Whispering books – inside the Bodleian Library…

I nearly didn’t make it to Oxford today. In the mad rush to get to my platform (which was announced 30 seconds before departure time – thank you British Rail), I spot a small, smug-looking man with an orange umbrella.  And I know what that smugness means in a cattle stampede like this: he knows a short cut to the platform. I follow him round the whole crowd, dipping and weaving my way through the people.  We round a corner, away from the crowd, and then we stop dead. We are standing before the most enormous metal barrier.  If I run at it fast enough I’ll knock myself out – even the BFG wouldn’t stand a chance against this mountain.  I turn round to give Mr Smug a scowl but he’s vanished into thin air. I race back into the crowd and catch the train within seconds of it pulling out.  There is no sign of Mr Smug and his orange umbrella and I am beginning to wonder whether he wasn’t in fact a Time-Sprite (an irritating magical creature sent to steal people’s time).

Bodleian Library

But the Bodleian Library in Oxford is a world away from sprites and blocked up short cuts.  Only Oxford university students are allowed into the Library but moontrug has a very clever sister and gets to go in as a VISITOR.  Oh so smart.  The library was built in 1488 and as soon as I step foot inside it, I hear the pages of the ancient books whispering.  I’ve seen magical books before but these ones blow my mind: gold-leafed books with dark leather spines; waist-high books containing ancient atlases; dark red books bound with velvet ribbons; tanned leather books wider than two outstretched hands; tiny books with writing so small it’s almost invisible; bright orange books with sorcerer’s suns and moons and jet black books with no words at all…


According to the librarian who is perched at a desk half-way down the spiral staircase like some sort of magical book-goblin, there are 118 miles of shelves in the Bodleian – all full of books.  That’s 7,428,000 volumes and 1,241,000 maps – apparently.  Books with atlases of places only ancient explorers ever visited, books written in languages only a few people in the world can understand, books with mysterious, brooding characters…  No wonder they used this library when filming Harry, Hermione and Ron rummaging through forbidden books at Hogwarts…

Bodleian side view

Ribbon books

Just as I’m contemplating pocketing a very small book laced with golden lettering (the words are shimmering in the sunlight and I can almost hear the characters calling to me), my sister yanks my arm towards the spiral staircase.  We’re heading down, down, down now – past the book-goblin who is lowering two books on a pulley deeper into the ground with us.  Still we wind down until we’re well and truly underground, below millions of magical books.  And suddenly we’re running (moontrugs run everywhere) down a strangely-lit tunnel which connects the library rooms together.


We burst out of the tunnel into another library room which is just as eye-bendingly brilliant as the last.  We stop running (because no one else is running in the library and we’re trying to blend in) and I hear a strange grinding sound.  Seconds later, I realise that students are turning enormous cogs to open up the bookshelves. It’s like some kind of underground safe down here.  And I’m standing in the heart of it.


I turn one of the heavy cogs and the bookcase crawls backwards, revealing row upon row of treasured books.  I skim their spines and then settle on the emerald green one bound with old string.  I pick it up and just for a second I close my eyes.  Because I’m holding magic in the palm of my hand now – and this is a moment I want to remember.

Magical book


When the white feather fell… along came Mina

Most magical creatures are quite easy to identify.  A creature with scaled skin and a tendency to breathe fire? A dragon.  A bird that is re-born from its own ashes?  A phoenix. An immortal horse with a pointed horn on its forehead?  A unicorn.


But there is one magical creature which is almost impossible to define. But for those truggers (moontrug fans) who have written in and asked what on earth a moontrug is, I’m going to do my best to explain it to you. Well, ish – because the most magical things of all usually live outside the frames of explanation.  So in terms of personality, the closest thing to a moontrug is David Almond’s Mina (from Skellig and My Name is Mina). A moontrug’s mind is not full of useful information like dates and plans; it is full of wonder, feathers and stars.  Just like Mina’s:


A moontrug’s mind doesn’t waste time longing for loads of money and fancy cars; it spends its days thinking about how cool it would be to be a bird.  Just like Mina:


When most people are doing sensible things like passing exams and completing homework, a moontrug will do strange things without even realising it.  Just like Mina:


So who is this Mina and why is she so moontruggy?  Mina first appears in David Almond’s award-winning book, Skellig, as a free-spirited, home-schooled girl who helps the part-owl, part-angel creature, Skellig, with Michael.  She is full of wonder at the world around her – she loves nature, birds, drawing and William Blake’s poems – and she defies school and all its rules. Within pages readers fell in love with Mina but they had to wait another ten years to see her re-appear in the prequel, My Name is Mina (Click here to buy it on amazon).

My Name is Mina

Almond reveals, ‘For the 10th year anniversary of Skellig, my editor asked me whether I would write another Skellig-style book.  I remember standing in the threshold of my kitchen and just as I was trying to back out of writing another Skellig book, a white feather drifted past the kitchen door.  Immediately I thought of skylarks, owls and blackbirds – everything Mina cherished.  I knew it was her calling to me and that I had to write her story this time.  And after that nothing could stop her – she was banging on about William Blake’s poems all over again – and then she was writing all over the page before I could get a word in edgeways:


So a moontruggy personality is a Mina personality – wild, free, full of wonder and strangeness.


And a moontrug’s appearance?  Some days it’s mer creature with silver scales.  Other days it’s a unicorn with mighty wings.  Other days still it’s a loud-mouthed goblin with a massive grin.  And sometimes – just sometimes – it’s a miniature elf with ridiculous stripy leggings.  Because that’s the thing with magic: it never stays the same…

David Almond Signature

Stepping into magical worlds…

Some days doors are just doors, mirrors are just mirrors and wardrobes are just – well – wardrobes.  And then there are the other days.  The days when half-open doors look like openings to other worlds, when mirrors shimmer with hidden possibilities and when wardrobes seem like gateways to undiscovered lands.

Magical world

It is on those days that we realise the potential for magic just beyond the curtain of everyday life. But getting characters into a magical world can be tricky – because it’s got to be believable as well as original.  I once asked Philip Pullman (author of the brilliant Northern Lights) how he managed to get Will into Lyra’s world in Subtle Knife.  He told me, ‘The object you use to get into the other world doesn’t have to be special.  It can be something totally ordinary like a wardrobe, a knife or a mirror, but you have to make the transition from one world to the next believable.  It’s got to be subtle – real – as if it might just be possible after all.’

