Collaborative Book Making

Produce a book in five days? Or, even quicker, produce one in 12 hours? Is that really possible? Organisations like Book Sprint and Book Dash have proved that it is. And a key to making it happen is collaboration. On a writing Masterclass with Getsmarter I did a few years ago I learnt what many book writers know already: that the process involved in having a book published traditionally is lengthy. Apart from actually writing the book (which took me the ten months of the Masterclass), publishing can take as long as 18 months after acceptance of a manuscript.

Book Dash, by contrast, does everything from the initial script to completed layout in just one day. They do this in a slick process of bringing together selected teams of writers, editors, illustrators and designers. These four-person teams work feverishly, producing one of twelve spreads every 45 minutes, until the book is complete. In Book Sprint the writing takes place during the Sprint, whereas in Book Dash the writer comes up with the story concept prior to the Dash. In the latter, therefore, the pressure on the day really lies with the illustrator. I took part in the October 2022 Book Dash in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, at a beautiful location in Kloof. I took part as a writer. Prior to the date I submitted to my team my children’s story on a template of twelve spreads. Then on the day I watched the illustrator, Cristy Zinn, draw one illustratable concept per spread onto her iPad Pro using a stylus and the software Procreate. Once done, she sent each spread to the designer, Salma Haffejee, who set it in a predetermined layout. In between, Salma designed the endpapers and chose one of Cristy’s illustrations for the title page. During the day, our editor, Zanri Kritzinger (who is a full-time employee of Book Dash), consulted with myself about the story flow. This meant that when Cristy sent in her last spread at about 7pm (and was able to uncramp her fingers), Salma slotted it in place and our children’s book was done!

One of the main reasons Book Dash has formulated this model is that it provides its published books free. This 12-hour process, manned by volunteers, cuts out the costs of traditional publishing. (For more information on Book Dash’s social impact publishing visit their website.) But I wonder if this model could be spread to traditional publishing, too? In the latter, for picture books, illustrators are generally appointed by the publisher and don’t work in conjunction with the writer. But I learnt so much in the Dash from seeing how illustrators and designers work. I got to understand their requirements better, saw how my writing could make their jobs easier. I enjoyed the repartee, making suggestions, hearing suggestions in return. It really made our book, The Sausage Dog, come alive! Collaboration was key.


Writer Podcasts

I grew up with the radio. Little People’s Playtime at a quarter to four on weekday afternoons was a favourite. I think that’s why, as an adult, I’m drawn to audio. Audio books, audio news, audio interest sites, like podcasts. Write for A Reason podcast is a writing tips site. Aimed at writers of children’s Christian fiction, the tips are applicable to writers of most genres and I’ve found them quite helpful. A recent episode is ‘How to Write a Book Review’ – in which I was the interviewee! I was delighted to be interviewed by Janet Wilson of Dernier Publishing on the subject – and very glad it was audio not video. Listen to the podcast episode here if you’d like to know more:

Another site/organisation for writers is London Writers Salon. If you are a writer, have you wondered how to balance the need for human company with the need for silent concentration? I found myself pondering this a few months ago and so was very pleased to come across London Writers Salon (LWS). It meets both those needs (for free). I signed up to LWS, received a zoom link, and then at certain times of day since then I log on and join hundreds of other writers from around the world in 50 minutes of silent writing togetherness. There is a five-minute chat session either side of the 50 minutes, but otherwise we simply write while glancing up at a bunch of other disembodied heads. Give it a try. I’ve found it so helpful for accountability, concentration and overcoming procrastination.

Talking of procrastination, read this article by the Daily Maverick on a café you can go to in Japan where staff put pressure on you to write. I’m not sure I would do well with this. I might cry. Or laugh.

Someone who makes me neither laugh nor cry, and who is just a podcast, not an ocean, away is Rebecca L Weber. Rebecca is a writing coach with a site called The Writing Coach Podcast . Rebecca helps freelance journalists on their writing journey. What I love most about this coach is how she makes me think. Question. Put disparate things together that spark new ways of thinking. Rebecca is excellent. I highly recommend her psychological, writerly thinking tips.

