Monday, 29 September 2014

HERE BE MONSTERS - Now out in paperback + Nottingham Event

I'm delighted to announce that Here Be Monsters, my third picture book with illustrator Poly Bernatene, has just been published in paperback by Macmillan Children's books!

When greedy Captain Cut-Throat hears of an island strewn with giant gem stones, he and his villainous crew set sail immediately to take the treasure for themselves. According to the map the misty waters that surround the island are teeming with hungry monsters – but that doesn't bother the Captain who assures his crew that "monsters simply don't exist." However as the ship nears the island, the unfortunate crew learns otherwise. Will they be able to convince their greedy Captain before it's too late?

"Here be monsters!" said the first mate.
"Monsters hiding the mist!"
"Nonsense," said the Captain.
"Monsters simply don't exist."

The hardback edition has had some great reviews. Here's a couple of them:

"Raucous rhymes, playful visuals, and great gobs of wicked humour make Here Be Monsters a wildly imaginative adventure. The road to ruin has never been so fun"
Donna McKinnon, 32 PAGES
"What a brilliant book to read aloud. Dare you to read it and not burst out a pirate accent! The rhyming is divine and the plot adored by young listeners."

To mark the publication of the paperback, I've created 3 new activity sheets – a Here Be Monsters Crossword, a Misty Monsters drawing sheet and a Spot the Monsters sheet – which you can download by clicking on the images below.

Here Be Monsters Crossword
Buy this book at amazon UK
Misty Monsters Drawing Sheet

Buy at amazon US
Spot the Monster's Sheet

You can also download and print out the Munching Monsters Card Game featuring the Poly Bernatene's wonderful character illustrations from the book.

Here's a couple of spreads and the trailer for the book.

And, if you live near Nottingham, you might like to come along to my Here Be Monsters event at the Telling Tales Children's Festival on 11 October. I'll be explaining how an ancient ostrich egg and a five-hundred-year-old sea map helped to inspire the story and we'll be drawing monster-infested treasure maps. If X marks the right spot – you could win a signed copy of the book!

UPDATE: This event has now sold out, but if you don't have a ticket, you can still come along to my un-ticketted "drop-in" storytelling event at 3.15pm to hear me read The Princess and the Pig and Pigs Might Fly.

Click here to find out more about the book on my web site

find your local bookshop Buy this book at amazon UK Buy at amazon US

Monday, 22 September 2014

Skyboy and other Stupendous Science Stories • Early Reader

Although most of my books are picture books, I occasionally write for older children as well and my latest book, out this Friday, is a collection of science-themed stories for 8 to 9-year-olds called Skyboy and other Stupendous Science Stories.

When Oxford University Press asked me if I’d like to write something for their Project X series, I had mixed feelings at first. They wanted me to write what they called a “Mash-Up”, comprising of three stories and a poem which seemed like a lot of work for one book.

However the theme of the stories was science, a topic that’s always appealed to me, and the three stories were all in different formats; a conventional short story, a comic strip and a play script. I’d never written a comic strip or a play script before, so I decided I should give it a go. I’m glad I did, because I’m delighted with the way the book has turned out.

I wrote each of the stories about a different area of science:
The short story, Brought to you by ThinkRight, is about a sinister use of neuroscience (the study of how the brain works).  
The comic strip, Skyboy Takes Off, is about the invention of an anti-gravity generator 
The play script, The Greatest Scientist of All Time, is about time travel 
And the poem, My Cousin is a Cucumber, is about evolution and the amazing fact that all life is thought to have descended from a single simple lifeform.
One of Kevin Hopgood's pencil roughs for Skyboy Takes Off.
The two scientists in the story, Max and Laura, are named after
my children.
Although it’s by far the simplest story, the most challenging to write was the comic strip, Skyboy Takes Off. OUP’s brief required that the story be told in 10 pages (slightly smaller than A5) with no more than 3 panels on each page and a maximum word count of less than 150 words. There’s only so much plot you can cover in such a tight format, but I wanted to write something that had some action and excitement, so I wrote an origins story for a young superhero that finishes the moment that Skyboy takes to the sky for the first time.

One reason I’m so pleased with the finished book is the illustrations. I can be quite picky about illustration style and with four different illustrators working on the book I thought it might take a while to agree on a suitable line-up. However the first four illustrators that designer Lily Trotter and editor Rachel Green suggested were all great matches for the stories they were illustrating.

My short story, Brought to You by ThinkRight was influenced by the “Golden Age” science fiction short stories I’d read when I was growing up, so Simon Bartram’s slightly retro style is a great fit for that story.

Skyboy Takes Off was very much in the tradition of Marvel comic superheroes, so I'm thrilled that Iron Man and 2000 AD illustrator Kevin Hopgood has illustrated it.