Pullman signature

So let’s take a look at the authors who got that moment just right:

Jake being dragged into the Obsidian Mirror (The Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher)

obsidian mirror‘His skin tingled.  A charge like fear built up in him. Snow swam in his eyes.  The bracelet tightened like a vice around his wrist.  It was happening.   The mirror was folding, collapsing in on itself, over and over, like an origami of glass, and into its emptiness was the only way left in the world.  He staggered, was dragged a step forward.  He said, ‘Now!’ Did Gideon press the switch?  He had no idea.  Because everything in his mind was gone, sucked into the dark void, all his thoughts, all his memories.  Everything that was him.  Until all that was left was his body.’
Click here to buy it on amazon

Jacob entering the Mirrorworld (Reckless by Cornelia Funke)

reckless done‘The glass was so uneven one could barely recognise one’s own reflection, and it was darker than other mirrors, but the rose tendrils winding across the silver frame looked so real they seemed ready to wilt at any moment. THE MIRROR WILL OPEN ONLY FOR HE WHO CANNOT SEE HIMSELF.  Jacob closed his eyes. He turned back to the mirror.  Felt behind the frame for some kind of lock or latch. Nothing. Only his reflection was looking him straight in the eye. It took quite a while before Jacob understood.  His hand was barely large enough to cover the distorted reflection of his face.  But the cool glass clung to his fingers as if it had been waiting for them, and suddenly the room he saw in the mirror was no longer his father’s study.’
Click here to buy it on amazon.

Will stepping into Lyra’s world (Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman)

The Subtle Knife‘The cat stepped forward and vanished. Will blinked. Then he stood still, close to the trunk of the nearest tree, as a truck came around the circle and swept its lights over him. When it had gone past, he crossed the road, keeping his eyes on the spot where the cat had been investigating. It wasn’t easy, because there was nothing to fix on, but when he came to the place and cast about to look closely, he saw it. At least, he saw it from some angles. It looked as if someone had cut a patch out of the air, about two yards from the edge of the road, a patch roughly square in shape and less than a yard across. If you were level with the patch so that it was edge-on, it was nearly invisible, and it was completely invisible from behind. You could see it only from the side nearest the road, and you couldn’t see it easily even from there, because all you could see through it was exactly the same kind of thing that lay in front of it on this side: a patch of grass lit by a streetlight. But Will knew without the slightest doubt that that patch of grass on the other side was in a different world. He couldn’t possibly have said why. He knew it at once, as strongly as he knew that fire burned and kindness was good. He was looking at something profoundly alien. And for that reason alone, it enticed him to stoop and look further. What he saw made his head swim and his heart thump harder, but he didn’t hesitate: he pushed his tote bag through, and then scrambled through himself, through the hole in the fabric of this world and into another.’
Click here to buy it on amazon.


Lucy discovering Narnia (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis)

narnia‘Looking into the inside, she saw several coats hanging up – mostly long fur coats. There was nothing Lucy liked so much as the smell and feel of fur. She immediately stepped into the wardrobe and got in among the coats and rubbed her face against them, leaving the door open, of course, because she knew that it is very foolish to shut oneself into any wardrobe. Soon she went further in and found that there was a second row of coats hanging up behind the first one. It was almost quite dark in there and she kept her arms stretched out in front of her so as not to bump her face into the back of the wardrobe. She took a step further in – then two or three steps always expecting to feel woodwork against the tips of her fingers. But she could not feel it… Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet… But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold. “This is very queer,” she said, and went on a step or two further.  Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.
Click here to buy it on amazon

Moontruggy Activity 1

Decide on an object you will use to get your character into the magical world (some ideas below)…

1. Through an old painting

2. Between the pages of an ancient book

3. At the end of a dark tunnel

4. Up a sooty chimney

5. Through a forgotten attic

…and then look at the techniques the authors use in the examples above (short sentences, dramatic verbs, similes, dashes, ellipses).  Then have a go at creating that spine-tingling moment of changing worlds.  You might want to use the senses to bring your writing to life – what can your character hear, smell, touch, see and even taste as he or she moves into the magical world?

Moontruggy Activity 2

Find a blank piece of paper and a pen or pencil.  Then play this piece of music (click here) and imagine you are on the threshold of another world.  Write, doodle, draw, jot, dance around the page with whatever fills your brain – until you have a page full of scribbles.  Now use these scribbles in any way you want to describe that moment of entering another world.

‘Small, soft, silvery sounds’ – from S F Said

I am sitting in the reception of Francis Holland School with the librarian.  And we are in a panic.  Our award-winning author is about to arrive and we have no idea what his name is.  ‘Do you think I just call him SF?’ the librarian asks. I shake my head, ‘It must stand for something.’ I whip out my iPhone and start googling.  ‘In a recent interview S F Said claimed that his initials stood for Something Fantastic.’  We look at each other blankly.  ‘I can’t call him that,’ the librarian mutters.  My mind races.  ‘What about giving Stanley-Frank a go?’  The librarian throws me a withering look.  ‘I don’t think so.’  But before we have time to find out more, S F Said walks in.  The librarian shakes his hand and says, ‘Hello’ (clever name-avoiding tactic) but a non-word is escaping from my lips and there is nothing I can do about it: ‘Hello, Ssssshhhhhhaaaauuuunnnnnn-Ffffffffffffffrrrrrupppp.’  There is an awkward silence and then the librarian takes us to the theatre.


The first thing that strikes me about S F Said is how modest he is.  When asked for a drink he asks for tap water and when I tell him that his award-winning novel, Varjak Paw, is being studied by kids in schools, he looks genuinely surprised. With three hugely popular books under his belt, Varjak Paw, The Outlaw Varjak Paw and the hot-off-the-press Phoenix, it is all the more surprising S F Said is such a down-to-earth guy.  Perhaps it’s got something to do with the way he rose to fame.

Varjak Paw


‘There were two things that inspired me to be a writer when I was little: a book called Watership Down and the first Star Wars film.  When I read about the community of rabbits who journeyed past deadly predators and adversaries to reach the promised land – and when I saw the opening sequence of Star Wars with its enormously epic spaceship – I knew I wanted to write a story as good as those ones.  And so I wrote quickly and furiously for two months and then sent the book off to 40 publishers.’  He pauses.  ‘Not long afterwards, I got 40 rejections.’