And, finally, not a tip but just for fun, try out The Fantastic History of Food podcast. It’s a super fun, historic, quirky, often hilarious podcast about food by South African, Nick Charlie Key. I really enjoy it.


Big Families – For Better or Worse

Large families have a sort of glow to them. As if being part of one is the ideal. Three books I read recently all feature large families. And whilst some of the glow is there, there is also a darker side.

This is particularly the case in the first of my selection, The Man Who Loved Crocodile Tamers by South African author, Finuala Dowling. Protagonist, Paddy Dowling, marries vivacious Vandy and together they raise eight children in their home in Cape Town, South Africa. Paddy works there as a frustrated copywriter on famous advertising campaigns, constantly longing to be a ‘real’ writer of fiction. His many children cause him great anxiety which results in explosive anger, and Paddy feels increasingly alienated by them. He turns to alcohol and declines. This fact is blamed on what we now know as PTSD from his service as a soldier in WWII.

His biographer and daughter, Gina Dowling, is similarly fraught with the insecurities and depressions of a writer’s life. ‘Fragments from a writer’s diary’ are interspersed with the actual writing product, the main story, and these sections reveal a woman who hates her day job and wonders if the book will be any good. The characters make for unpleasant ones, ones I wasn’t drawn to. Although I didn’t enjoy feeling this way, Dowling’s spare style of writing left a lasting impression on me. Its flowing simplicity is enough for the reader to get the gist. It helps to retain pathos and belies the amount of research that must have gone into such a detailed story. The Man Who Loved Crocodile Tamers is cleverly and beautifully written.  

In The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett I encountered a much happier version of large families. This one is also not without its difficulties, however. For Mr and Mrs Ruggles – a dustman and washerwoman respectively – money is in short supply, and all of their seven children cause them anxiety. The first seven chapters are dedicated to each of the seven children, while the last three chapters cover a family outing to London. The situations described often involve clothing. How it is ironed when it shouldn’t be, shrunk by mistake, lost at sea, ripped in embarrassing places, and generally endangered by mess when it should be clean. The two chapters I enjoyed best revolve around twin brothers, James and John, who join a gang that demands its members ‘have adventures’. Adventures the pair have indeed. James accidentally stows away on a ship, and John lands up in a stranger’s car and bizarrely attends a birthday party at a rich person’s house. The scrapes get more and more involved, so that I found myself wincing as I read. But the family is a loving one, and there is nothing dark or seriously scary. The Family from One End Street is a delightful, funny read for children. It won the Carnegie medal for children’s literature in 1957.

Lastly, and briefly, the third book I read featuring a large family, is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J K Rowling. Harry’s best friend is Ronald Weasley. Compared to Harry’s dreadful aunt, uncle and cousin with whom Harry lives, Ronald’s family are down-to-earth, caring and generous people/wizards and witches. But, as with the Ruggles of The Family at One End Street, the Weasleys lack money. Five of their seven children attend Hogwarts School of Magic, and clothing, supplies and books are always bought with great difficulty. Interestingly, all the children in the Ruggles family and in the Weasley family have red hair. This adds to their being seen as different.

So, from love, support and togetherness, to money troubles, personality challenges and alienation, these books all showed me the glow and the darkness of large families.  

Books about books about books…

Books with a literature theme are like two mirrors infinitely reflecting one another. Two books I read recently whose authors use other books to inform their work are The Last Bookshop in London: A novel of World War II by Madeline Martin, and Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson. Whilst the novels each intersect with a number of books, the former is inspired largely by The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, and the latter by John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. I’m sure that knowing these inspirations well would have enhanced my reading experience. I found myself wishing I had known them better.

In The Last Bookshop in London protagonist Grace Bennett moves to London during the blitz of World War II. Despite a timid character and not being much of a reader, by night Grace volunteers as a first-responder to bombed areas, and by day helps manage a bookshop. Her courage, and her enthusiasm for books, grow. This love for books not only helps Grace cope during the dark times, but also extends to others to whom Grace reads, either in bomb shelters or at the bookshop. Whilst there is a tiny romance element, the story is shaped largely by character and by action. I enjoyed this. Martin says, in a blog post on her website, that this choice was influenced by her love for the action adventure story, The Count of Monte Cristo. She uses the pacing, genre and audience appeal of The Count of Monte Cristo rather than its actual storyline for her work. And in The Last Bookshop in London that action works well, in part because of Martin’s well-researched, authentic setting.

