Children’s book recommendations

The Great British Bake-Off is over (Nadia: “I can. And I will.” An inspiration to women everywhere.) Strictly has begun. The nights are drawing in and bookshelves are groaning with books to be read in the long, dark evenings, and bought for friends and family as presents in the months to come.

But which books? How to choose?

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The days of the long, printed colour supplement crammed with children’s book recommendations are over, and this is a shame. And a surprise. Children’s and YA books are leading the market. They’re the most successful sector. Why do the papers and the media hardly talk about them? However, there are lots of enthusiastic and well-read reviewers out there, and I’ve seen some great book recommendations on the web recently. One of them even includes a book of mine …

Here are my suggestions for where to look this October:

12 Teen Books About Refugees. Scottish Book Trust. OK, so first of all, I’m going to include the list that includes me. Because, obvs. We all have the refugees from Syria and elsewhere on our minds right now, and many books bring this issue to life for children in deep and surprising ways. Jo Cotterill’s Looking at the Stars has been nominated for a host of awards, and rightly so. Eoin Colfer, of Artemis Fowl fame, has announced that he’ll be publishing a graphic novel with Andrew Donkin called Illegal about a refugee next year, and I can’t wait to see it. But meanwhile, the Scottish Book Trust has reminded me that my very first book was about a refugee too. I thought I was mad to combine a book about three teenage girls in the London fashion scene with a story I wanted to tell about child soldiers in Uganda, and the repercussions on their families. But that’s what I did. Crow Lamogi is still one of my favourite characters, and always will be. I very much doubt she came into this country entirely legally, but I am equally certain that she will do London, and her heritage, proud. Refugees and their children are often the lifeblood of a vibrant culture and economy. Let’s talk about them, and read about them, and be them for a bit, if only in a story. It will make us more compassionate, and this world needs all the compassion it can get right now.

The best young adult books of 2015 … Daily Telegraph. I don’t have a book out this year (my latest, due out in spring 2016, took ages to write), so I’m taking a great deal of pleasure in all my friends’ success. I’m lucky to have lots of writer friends, and they’ve written lots of great books recently. In fact, I’m off to a launch party for one of them this evening – When I Was Me, by Hilary Freeman, combining quantum physics, parallel universes and the very recognisable pain and promise of being a teenager. You can see Blamemybookshelf‘s review of it here.

One series mentioned by the Telegraph that I’m particularly pleased about is Keris Stainton’s Reel Friends, for younger teens. Keris is an old friend of mine, and we met online because she has always, always championed YA books – since before that’s what they were called. And especially books for and about girls. (Even though she’s the mother of two boys, and has written successfully about them too.) The Reel Friends series subtly addresses issues of diversity that children’s fiction still doesn’t bring to life often enough. Sure, the wonderful Nadiya Begum won the Bake-Off final last night, but how often do you see a girl in a hijab on the cover of a book? Or a girl exploring her developing feelings for another girl? I do a lot of school visits as an author and I regularly meet girls who I don’t think see themselves represented in the fiction they read, and who would hug Keris’s books to their heart. I’m including a link to the review of Spotlight on Sunny by Teens on Moon Lanes – another blog bigging up children’s books right now (and linked to a local bookshop of mine), which I’m happy to see.

If you want more general reviews, suggestions, advice and the ability to buy, there’s always the fantastic Lovereading4kids. If I were to set up a website about children’s books – as Julia Eccleshare did a few years ago – it would be like this. Oh, and I notice that one of its recommendations is for One, by Sarah Crossan. Can a book about conjoined twins, written in poetry, be really, really good? Yes. Yes it can. (Sarah also throws really, really good launch parties. But the quality of her maccaroons in no way biases me. I’d read the book first and already found it wonderful.) CJ Skuse’s Monster is there too. If you feel like a bit of boarding school horror – and who doesn’t? – try this one. CJ never pulls her punches and the ending will leave you with a very uncomfortable feeling. As any good horror should.

More suggestions to come, for 9-12 readers. About dragons and detectives. Two of my favourite subjects.

But for now, happy reading. The right book is out there. You just have to find it …

sophia xxx

How do I get my book published?

Today I received a very polite email from a visitor to my website called Jack, asking how he might get his book published. I could write an essay on the subject (and in fact I’ll be talking about exactly this at the Cheltenham Festival on Saturday, but in more detail and with special regard to children’s books, along with my publisher Barry Cunningham and a panel of publishing folk). I’d love to have replied to Jack in greater detail, but only had time to write briefly. However, I thought this might be worth sharing for the many people out there writing their own books.

I didn’t mention self-publishing, I realise. That’s another essay. And one of increasing relevance in today’s publishing market.

Nor did I mention getting editorial input from somewhere like the Golden Egg Academy, who work with authors whose books aren’t ready yet, to turn them into something an agent and publisher can get excited about. That’s another essay.

Here, though, are the basics. This is what I said.

Hi Jack

Thanks for your message. I have various suggestions for you, and I think most authors would agree.

First – congratulations! You finished your first draft. That’s such an achievement in itself. Second, if you haven’t done this already, put the book in a metaphorical drawer and don’t look at it for a few weeks. Then get it out again and revise it as much as you need to in order to polish it to the highest possible standard. It may take a few drafts, or many, to get it right. (It took me over 30 drafts until I was happy with my first published book.)

While you’re doing that, I strongly recommend you buy or borrow the latest edition of the Writers and Artists Yearbook, which is the bible for new writers. It lists all the publishers and agents, and what they’re looking for. Each agency has different requirements and is very specific. Please follow their guidelines, down to the line spacing. Once you’ve found a few that are looking for the kind of book you’ve written, you can send off to them. If they only want a few chapters, send them what they’ve asked for, not more. Do let them know that you’re applying to more than one at a time. They will understand, but they like to be informed. Craft your covering letter as carefully as your book, and make sure that without being overconfident, you sell yourself as a writer as much as you sell your story.

And then wait! If you get any feedback, think of it as a very positive thing and use it as much as you can. And start writing your next book. Because it might be your second, or third, or fourth that’s the one that makes it.

Good luck!

sophia