Watership Down

But S F Said wasn’t put off it seems. He wrote another book in just one month – this time late at night, by candlelight, and with the curtains drawn.  He sent it off to 40 publishers and once again he got 40 rejections.  And then he read an interview with Star Wars writer, George Lucas, who mentioned a word that was to change the way S F Said wrote: DRAFTS.  And the endless drafting came soon after the day S F Said bought his first kitten, Varjak.


S F Said tells us, ‘He was so small he could fit into the palm of my hand.  I took him outside into my garden for the very first time and he bounced along to the foot of the garden wall. Seconds later he coiled up like a spring and exploded up onto the top of the wall.  He stood, staring out at the world for the very first time, his whiskers trembling in the wind.  And I suddenly thought how incredible Varjak must feel – how full of wonder he would be at that moment.  And that very night, I sat down to write Varjak Paw, the story of an ordinary cat who goes beyond his garden wall to discover long-lost ancient martial arts.’  Think Shadow-Walking, Slow-Time and Moving Circles coupled with dangerous dogs, cat gangs and mysterious Vanishings.  ‘And with this book I followed George Lucas’ advice.  I redrafted again and again and again making the book stronger, richer and deeper each time.  After 11 drafts, I sent it to 10 publishers.  Every one said no, bringing my grand total of rejections to 90.  And then the 91st publisher said, ‘YES!’ on the condition that I do a few more drafts.’ Click here to buy it on amazon.


S F Said admits there were 17 drafts in total and the two black cats were only put it in the 17th draft!  But it was worth the 17 drafts.  Varjak Paw quickly went on to win the Smarties Prize.  ‘I cried on that day – partly because the book had won such a prestigious prize, partly because I realised the prize itself was not a lifetime supply of smarties.’  After that, S F Said couldn’t stop winning prizes and the sequel, The Outlaw Varjak Paw, won the Blue Peter Prize. Click here to buy it on amazon.


Will there be a third Varjak Paw, we wonder?  ‘Maybe one day.  I’m thinking about having Varjak Paw teaching a very young cat in martial arts.  But I want to write that when I’m older, too…’  We’re happy to wait though because S F Said has given us something AMAAAAZING to be getting on with in the meantime: his brand new, science fiction novel, Phoenix – an epic set across a galaxy at war.  Click here to buy it on amazon. The book centres around a human boy, Lucky, who has strange dreams about singing stars, and an alien girl who shoots electronic needles out of her hair when she’s angry.  Check out the trailer for the book – its tingly strangeness is full of magical supernovas and dark black holes: Trailer.


As well as being a fast-paced adventure through space, Phoenix can also be read on deeper levels: philosophical, mystical, political, scientific…  ‘For most of human history, people have looked at the stars and seen pattern and purpose and even intelligence there. Astrology speaks to those feelings, I think, as does mythology.’  A few weeks ago Sally Gardner got me thinking about the stars (The what ifs are as boundless as the stars) and it seems S F Said has turned my head upwards again.  The stars were calling Lucky with their ‘small, soft, silvery sound’ – and a little bit of me knows that they’ve been calling me, too, their tremors ‘like the chime of a faraway bell.’

S F Said signature



Inspired by posing unicorns & arrogant owls

Turns out Kenneth the Unicorn and Brian the Owl are a bit of a hit – amongst moontrug fans anyway.  So here are a few more of their friends to keep you smiling – as well as Moontrug’s Top 5 round up of the best child-animal bonds in children’s books today…


Chucklestation 1


“Look, Sybil, we’ve warned you about this.  However cute you think Snowy is, you can’t pretend you laid him.  There are fundamental differences between you both.”

Chucklestation 2


“Do you think they’ve noticed us, Dad?”  “Shut up and keep shuffling.”

Chucklestation 3

Black Beauty

“I’m sorry, Paul, but I still think Black Beauty was faster.”

Chucklestation 4


“You’re not dying, Cyril.  You’ve just eaten a dodgy nut.”

Chucklestation 5

Killer whale

“It’s no good trying to hide from me, Ethel.  I saw you freaking out the dolphins.  And that’s got to stop – they’re family.”  Ethel grunted then slipped below the surface.

Chucklestation 6

Tiny Cow

Hector was so excited about milking day.  The farmer didn’t have the heart to tell him that it wasn’t going to happen.

Chucklestation 7


 Bruce was done with the bedroom.  There was the kitchen still to go.  That would teach them for asking him to go fetch stupid bits of wood.

Moontrug’s Top 5 Animal-Child Bond Books 

1. Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver

9780060728250_custom-babd64a925ca0ad170ae94a9a1ae5cf5c31b873f-s6-c30Wolf Brother carries you back thousands of years to the ancient darkness of the forest: to a world steeped in natural magic and elemental terror, a world in which trusting a friend means risking your life.  An outcast from the Clans, Torak must battle his way past the terrifying Soul Eaters and their demon bear – with only a young wolf cub by his side.  Click here to buy it on amazon.


2. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

lights‘Without this child, we shall all die’. Lyra Belacqua and her animal daemon live half-wild and carefree among scholars of Jordan College, Oxford. The destiny that awaits her will take her to the frozen lands of the Arctic, where witch-clans reign and ice-bears fight. Her extraordinary journey will have immeasurable consequences far beyond her own world…  Click here to buy on amazon.


3. The Last Wild by Piers Torday

The Last WildThis is the story of a boy named Kester.  His is extraordinary, but he doesn’t know that yet.  All he knows, at this very moment, is this: There is a flock of excited pigeons in his bedroom.  They are talking to him.  His life will never be quite the same again. Click here to buy on amazon.



4. Flood Child by Emily Diamand

floodFlooded England, 2216… England has changed for ever: much of it is under water.  Worse, bloodthirsty reavers prowl the shores, and when they kidnap the Prime Minister’s daughter it looks like war.  But out of this drowning world comes Lilly Melkun, a girl determined to put things right, with the help of a seacat and a reaver boy… and an extraordinary treasure from the past, with the power to change the future… Click here to buy it on amazon.