Heaven and Hell by contrast is inspired more by the themes of Paradise Lost, as opposed to its pace and genre. Themes of life and death, heaven and hell, God and Satan – all woven into the theme of literature. Set in the extreme winter of Iceland, Heaven and Hell is essentially about a boy who befriends a man called Bardur. When Bardur dies the boy returns to its owner a book Bardur had been reading. That book is Paradise Lost. Despite weather conditions and his intense grief, the boy makes it to the town, to the house and to the man who is the original owner of the book. This man owns and lives with ‘400 books’, a paradise when compared to the trials and tribulations encountered during the tale. The story is a strange one, with many odd characters. The language, too, is noticeably different, perhaps because it is translated from the Icelandic. But I really enjoyed it. Both the long sentences full of commas, and the intriguing story. I found myself constantly trying to understand the literary symbolism.

Books about books about books… a great way to create thought-provoking reads of substance.

Every Saint a Sinner

In Every Saint a Sinner by Pearl Solas, Veronica Matthews suffers the unthinkable. Her son Shaun is abused by Catholic priest, Father Paul Peña. Paul is subsequently arrested and imprisoned. Not satisfied that justice has been fully done, Veronica, herself a lawyer, takes on the Catholic Church and experiences first-hand its obfuscation, self-justification and lack of real change. In prison, Paul meets not only one of his victims, but another priest, Father Frank Muncy, who is convicted of paedophilia. What follows is a miraculous, divine intervention that ultimately leads to true repentance, reconciliation and, unbelievably, a proposal of canonization.

Every Saint a Sinner moves expertly through a range of areas. Legal arguments used by the Catholic Church; psychological differences between hebephilia, ephebophilia, paedophilia and paraphilia; and the Christian theology of empathetic reconciliation. Although Solas spends more time on the perpetrators than she does on the victims, she in no way undermines the terrible consequences brought to bear on sufferers of abuse. Her text is balanced. Credibly, Solas shows how the media portray child sex offenders as the lowest form of criminal, beyond correction; how God can forgive and restore these criminals; how a meeting of victim and perpetrator can lead to true healing and forgiveness; and what a Catholic Church’s genuine apology could look like. Although it is likely to be contentious, Every Saint a Sinner is one of the best books I have read. It is brave, bold and brilliantly written. I highly recommend it.

I in fact did not read Every Saint a Sinner. I listened to the audio version. Like the writing, the narration is clear and careful. It contains just the right amount of expression in a voice that in no way calls attention to itself. I was able to listen without distraction. An excellent experience.

I originally read Every Saint a Sinner as a reviewer for Readers’ Favorite. The book is available on Amazon.

Imperfect Places and People

Without really planning to, in April and May this year I read three books all set (primarily) in Africa. Through them I learnt things I’d never known, or most likely had forgotten. It was also interesting to note in all of them a strain of imperfection – imperfect places and imperfect characters.

The first, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, is set mostly in Ethiopia, an Ethiopia that faces revolution, civil war and a movement to liberate neighbouring Eritrea. The presence of multiple cultural influences in the book adds to its richness, Italian being one of those, since Italy occupied Ethiopia for a period. It is the political situation that leads to the American section of the book. One of the protagonists, Marion Stone, has to flee being wrongly accused of being part of the Liberation Movement. He heads for the Bronx, New York, where he works as a doctor. In a city so often lauded for its quality and status, New York is presented here in its imperfections. Compared to hospitals with more prestige, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour where Marion works, is underfunded and attracts a mix of foreign doctors. The inequity in modern-day America is highlighted, but is done so in a matter-of-fact way, which I appreciated. The earlier story contains a wonderfully detailed family life at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa, and for the full book we are treated to in-depth explanations of medical procedures. Although fascinating, the latter is a little heavy-handed. Still, it is described lyrically and forms the really intense parts of the story.