I’d discovered Alex Patterson’s comical illustrations through Twitter and had recently suggested him for a book with another publisher, but it had ended up with another illustrator. So I was delighted that he was able to illustrate the play script of The Greatest Scientist of All Time.

And Yannick Robert has done a terrific job of illustrating My Cousin is a Cucumber. I love Yannick’s little caricature of my science hero, Charles Darwin, sitting in a tree.

Charles Darwin is one of my science heroes and I have a little collection of Darwin souvenirs in my office.

Readers can test their knowledge of the stories
in the book by downloading the Skyboy crossword.

find your local bookshopBuy this book at amazon UKBuy at amazon US

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Callum's Incredible Construction Kit US fan site

In April this year I made a virtual visit to the 1st Graders at Tuckahoe Common School in New York State. In preparation for the visit, teacher Laurie Verdeschi borrowed 15 of my books from the library. The children had some of the books read to them and read some to each other. Then they voted on which was their favourite.

My virtual visit with the 1st Graders at Tuckahoe Common School.
I read them The Princess and the Pig before they told me the results of their vote. 

The children revealed the results of the vote to me during the virtual visit. The runaway winner was Callum's Incredible Construction Kit illustrated by Ben Mantle. At the end of the visit, several of the children came to the camera, one after the other, to enthuse about their favourite Callum creations. Ben's illustrations of the T-Rex and the big fold-out picture of Callum's house rebuilt with construction kit (shown below) were particularly popular.

I told the children that, while I was delighted that the book had won, I was also quite surprised as the book didn't have a US publisher, so I would not have expected them to have come across it.

I didn't think any more of it, until today when Laurie sent me this email:

Hi Jonathan
It's been awhile since our 1st graders Skyped with you, but I recall it as a highlight of last year. As we discussed, our students love Callum's Incredible Construction Kit. After speaking with you and finding out that Callum doesn't have an American publisher, they wrote letters and drew pictures for a CICK Fan Club website. I finally scanned a selection of their work and put together a small website.
I hope you enjoy it and maybe you'd even like to direct publishers to it!
Thanks again!
Laurie Verdeschi

The fan site the children created.

The slideshow on the site features some wonderful drawings of Callum's inventions …

Two of the children's drawings of Callum's house

… and a collection of the children's letters, most of which are addressed to US publishers asking them to publish the book.

Surely only the most hard-hearted publisher could resist these children's letters!

So if you're a US publisher, looking for a picture book with proven appeal to discerning US 1st Graders, look no further. I'm sure Callum's UK publisher, Egmont, would love to hear from you. Don't all run at once!

Find out more about this book on my web site

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

10 Top Tips for Great Virtual Author Visits

This post was originally published on Picture Book Den, a blog about picture books by picture book authors and illustrators.

Are you Skyping comfortably? Then I'll begin.

A couple of years ago two school children in North Carolina emailed me to ask if I’d make a Skype visit to their elementary class. The class had read my picture book The Princess and the Pig and wanted to ask me some questions about it. I’d been thinking about offering Skype visits for some time, so I agreed. The visit went really well. I read the book to the children who'd prepared some great questions to ask me afterwards. The visit had been very quick and easy to arrange and although I’d only spent half an hour talking to the children, it was obvious they'd become very enthusiastic about my books as a result.

Skype author visits are very popular in the US with many US children’s authors offering short virtual visits for free as well as longer visits for a fee. It seemed like a great way to connect with young readers both in the UK and beyond, so in June last year I started offering a limited number of free Skype school visits through my web site.

One of my virtual visits to a school in Wisconsin

I did my twentieth virtual visit last term and already have another five lined up for this autumn. Some of the schools I've visited have not had an author visit of any kind before and every school has been very appreciative. Teachers often follow up with classroom activities and schools have sent me letters, drawings and even an ebook the children created in response to my visit.
Although the technology is in place, virtual visits don’t seem to have caught on in the UK in the way they have in the US and only three of my virtual visits have been to UK schools. I think their popularity in the US is partly due to web sites such as the Skype an Author Network and Kate Messner's “Authors who Skype” web page which lists authors offering free Skype visits to US schools. So in March this year I set up a directory of UK authors and illustrators offering free 15-20 minute Skype visits to UK schools.

The Virtual Authors site includes a page of advice for authors and illustrators on how to set up virtual visits, but I thought I’d offer some further advice on this blog. So here are 10 top tips for great virtual author visits.

Arranging the visit

1: Set up a web page for your virtual visits

My virtual visits page
Since I don't charge for my virtual visits, I like to keep the admin time to an absolute minimum and most of my visits are arranged with one or two short emails. The virtual visits page on my web site attempts to answer all the questions that schools might want to ask such as ‘how long does a visit last?’ or ‘is there a minimum group size?’. There’s also a booking table showing which dates are currently available. If this information wasn’t on the site I’d have to spend time responding to these questions by email. Similarly, you can ask schools to email you their visit requests, but a visit request web form with ‘required’ fields is a good way to ensure that schools provide you with all the information you need in one go.