5. War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

War_HorseIn 1914, Joey, a young farm horse, is sold to the army and thrust into the midst of the war on the Western Front. With his officer, he charges towards the enemy, witnessing the horror of the frontline. But even in the desolation of the trenches, Joey’s courage touches the soldiers around him. Click here to buy it on amazon.


Imprisoned maids, baby-swapping and hard boiled eggs – with Mary Hooper

I am sitting between Dumbledore and the Cat in the Hat – and in front of me Peter Pan is chatting to Percy Jackson about what they’re planning to do in halfterm.  It is the last day of Book Week and I am in a theatre packed full of Francis Holland school children dressed up as their favourite literary characters.  Even The Very Hungry Caterpillar has made an appearance though by the look on its face it’s regretting it (tying your legs together is fun for ten minutes then it’s just plain annoying).  Just as Frodo Baggins stands up to high-five The White Witch for bringing in a box of Turkish delight, the internationally-acclaimed author, Mary Hooper, walks in.

Megan by Mary Hooper

Author of the award-winning Megan books and deemed by many as the ‘best YA historical fiction writer out there,’ Hooper is a well-known name in this school.  In fact it is her books that the children here take out more than any other author!  So where does she get all these fantastic ideas for plots and characters from?  Hooper explains, ‘Some people think there is a giant cupboard marked IDEAS and I just wander in and pick one.’  She shakes her head.  ‘It’s not like that at all.  Ideas come from all sorts of places.  I got the idea for my Neighbourhood Witch story from glancing up at a Neighbourhood Watch sign and imagining what it would be like if there was a Neighbourhood Witch you could visit for spells.  And then for my book, Lucy’s Wild Pony, I used a totally back-to-front way of finding the idea.  My publisher sent me various book cover images of a girl (Lucy) with a series of different animals.  I chose the horse and then wrote a story to fit the cover!  I got the inspiration for The Never-Ending Birthday from watching the film, Groundhog Day – a day that repeats itself again and again, and then for teenage books, I usually scout the problem pages of current magazines…’

Neighbourhood Witch by Mary Hooper

But that was when Hooper was writing contemporary books.  Now Hooper is all about the past.  ‘I began looking at artefacts and sources from the past and they fascinated me.  When reading London’s Bills of Mortality (the statistics given from the seventeenth century to monitor deaths), I noticed that the parchment was lined with skulls and crossbones.  Instantly intrigued, I read on.  I couldn’t believe that one third of London’s population died in the plague – that was 100,000 people…  I started researching the plague more.  People were so anxious to find cures for it that they genuinely believed putting 12 snails in their mouth and drinking the liquid they produced would cure them!  And that’s not even starting on the group of people who thought the liquid from a dead man’s skull could cure their symptoms.  Then I noticed the other causes of death at the time: 14 people died of Lethargy (extreme tiredness) and 2,600 people died of ‘Teeth and Worms’ (ewwwww).  And I grew to thinking: what would it be like to be a fifteen year old girl living in 1665?’  And that’s where Hooper’s widely celebrated book, At the Sign of the Sugared Plum, sprung from. Check out the creepy skull inside the girl’s eye and Click here to buy it on amazon.

At the Sign of the Sugared Plum

But it’s The Disgrace of Kitty Grey (her latest novel) that Hooper is keen to talk about.  Set in 1813, exactly 200 years after Pride and Prejudice was written, Kitty Grey, a dairy maid in the sleepy countryside, is sent to London to collect Jane Austen’s much-talked about novel, Pride and Prejudice.  Little does Kitty know that she is going to wind up in Newgate prison with the sister of her ferry man lover who has mysteriously disappeared…  Already receiving glowing reviews, The Disgrace of Kitty Grey, is selling fast. Click here to buy it on amazon.

The Disgrace of Kitty Grey

So how does Hooper manage to produce so many fantastic historical fiction titles?  ‘The first thing I do is think of a theme, a subject, something I want to write about.  After that, I dream up my characters because once you’ve got them, you care what happens in your story.  Then I do my research.  And it’s the best bit.  If I could have my way, I’d go on researching forever and I’d never end up writing the book at all!’  This is a very moontruggy approach and I like it.  Because researching isn’t just about looking things up on Wikipedia; it’s about unlocking long-forgotten stories, delving into lives of the past, scouring ancient letters and peering into mystical leather-bound books.  ‘Once I’ve got enough information,’ Hooper continues, ‘I spread it all out on the table and the floor – notes, maps, photos, pictures…  Then I think about my plot.  I get a large piece of cardboard and on it I stick the same number of post-it notes as there will be chapters in the book.  Then on each of these post-it notes I write the main events of the plot – because each chapter has to have a hook, something propelling the reader on.  I often start with a maid.  In Velvet (click here to see a trailer for the book) I started with a maid who worked for a medium (a man who communicates with the spirit world), in Fallen Grace I started with a maid who worked for a Victorian undertaker and in Eliza Rose I started with two babies swapped at birth.  But often I realise that what I initially think is the beginning of my book is not – and I shuffle the post-it notes around.  And then – ’ she pauses and gives a wry smile, ‘ – then I work out who’s going to die – and when!’


And then what happens?  How does the book get on the shelves?  ‘When I’ve typed it all up I print it out and then lock it away.  I do something different for a week (I go on holiday or start planning another book) and then after a week, I return to it with a fresh eye.  That way I can stand back and assess it better.  When I’m happy with it, I send it off to the publisher and wait.  And if I don’t hear anything for six weeks I ring them up and pretend to ask about how they are or whether they’ve been away anywhere nice recently – but really I’m thinking: DO YOU LIKE MY BOOK?!  Eventually they send me back their thoughts and I get to work again. It’s usually a two year process: one year thinking and writing and one year to get it published.’  Hooper’s talk draws to a close and it’s time for questions.  Pinocchio’s hand pings up: ‘Do you get much say on the front cover of your books?’  Hooper laughs.  ‘Authors get very little say in their book covers.  I ended up with a hard boiled egg on front cover of the Italian version of the Megan books!’


‘But I did get to take off the necklace artists had added to Kitty Grey on that front cover – I told them there was no way a country diary maid would have fancy jewellery – and in the end, the artists had to agree!  It’s not just authors and artists who work on the book cover though; booksellers have a huge influence.  W.H. Smith told me that they wouldn’t take Fallen Grace with a cream cover – it had to be purple to blend in with all of the best-selling vampire novels – and so that’s what happened.’ Click here to buy it on amazon.