The Crossing by Manjeet Mann, actually starts in Ethiopia’s neighbouring country, the now-independent Eritrea. Sammy, a teenager who lives there, flees enforced conscription and makes for England. His journey as a refugee is harrowing and it is remarkable that he makes it as far as the English Channel. Here he has just one last body of water to swim across before reaching his goal, ‘the promised land’. At the same time, we read about Natalie, a teenager who lives in England. An England that is far from the ‘promised land’ of Sammy’s imagination. Natalie’s family is to be turfed out of their accommodation, her brother protests bitterly about ‘refugees coming in to take the locals’ jobs’, and Natalie grieves her late mother. It is the latter that spurs Natalie into swimming the channel to raise money for a refugee charity. In a series of coincidences Natalie and Sammy learn about each other and set out at the same time to ‘cross’ the English channel. The Crossing, aimed at Young Adults, is written in verse, in simple language, and with clever use of typography and concrete poetry. It was shortlisted in this year’s Carnegie Medal.

The Country of Others by Leila Slimani is set in Morocco in the 1950s when Morocco is still a French colony and then later rebels against its colonisers. The main characters are Amien and his wife Mathilde and their daughter Ayesha. Amien is Moroccan, Arabic and Black, while Mathilde is French, Catholic and White. They meet in France during WWII, when Amien is conscripted by the French to fight for them against the Germans. I found this interesting – how difficult must it have been to for Amien to fight for the coloniser to whom he did not really owe allegiance? I say ‘don’t really’ because a great deal of ambiguity is written into the characters. The relationship between Mathilde and Amien especially is reflective of the relationship between Morocco and France: at once in love and in hate. This relationship is likened in the book to the Lironge tree – an orange tree into which a lemon tree has been grafted. The result is an unpalatable fruit. Fittingly, Morocco itself is not portrayed as salubrious, unlike the delight I understand the tourist’s Morocco to be. The characters in The Country of Others are unlikable, a fact that only serves to underscore the ambiguity and to provide a good, thought-provoking read.

Individual in Form and Story

Something I frequently ponder is how to practically apply a faith in God to real life. The Beech Bank Girls – Every Girl Has a Story by Eleanor Watkins shows how this might be done. It naturally and simply portrays a real, relevant, caring and present God. This elevates an otherwise ordinary girls’ story set in England, to something more universal. The six girls in the tale have varying degrees of faith in their Christian God. From Annie, who hasn’t met him before, to Chloe who begins to doubt his faithfulness.

The form and plot of the book underscore God’s personal nature. The text is divided into six parts, one per character, with each part told in first-person. This lends the narration a diary-entry feel.

As per the title, the story itself is about girls, friends, each of whom has their own set of challenges. We meet Annie who has just moved homes because her parents are divorcing. Willow, a leader and faithful friend, who is tempted to put her love of designer clothing above her friendships. Rachel, who is aggrieved when her stepfather’s four children are forced to move in with Rachel and her family. Holly, who feels conflicted by the attentions of a good-looking soccer player. Amber, who can’t forgive her parents for failing to tell her they were going to euthanize the family dog. And Chloe who tries to hide her brother’s serious health challenges.

For all of these problems the friends turn to (or even away from) God. They pray together at school, attend a youth group at the ‘Beech Bank Club’, and reflect on him in private. God responds by hearing and acting on those prayers, revealing himself to be a God of relationship. An attentive God who strengthens, teaches empathy, forgiveness and perspective, and who remains faithful in the face of faithlessness. The range of issues, from the childlike to the more serious, and the drawing of a God who responds so individually to prayers around those issues, gives this easy-to-read book a sense of importance.

The preparation of a surprise celebration by five of the girls for Chloe is a plot that runs in the background. In the different parts we see varying angles of the preparation, all leading up to the actual celebration and the book’s satisfying conclusion. Apart from a slightly rushed opening part, and the occasional adult voice breaking through the childlike narration, The Beech Bank Girls is a balanced, cleverly written story. I think I would have warmed to it as a youngster, and as an adult I look forward to reading the next three in Watkins’s series: Beech Bank Girls – Making a Difference, Beech Bank Girls – Christmas is Coming and The Beech Bank Girls – A Time Remembered. The books, suitable for ages 10 to 14, are available from Dernier Publishing ( They can also be purchased on Amazon Kindle.