2. Confirm the school’s Skype-name in advance

One of details you need to get from the school is their Skype-name. Teachers sometimes get this wrong, so it’s worth making sure you have the correct Skypename by sending a “contact request” via Skype in advance of the visit. I usually do this as soon as I receive the booking request to get it out the way. Ask the school (via email) to make sure that they accept the contact request and then check that they've done so a couple of days before the visit. This eliminates any problems with making contact on the day.

Five minutes before the visit

3. Make sure you'll be presentable and in frame

On a real school visit if you have spinach in your teeth someone will probably point this out to you before you appear in front of a room full of children. The first time anyone will see you on a virtual visit is when you appear on the screen, so take a quick look in the mirror to check that your hair’s not sticking up at an outrageous angle or make sure you haven’t got toothpaste smeared across your chin – unless that’s the look you’re going for!

You might also want to check that your webcam is angled so that the children can see your whole face and not just the top or bottom of your head! You can check how you'll appear on your webcam by using the preview window in Skype's preferences. On a Mac, click on Skype on the menu bar, then Preferences > Audio/Visual. On a PC, click Call > Video > Video Settings.

Make sure you don't look like you've just crawled out of bed and that your face is well-framed.

4: Be seen in the right light

You don’t want the children to see you as a sinister silhouette, so make sure your face is adequately lit when you’re on camera. If you're Skyping during daylight hours, daylight from a window will often provide the best lighting. If you’re using a Mac or a PC with a large screen to Skype, bear in mind that the screen itself is a light source. If the desktop on your computer is bright green and there’s not much light coming from your surroundings, your face may be bathed in sickly green light. This might be perfect if you’re reading a horror story, but if you're not then a neutral-coloured desktop (or a blank white document) behind your Skype window will illuminate your features without a colour cast.

Unless you're deliberately going for sinister and spooky, make sure you're seen in a good light.

5. Take the phone off the hook

You don’t want anything distracting you while you talk to the children, so five minutes before the visit take your landline off the hook and switch your mobile to silent. You might also consider quitting or turning off any alert sounds for your email and Twitter accounts.

Eliminate any distractions before you Skype

6. Know who you're talking to

Even though it’s a virtual visit, you want it to feel as personal as possible. So if like me you’re not very good at remembering names, write the name of the teacher, the class or year group, the school and the school’s location on a small piece of paper and stick it right next to the camera where you’ll be able to read it without looking away from the screen.

Some tips on how to set up your screen

During the visit

7. Look at the camera – not the screen

One of the things that can make Skype conversations feel less real than face to face conversations is a lack of eye contact. Skype users tend to look at the other person’s face on the screen rather than straight into the camera. Most authors will be using a webcam that’s built into their laptop or desktop PC. It’s tempting to make the Skype window full screen so that you get a bigger image of the children, but if you have a large screen it’s worth keeping the Skype window relatively small and right next to the camera (see screen photo above). That way you can see the the whole class while keeping your eyes close to the camera, which will look a lot more natural from the children’s point of view. When I’m reading a picture book, I try to look straight into the camera for most of the time so that the children will feel I am reading directly to them.

Try to look straight at the camera when you're speaking to the children

8. Don’t shout

Try to speak at a natural volume. If you find yourself talking loudly without meaning to, it may be because you have the speaker volume set too low on your computer; the children sound quiet so you subconsciously raise your own voice to compensate for the apparent poor connection. Similarly if you’re Skyping to a large hall full of children there’s no need to raise your voice so that they can hear you at the back (as you'd do if you were there in person). If your audience can’t hear you, the teacher can turn up the volume at the school's end.

9. Ask the teacher to prompt the children's questions

My Skype sessions usually include a question and answer session. On my actual school visits I can select which children ask questions by pointing at them myself. This isn’t practical on a virtual visit as the class can’t accurately judge who you’re pointing at from your screen image. An easy way around this problem is to ask a teacher to pick and prompt each questioner in turn.

10: Take advantage of being at home

A virtual visit is no substitute for a real school visit, but speaking to the children from home does have some advantages. For instance, if you’re able to move your camera around, you can give the children a guided tour of your office. I only take a small selection of my books on my actual school visits, but on a virtual visit I have them all at hand. So If a child asks me about the first book I ever wrote or my favourite picture book by another author, I can take a copy from my bookshelf and show it to them!

Show don't tell!

I hope this post has made some of you – authors and teachers – want to give virtual school visits a try. If you're already an experienced virtual visitor and have any tips of your own, I’d love to hear them, so please post them in the comments below!

And If you’re a traditionally published author or illustrator that would like to be listed on, please fill out the form on this page. Most of the authors that are currently listed on the site write for older children, so it would be great to have a few more picture book authors and illustrators.