Winnie the Pooh sticks up a hand, ‘Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?’  Hooper smiles.  ‘I left school early and I didn’t have much of a career.  But when I started writing short stories for magazines, I realised this was something I could do – and better still, this was something I enjoyed.’  Shrek is wiggling his fingers in the air to get noticed: ‘Do you have to have any qualifications to be a writer?’ Hooper thinks for a moment and so do I (about a swamp-stinking ogre writing a book), ‘You’ve got to have two things: a good imagination and an ability to get your thoughts down on paper.’  Now it’s Artemis Fowl’s turn: ‘So many of your lead characters are fifteen-year-old girls. Why?’  Hooper nods. ‘Because being fifteen marks a changeover time – from childhood to adulthood.  It’s an interesting time…’  Katniss Everdeen has one last question: ‘How old were you when you had your first book published?’  Hooper smiles, like she’s remembering it right there and then: ‘I was 28 years old.’


Hooper leaves us with a few words on what she’s got planned next.  ‘My new book is going to be called Poppy and it’s set in 1914.  Poppy is fifteen years old, beautiful and clever, but society has already carved out her destiny. Everything changes though when World War One starts and Poppy’s life is thrown dramatically off course.’  A tale of forbidden love, unimaginable hardship and unexpected freedom, Poppy is sure to sit alongside Hooper’s other classics when it’s released next May.  Watch this space…

 Mary Hooper signature

The what ifs are as boundless as the stars – with Sally Gardner

Gardner ticketMy last stop at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival is the Mission Theatre.  And it lives up to its name: it is a total mission to find.  I have no sense of direction (I can get lost between the bedroom and the kitchen of my own house) so it comes as no surprise to me that I wind up down some weird back street rather than at the event.  Thankfully there is a bit of moontrugging to be there before I try to find myself – because Hardys Original Sweetshop, a treasure trove of over 400 sweets in old-fashioned jars, is beckoning me inside.

HardysAfter buying a handful of buttered popcorn flavoured jelly beans, I try again.  The next search leads me to an empty car park – and this is with the help of Google Maps on an iPhone.  I mince around the car park until my iPhone gets a grip and realises that it’s been searching for the Mission Theatre in Portland, Oregon.  In the U.S.A.  Brilliant.  After some furious keyboard tapping, I wind up at the Mission Theatre, Bath, ready to listen to two of the biggest names in children’s books right now: Sally Gardner and David Almond.

I Coriander

Before the talk starts, I notice that Gardner and Almond (click here for moontrug’s recent scribblings about Almond) are sitting in the Mission Theatre café, trying to pretend they’re not famous.  But everyone around them is whispering and pointing so they might as well have walked into the café to the Final Countdown theme song with enormous ‘I’M FAMOUS’ badges plastered to their foreheads. Moments later, we are all whisked out of the café and into the theatre itself.  Almond is interviewing the award-winning author, Sally Gardner, and everyone is on the edge of their seats.


Brilliantly funny and self-deprecating, Gardner tells us about her unusual childhood.  ‘I’m severely dyslexic and I couldn’t read until I was 14 years old – but I loved the shape of words.  I used to gaze at the Coca Cola logo for hours and think how beautiful it was.  And I used to think that the word ‘schizophrenia’ – regardless of its implications – looked pretty incredible on the page.’  Almond, another wonderer at the shape of words, laughs.  ‘I used to like the way ‘Heinz’ looked as a kid.  And I think the reason kids spend most of breakfast reading the back of cereal boxes is because of the sheer array of brilliantly-shaped words.’

Coca Cola logoBut Gardner’s childhood memories of words weren’t all pleasant.  She was expelled from her first school for stealing currant buns and dishing them out to friends – and also for not being able to spell her own name.  She describes her school life as ‘colourful’ though there was evidently much darkness at its core.  When turning up to take her GCSE English literature exam, her teacher said to her, ‘What are you doing here, Sally?’  Sally replied, ‘Taking the exam, miss.’  To which the teacher replied, ‘Well, don’t make ANY noise with your pencil and put it down once you’ve finished writing because there are pupils here who actually stand a chance of passing.’  But Gardner did pass the exams and when offered a place at the school for sixth form, she told the teachers just where they could stuff it.  Gardner’s determination to succeed against all the negativity from her teachers is one of the reasons she is the author she is today.  She admits that if anyone told her, ‘You can’t do it, Sally,’ she’d reply with, ‘Yes, I can; I will.’

Currant bunsBoth Almond and Gardner are passionate about the need for schools to broaden children’s imaginations.  Gardner tells us, ‘Twenty years ago five children, each one 5 years old, were given a paperclip and asked what they could do with it.  They came up with 500 ideas.  Those same children were asked what they could do with paperclip nine years later (when they were all 18 years old and leaving school), and they could only come up with 5 ideas – between them.’  She sighs.  ‘Something’s going wrong – we need to spend time growing our imaginations not shrinking them.  I hate all this tick-box education.  I found a ‘How well do you know Maggot Moon?’ quiz online recently and I had a go – I thought at least I’ll have a chance at this one because I wrote it!  The answers came back with one comment: I suggest you read the book more thoroughly next time.’


But Gardner didn’t always want to be a writer.  ‘I didn’t go to university; I went to art school and from there I went into theatre – as a set designer.  For my first play I organised for 1,500 car tyres to be used!  The van was MASSIVE.’  It was at the theatre that Gardner realised she wanted to write though and on walking into a publishing house after writing her first book, she said, ‘If you don’t publish this, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.’  Luckily they published her book.  And her latest one, Maggot Moon, has just won both the Costa Children’s Book Award and the Carnegie Medal.  BOOM.  Yes I can; I will…

maggot-moonAlmond picks up a copy of Gardner’s fantastic novel, I, Coriander (click here to buy it on amazon).  ‘You seem to have a number of cruel authority figures in your books,’ Almond muses.  Gardner nods.  ‘They come from a dark place inside me.  But I love them.  I genuinely love painting a villain – and the best ones are the ones with a small trace of vulnerability in them…’  She speaks of the brilliantly-named Arise Fell (named after Arise Evans, a religious fanatic in Cromwell’s time) and Maud Leggs (a name lifted from a gravestone) from I Coriander.  Almond picks up the thread: ‘Graveyards are great for character names.  As are telephone directories.’  Take notes all you moontrugs…  Almond asks, ‘Where did you get the inspiration from for the name Standish Treadwell for Maggot Moon?’ Gardner smiles. ‘A friend of mine was walking up north in a place he said was called Standish Treadwell.  But when I looked it up on the map it didn’t exist.  It seemed a mystical place – outside the sphere of reference – and I just knew it was the name for the hero of Maggot Moon.’  And what a hero he is.  Even the blurb on the back of the book sends shivers down your spine: ‘What if the football hadn’t gone over the wall? What if Hector had never gone looking for it?  What if he hadn’t kept the dark secret to himself?  What if…?  Then I suppose I would be telling myself another story. You see, the what ifs are as boundless as the stars.’ Click here to buy it on amazon.


