually spend your whole day writing and illustrating. At least half of my time is spent running the business of writing; answering emails, organizing and doing promotional sessions, doing talks . . . and running workshops, of course. You have to be very strict with yourself about maintaining a work routine that includes writing, as it's really easy to get distracted by other things and the deadlines are often quite far off. Illustration is a little different, as the deadlines are invariably looming by the time you've sorted everything with the designer and can get started, so there's more urgency involved. I like to illustrate purely during office hours, but normally like to write from late morning until the end of the work day, and if I can squeeze a bit in after I've spent the evening with my family, I will. I like writing at night, but I want to stay married! If you're writing a novel, it's particularly important that you do a consistent amount of work every week. I like to get at least one scene written in every sitting.


Where did you get the idea for your latest book, The Wisdom of Dead Men?


The Wisdom of Dead Men is the second book in the Wildenstern Saga. Carrying on from Ancient Appetites, the background is an immensely wealthy, back-stabbing family, living in Victorian Ireland, who tolerate any man's assassination of those above him as way of getting to the top of the family. The story follows those in the family who rebel against this system.

There are a number of key ideas: The first is that this family have supernatural health, and believe that to breed ruthless ambition, they have to encourage a predatory way of life, but one that still maintains a civilized appearance at all times. I liked that contrast, having decided to take the concept of ambition and greed for profits to an extreme, where you have to climb past your own family members to succeed.

The second idea that underpins the story is the living machines known as engimals, whose origin is unknown, lost in the past. They roam wild, but are caught and domesticated by the human race, who use them for a variety of purposes, some of which would be recognizable to us in today's world. I think we all treat our machines as animals sometimes, so imagining your hoover is like a dog that feeds on the dirt in your carpet isn't too much of a leap. Now that we have robotic hoovers and lawn-mowers, this is even closer to reality. There is a link between these machines and the supernatural health of the Wildenstern family.

Finally, there are the mysterious, spontaneous combustions of women around the country. That came from a number of things, but partly from a television programme that examined how 'spontaneous' combustion could take place. It got me thinking about how one can create a mystery by exploring the divide between magic and science. 


What are you working on at the moment?


I'm just finishing the third book in the Wildenstern Saga, Merciless Reason, which delves more into the origin of the engimals and takes the hostilities within the family to a climax. I'm also laying out the next novel I want to write, which is something very different, but I don't want to say much about that at the moment. I have another Mad Grandad book in the works, and am working on two more books for the Armouron series, commissioned by Random House. On the illustration front, I have an exhibition of artwork, along with some other children's book illustrators, taking place in the Garter Lane Arts Centre in Waterford, Ireland.


Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?


I have a couple of sections on my website, www.oisinmcgann.com giving advice on writing, but my main advice is to get on with it. Reading interviews with authors and books about writing, doing courses, all these are useful in developing your trade skills, so to speak, but you should be spending as much time as possible actually writing. You can also get yourself a copy of The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. Between those things, you'll pick up most of what you need to know about getting published. Once you've done that, get back to doing some writing. Learn as much as you can about the world of publishing, and the rest is largely a matter of persistence and luck. Start sending your work out to publishers and don't give up if you get rejected. Everybody gets rejected. I still do sometimes. More than talent, or training or a love of storytelling and language, or useful contacts or glittering personality (although these all help), what you really need for this job is stubbornness, and a belief that this is what you're going to do with your life. And just don't quit.

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Picture books are not just for toddlers and some of the best children's books around are geared for a slightly older audience. This week, we'll take a look at some of the fantastic picks for children aged 3-5. Their rhythmic language and imaginative illustrations have enthralled children over the years (and hopefully will continue to do so!)


Where the Wild Things Are: Maurice Sendak

Sendak's brilliant fantasy, which was ground-breaking for its time has become a classic. It tells the story of an angry boy, Max, who is sent to his room for "making mischief." In his bedroom, Max sails away to a strange place, where the "wild things" live. Although these creatures are rather fiercesome, Max manages to tame them and they make him their king. Sendak's scary, yet beautiful illustrations reflect Max's imagination and anger and the theme and conflict in the story is one which readers both young and old will identify with. Yet, there is a happy ending where Max calms down and soon longs to be, "where someone loved him best of all."

Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do you See?: Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle

Bill Martin's rhyming book coupled with Eric Carle's bright colourful illustrations have thrilled young readers over the last 40 years. The story is a very simple one. An animal sees another animal looking at him. When you turn the page, the next animal does exactly the same and so on. Yet the rhyme and repetition along with stunning artwork of blue horses and purple cats will ensure that children will yell the word "again!" at the end of this book.

Winnie-the-Pooh: A.A. Milne

Winnie-the-Pooh has long been a favourite for children and adults alike and I'm happy to see that its popularity hasn't dwindled. There's quite an interesting array of characters; between the greedy Pooh; the timid Piglet and the gloomy Eeyore. There's also an underlying humour to some of the animals' conversations. Take the pessimist Eeyore; "One can't complain. I have my friends. Someone only spoke to me yesterday." The magic of Winnie-the-Pooh is that even when the characters encounter a dangerous situation in their adventures, a solution followed by a return to normality and safety is never far away, which inevitably offers young readers warmth and comfort.

The Gruffalo: Julia Donaldson

This story follows a little mouse who miraculously manages to scare off three creatures that plan to eat him. The mouse tells them that he is going to meet a scary creature called a "gruffalo." However, to his surprise he then comes across a real life gruffalo and has to think fast! He cleverly fools him into thinking that he, a tiny mouse is in the fact the scariest creature in the forest. Children will adore this clever story of a mouse outwitting all other animals. The rhyming language makes it easy to read and young readers will enjoy looking for little bugs and other creatures that are hidden in the various illustrations.

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I loved books as a child and my parents fed my reading habit, by bringing me to the local library every week.

My love of children's books hasn't faded and I'm happy to say that I now write full-time as a children's writer. Over the years, I've come across some amazing books and would love nothing more than to share some of my favourites with you.

This week, we'll look at just some of the magical stories which are suitable for children aged 0-3 years old. Hope you enjoy these classics as much as I do!

Goodnight Moon: Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd

This book's soft and soothing rhymes tell the story of a bunny rabbit saying good night to everything he can see in his room. Parents will be all too familiar with the little bunny's attempts to postpone sleep time. This is the ideal first book for any child, with its rhythmic language and heartwarming message. Just be ready for the inevitable question, "what's mush?!

The Very Hungry Caterpillar: Eric Carle

A hungry caterpillar eats his way through a week and eventually emerges as a stunning butterfly. Eric Carle's beautiful illustrations and simple repetitive text have fascinated children for decades. Young readers love to chant along with the text and guess what the caterpillar will eat next. This popular favourite also teaches counting and the days of the week, which makes it the perfect book to share with the very youngest of listeners.

Tale of Peter Rabbit: Beatrix Potter

Potter's book is as dramatic and as exciting ever, which goes to show that a clever book with atmospheric illustrations will stand the test of time. Peter is a mischievous rabbit and does not pay attention to his mother's warning to stay away from the McGregor garden. Young children follow Peter's plight and learn that it may not always be the wisest idea to disobey their mother. Still, it isn't preachy and of course there is the obligatory happy ending!

Gorilla: Anthony Browne

The children's laureate's book circles around a lonely little girl, whose father is depressed and buries himself in work. Hannah is obsessed with gorillas and one night she conjures up a gorilla to bring her on a dream outing to the zoo. When she wakes up, she finds that her father has begun to notice her. This is one of the most original children's books I have ever read and contains some very poignant moments.

Curious George: Margaret and H.A. Rey

There is something so appealing about this little monkey who doesn't intend getting himself into mischief, but manages to do so every time. In this first book, George's obsession with a big yellow hat leads to him being captured by the man who wears it and taken to "a big zoo in a big city." Children will love the colourful cartoon-like illustrations and the crazy humour in this story.


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