Q: Out of all the books you’ve written, which one is your favourite?

A: Maggot Moon.


Q: Where did the idea for Maggot Moon come from?

A: I was on an impossible diet at the time and I was foul to live with.  My family told me to ‘go away’ so I sat down in a room by myself and wrote ‘What if…’  The story came out of the character – and I followed.


Q: The ending of Maggot Moon is quite confusing. Is it meant to be this way?

A: Yes, you can interpret the ending in whatever way you want to. I meant it to be open like that…


Q: Why did you write Maggot Moon?

A: I think I was sending a message back to my 14 year old self – the little girl in a glass dome who couldn’t read.  Maggot Moon was my message to her.

Maggot Moon signature

Out of the frying pan and into the FYRE – with Angie Sage

The first thing I notice about Angie Sage is that she’s wearing glasses.  Everyone knows the obvious reason why a person might wear glasses.  They can’t see well without them.  But there is sometimes another reason – and I believe it is for this reason that Sage is wearing them: to see the world differently. Through her ‘magykal’ lenses she sees a land where wizards dwell inside a marsh-encircled castle and Darke magyk lurks in the shadows…


Sitting on the edge of the Guildhall stage at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival, Sage opens the event by talking about the way she writes. ‘When I started writing the Septimus books, I only knew one thing for certain: what would happen to Septimus in the final book – Fyre.’ (Click here to buy it on amazon).  ‘That’s not to say my writing is chaotic.’  She pauses and then smiles. ‘But it’s not that organised either.  I go where my characters take me.’  And WAW do they take her on incredible journeys…  It’s been a twelve year odyssey for Septimus fans and it’s clear that the characters don’t just live as printed words on Sage’s page.  They’re alive to her – as they are to us.


Using a backdrop of wonderfully detailed illustrations from her books, Sage tells us how amazing it’s been getting to know her characters and what a lot of work went into tying up their ‘loose ends’ in the final book.  She starts with Marcellus, a 500 year old alchemist and physician who discovers a potion to grant eternal life.  ‘I always thought Marcellus would be bad but book by book I realised he was just thoughtless – and I grew to like him.’  She raises her eyebrows. ‘Merrin, on the other hand, now he was a strange one.  I tried and tried to make him good but he resisted at every turn.  And in Fyre, I had only one final plan for him: to take him back to his mother.’ Sage shows another illustration and sighs.  ‘Jim Knee is a really annoying character.  In fact he was so annoying I made him go into hibernation in one book!’  And the inspiration for that?  Sage’s two pet tortoises who hibernate every winter…  ‘In Fyre I knew I had to include him so I turned him into a giant scorpion; that way at least his conversation was limited!’


It’s clear that in Fyre Sage allowed herself a lot of fun with her characters. ‘It’ll come as no surprise to you all that I let Lucy Gringe get married.’  She laughs. ‘The best thing about that was that I got to decide what hat her mum would wear at the wedding!’  And the hat of choice?  A shark fin.  Appropriate for the mother of a girl who stormed The Cerys. But Sage doesn’t stop with shark fin hats – she gives Marcia a pair of fur-topped boots…  But it’s not all weddings and party shoes.  There’s confrontation, too.  Lots of it.  ‘I always thought Queen Cerys would turn out to be a loving mother but in the end she was careless and aloof.  She didn’t like the Heaps and I was able to put in a fantastically dramatic mother-daughter outburst which fans should enjoy.  And as for the twins, Edmond and Ernold, they wreak a lot of havoc in Fyre.’ Sage’s eyes light up. ‘I couldn’t wait for them to be rude to Jenna…’

Shark Fin

But Fyre is more than just a tying up of loose ends for characters.  Fans will discover a new magical creature and a secret tunnel (Smugglers’ Bolt – based on the 25 mile smugglers’ tunnel in Kent beneath The Smuggler’s Rest Coffee Shop that Sage and her mum used to visit). As Sage finishes talking about the characters she’s held in her mind over the Septimus journey, she looks momentarily sad, and so do the audience.  And then she leans forward.  ‘I couldn’t let go of Septimus completely.’ There is an audible sigh of relief from the theatre. ‘I’m writing a new series set seven years after Fyre finishes.  It’s called PathFinder, it’s out in Autumn 2014 and Septimus is hovering in the background – now 21 years old.’  Someone in the audience gives a little cheer and I give a moontruggish twitch of glee – because the story’s not over yet.  There’s a new lead character to follow: Alice TodHunter Moon.  Or Tod – a tomboy waiting to win us over.  Keep scribbling, Sage – we need that book soon. But it sounds as if Sage is on the case.  ‘Whenever I get a new idea I put it in an envelope.  And then when the envelope grows big enough, I start to write.’ I hope Sage’s envelope is growing for PathFinder.  In fact I hope it’s really fat and puffy and MASSIVE so that we see Tod bursting into the bookshops soon.  Grow little envelope, grow…


Q: Why are the titles of your books spelt weirdly?

A: I didn’t like the fact that ‘magic’ was spelt with an ‘I’ – it reminded me of modern conjuring magic and I wanted an even older feel to my words.  In old English, ‘Y’ and ‘I’ are interchangeable so I went with: MAGYK, FLYTE, PHYSIK, QUESTE, SYREN, DARKE and FYRE.  You see before our language got standardised and certain spellings were considered ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ you could spell things how you liked.  I would have liked to have been alive then.  I once watched a little girl write a story and she included the word ‘ffrend’ – I thought it was a much friendlier version of ‘friend.’


Q: Which of the characters in your books is most like you?

A: My daughters say I’m like Marcia but I don’t think I’m nearly so bossy. Sometimes I think I’m a little like Septimus.  I was once really interested in medicine, just like him.  In fact I think there’s a little bit of me in all my characters.


Q: Why did you finish on seven books. Why not eight?

A: I love the number seven.  It’s magical.


Q: Which character surprised you most?

A: Either Marcellus (I totally though he was bad!) or Merrin (I thought he’d turn good…)

Angie Sage signature

What’s on the other side of the Obsidian Mirror, Catherine Fisher?

I didn’t expect to start my day at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival by helping a fairy out of the loo.  But that’s what happened…


Bath Children's Literature Festival


I have five minutes to spare before a certain best-selling fantasy writer speaks so I nip to the tinkle stations (moontrug terminology for The Loo).  A small child dressed as a glittery green fairy rushes into the last free cubicle.  Her mother tries to follow. ‘Mum, I want to go ON MY OWN!’ The mother sighs then closes the door.  Several seconds pass and then there is an almighty splash.  ‘Mummmmmmmmmmm!’  The mother rushes in, ‘Annie, what’s happened?!’  I peer round the edge of the cubicle.  Annie is inside the loo; only her glittery green shoes and head are visible.  I dart in and together with the mother, we haul her out.  Annie emerges, drenched and furious.  ‘If I was a real fairy, that would never have happened,’ she sobs.  Annie, if you’re reading this, I thought you were a brilliant fairy and every bit as real as the rest of your kind.

Green Fairy Pencil Drawing


I rush downstairs to find Catherine Fisher, author of the brilliant fantasy novel Incarceron (click here to buy it on amazon), stepping up onto the stage.  She is small with magically silver hair – and best of all, she is wearing the same black-buckled ankle boots as me. Edgy. She begins by talking about her latest quartet of time-travelling books: The Chronoptika series.


Obsidian Mirror


Why time-travelling, we ask?  ‘Well, I’ve done almost everything else in the fantasy genre: I’ve turned characters into animals; I’ve invented planets; I’ve entered other worlds. And so it was time for time-travelling.’  Fisher admits she was influenced by H G Wells’ brilliant novella The Time Machine but she wanted her time machine to work as a meddlesome object, an opener to other time periods with a mind of its own.  ‘I thought long and hard about what object my time-travelling machine would be and in the end I decided on a mirror.  Because a mirror is two-sided and I wanted my time machine to be two-sided – I wanted the characters to be able to find their way back to their present.’  I’m desperate to know what the mirror looks like and luckily Fisher is keen to tell us.  ‘It’s as tall as a man, as thin as paper and it’s lined with a frame of silver letters.’  ‘What do the letters mean?’ a boy asks.  Fisher is quiet for a few seconds. ‘I’m not sure yet.  But I’ll know by the end of the series.’ I’m excited already.

MirrorFisher tells us the idea for her first book in the Chronoptika series, The Obsidian Mirror, (click here to buy it on amazon) sprung from a name which crept into her subconscious in the middle of the night: Oberon Venn.  ‘I didn’t know anything about him except that he looked a little bit like Daniel Craig: blonde, ice blue eyes, cold in his manner.’  She goes on to tell us that Venn is a volcanologist and explorer who keeps himself to himself and has only one friend, David Wilde – until he marries the beautiful Leah. But years later Leah is killed in a car crash and Venn locks himself up in Wintercombe Abbey – a gloomy house hidden deep within the folds of a dark, tangled forest. David, Venn’s friend, becomes worried about him and gives him a mysterious-looking time machine, the Obsidian Mirror, which he says will bring Leah back. To prove it, David tries to use the mirror as a time machine – but he disappears inside it.  On hearing of his disappearance, David’s son, Jack (a stroppy, arrogant 15 year-old) becomes convinced Venn has murdered his father and comes to Wintercombe Abbey bent on discovering the truth.

Dark Forest


But Fisher’s a fan of multiple story strands and this is where Sarah comes in. Emerging from a slit in the air, Sarah bursts into Jack’s world – pursued by a wolf made of ice.  And if that’s not enough to get your heart pumping, the presence of the Shee, a magical race of dark fairies lurking in Wintercombe’s forest, will be.  Ruled by the terrifying Shee Queen, Summer, the dark fairies will do everything in their power to prevent Venn, Jack and Sarah from using the Obsidian Mirror.

Ice wolf


The second book in the Chronoptika series, Box of Red Brocade, is out this week and it’s going to be BIIIIIGGGGG (click here to buy it on amazon).


Box of Red Brocade


Spellbound, we listen as Fisher reads aloud from the book – about kidnapped changelings, shape-shifting fairies and near-impossible bravery…  When she finishes a sea of hands spring up and that is how moontrug knows just how BIIIIIGGGGG this series is going to be.


Q: Why did you call the first book The Obsidian Mirror?

A: Years and years ago I read about an Elizabethan sorcerer who owned an Obsidian Mirror. His name was Doctor John Dee. I didn’t remember him when I came to write the book but the idea must have been skulking in my subconscious because I ended up calling the character who owned the Obsidian Mirror in my book Mortimer Dee!  It was only after I’d finished the book that I googled the Obsidian Mirror and realised I’d read about Doctor John Dee before.


Q: When did you start writing?

A: I started writing at the age of 11.  I wrote poetry first – then fantasy. And I started thinking about the Chronoptika series four years ago.


Q: Do you know everything about your characters before you start writing their story?

A: My characters are like wind-up toys.  I give them enough of a story so that they fire onto my page (Sarah explodes from a slit in the air chased by a wolf made of ice!) and then I work out their ‘back story’ – their motives, their story, their inner selves.


Q: Do you plan your story fully before writing it?

A: I start with an idea and then I just write – I go after the idea.  It happens organically. I don’t plan the twists.  If I don’t know about them then I’m as surprised as the reader when I end up writing them…


Q: Do you write every day?

A: Yes, I try to – even if it’s just one sentence or one paragraph.  That way I can hold on to the story.  I enter a sort of self-hypnotised state and when I’m ‘in’ there’s no stopping the writing.


Q: The fairy world in your series is a little like the one in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Did you do that on purpose?

A: (said with a secretive smile) Yes. I set myself a secret challenge for each of the books in the series: to include a Shakespearean motif – a hint to one of his plays.  In Book 1, it’s Hamlet (Jack thinks he sees the ghost of his father in the school production of Hamlet). In Book 2, it’s Macbeth (there are three ancient crones and a walking wood!) In Book 3, it’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (characters have extraordinary dreams about turning into donkeys…) And finally, in Book 4, it’s The Tempest (I think there’s going to be something linked to Prospero giving up his magic).


Giving up magic?! Please no. But something tells me Fisher won’t be giving up the magic that easily.  Her books are made of it. It pours out of her words and seeps between her pages.  Her books are, as The Times says, ‘the best fantasy novels written for a long time.’  And so that’s why moontrug has added them to the Altocumulus Tower (click here to see it).

 Catherine Fisher signature



Can I join the Society of 13, Gareth P Jones?

I decide to drive to the Henley Literary Festival to hear Gareth P Jones speak.  That is my first mistake.  It is raining and I can’t work out how to use my windscreen wipers.  I press a number of buttons that make my windows go down, my seat go warm, my warning lights go flash and my radio go BOOOOOM.  My right side is now drenched, my bottom is boiling, surrounding cars think I’m breaking down and I’m being deafened by a song that wasn’t even popular when it was released fifty years ago.  An hour and a half later I arrive in Henley – in true moontrug style (by driving the wrong way down a one-way street).  But after I’ve parked my car all squint, my spirits rise.  Best-selling authors are roaming the streets, their brand new books tucked under their arms like secret files…


I arrive at the Kenton Theatre early and choose a seat at the back so that I can let my scrambly moontrug brain absorb EVERYTHING.  The theatre is an old Georgian building which opened in 1805 with a play called ‘How To Rule A Husband.’  Snore, snore, snore.  ‘How To Rule A Goblin-Infested Forest With A Moonsilver Dagger’ – now that would have been more entertaining.

creating character goblins

As I wait for the hoards of excited children to come in, I notice a small man in a black suit scuttle across the stage.  He is wearing a grey silk waistcoat, complete with an old Victorian watch chain and a shining black top hat.  He is twitchy and secretive as he arranges a chair in the middle of the stage and I am so busy marvelling at his strangeness that I do not notice the entire theatre has filled up with children and a bespectacled man is introducing the event.  And then a peculiar thing happens.  The strange man on the stage strikes up a song – on a ukulele – and seconds later the entire theatre is making ‘wwwwooooooohhhhhh’ ghost noises and uttering chanty gravedigger grunts.  It sounds extraordinary – like a room filled to the brim with confused pigeons trying to sing Christmas carols.  Just as I am about to ask what on earth the Victorian ukulele man has done with Gareth P Jones, the Victorian ukulele man takes off his hat and introduces himself.

 I am Gareth P Jones.

And that’s how it is with authors.  They’re never what you expect.  Jones has already published a number of best-selling children’s books – among them the brilliantly original Constable and Toop (a Victorian ghost story about London’s haunted houses losing their ghosts. Click here to buy on amazon) and The Considine Curse (a book about a frighteningly dark secret which won the Blue Peter Book of the Year Award in 2012. Click here to buy on amazon).  But today Jones has come to speak about something else: his brand new novel, The Society of Thirteen, which hits the bookshelves TODAY! Click here to buy it on amazon.

The Society of Thirteen

Part-magician, part-author, Jones performs a magic trick on an innocent-looking child called Emily before he reveals the story behind his new book.  After pulling her up onto the stage, he declares that there was an Emily in one of his previous books. Emily looks pleased as punch – until Jones tells her that he killed her off in the first chapter.  Stunned into silence, Emily stands on the stage amidst ‘oooohhhhhssss’, ‘aaahhhhhhhssssss’ and pigeon-like chanting from the audience as Jones performs a fantastically magical card trick.  Emily returns to her seat, thankful to have survived longer than Jones’ last Emily.


And then Jones gets down to business: The Society of Thirteen – a book about a pair of orphans, Esther and Tom, who roam the streets of London in 1891 as thieves.  Recruited by the enigmatic Lord Ringmore to run errands for his secret Society of Thirteen, the orphans discover a mysterious book which stirs up an extraordinary world of conjurors, magic and peril.  Jones doesn’t want to run the risk of exposing too much of the plot before the book is out so he leaves it there.  For now.


Instead, he tells us the story of an extraordinary magician and escapologist, Harry Clay, who must solve the case of a missing girl called Friday, believed to have been stolen from her family by fairies.  Based on the famous Harry Houdini – a man who escaped from being buried alive, tied up to the tallest skyscraper and locked in a straightjacket under water – Harry Clay is a spell-binding character who draws the theatre into his detective case from the very first sentence.

Houdini escaping from a coffin 

Before long the theatre is once again filled with extraordinary noises – door knocks, gasps, applause and screams – as we step into Harry Clay’s world, leaving school trips and windscreen wipers far behind.  Jones says to us, ‘You’re all authors now.  Tell me who kidnapped Friday.’  Being a moontrug, I am convinced (and secretly hoping) that the fairies have kidnapped her but it turns out there are some mind-bogglingly clever moontrugs in the audience who have created story ideas far beyond the realms of fairy folk.  Jones is impressed; like me, he knows there are future authors sitting just metres in front of his nose.


Jones performs one last ukulele-inspired song about ghosts and conjurors before signing The Society of Thirteen.  I grab a copy and make for the book signing queue.  As I shuffle forward I rehearse my lines (because this is the part of the day I always mess up – click here for previous disastrousness).  Once again non-words (words that invent themselves and escape from my mouth before I can stop them) start rummaging through my thoughts and stamping on my last few grains of sense.  When it’s my turn with Jones, I push my book forward and instead of saying ‘Please will you make my book out to moontrug?’ I say, ‘Please will you take my hook out to – ’ and then a non-word so extraordinary even Roald Dahl would have questioned it – ‘spoonplug’ – plops out.  But we got there in the end…

Gareth P Jones signature…and after an hour, I am already forty pages in.  Who is Lord Ringmore’s last peculiar letter going to and what is so mysterious about the small black book delivered by a stranger in the dead of night?