I love children’s books with a message. Messages that grapple with weighty subjects. Subjects that are dealt with in ways that promote discussion and convey perspective. Even amongst young children. Two picture books shortlisted for this year’s Kate Greenaway medal do just that. They are Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Pena and Christian Robinson, and Drawn Across Borders by George Butler. Both books feature pictures that are formed either around the words, or as part of the words. That is, not separated by blank space or whole pages. I find this makes for more natural ‘reading’ of both words and pictures.

In Milo Imagines the World we meet a little boy travelling on a train with his sister. Milo feels like a ‘shook-up soda’ because of his mixed emotions of love, worry, excitement and confusion. We realise only at the end of the journey why Milo has these emotions: he is going to visit his mother who is in prison. Milo deals with these emotions by drawing the people he sees on the train, imagining them in their private worlds. On a couple of pages we even see Milo’s hand as it clutches the pencil while drawing in the notebook. But, after some time, Milo stops drawing and looks at his own reflection in the train window, wondering what people think when they look at his face. It is this perspective that prepares Milo to see that we simply cannot judge people by their appearance. Milo, and the reader by extension, learns compassion.

Drawn Across Borders is unique, certainly in my experience of children’s books. Its author, George Butler, is a reportage illustrator who covers stories of migration. In the book Butler explains some of his pictures and his experience of drawing them. His words are aimed at children or young adults, and his subjects often feature children: boys sifting through the rubble of their home, a girl smiling at him while she stands in a long queue for food, a boy lying on a hospital bed after having lost one leg in an explosion. It is these children, and otherwise ordinary people, upon whom Butler focuses, revealing what it is like to live as a refugee. The drawings in fine ink with splashes of water colour have an unfinished look about them, perhaps reflecting the impermanence of their subject matter. The people in the pictures come from 11 different countries, Syria, Kenya, Serbia, Lebanon and Iraqi Kurdistan among them. The people migrate for various reasons: work, war, urbanisation. Drawn Across Borders made me realise just how many people live shifting, insecure lives. I see afresh how very secure and stable is my own home life. The drawings, as opposed to photos, are appropriate for children to see. But I think a book like this is, is best read in collaboration with adults. It is worth exposing children to Drawn Across Borders because, like Milo in Milo Imagines the World, children may gain both compassion and perspective. I certainly did.

The Power of ‘Showing’ Stories

In June the 2022 YOTO Carnegie Greenaway Children’s Book award winners and readers’ choice were announced. The Carnegie winner was Katya Balen’s October, October, and the Greenaway readers’ choice was The Midnight Fair, a wordless picture ‘written’ by Gideon Sterer and illustrated by Mariachiara Di Giorgio. It is interesting to note that a wordless book does in fact have a writer. Someone who develops the concept and the story with a plot and characters. For story The Midnight Fair truly is. In it a group of woodland animals – bears, deer, badgers, squirrels, foxes, hedgehogs and more – watch from a forest as trucks head across a field to set up a carnival fair. Later that evening the animals, under cover of darkness, watch the lights and humans and activity until the humans leave and the fairground watchman turns off the power. Then the animals emerge from the shadows, climb through the fence, switch the lights back on and proceed to have a marvellous time. They ride the roller coaster, cruise on the swings, zip around in giant teacups. They scoff popcorn and candy floss, toss rings over static swans and win prizes like giant teddies and goldfish in bags. Facial expressions and body positioning indicate moments of real character and obvious movement. Although the animals copy human children/parent actions, they also display their own special ways. Three small characters walk arm in arm, stuck together by a pretzel. And a hedgehog waddles by with licorice allsorts and other sweets stuck to its quills. It is fascinating that a wordless picture book can communicate humour, movement, and passage of time as it does. Readers will have no problem understanding the story. In fact, a wordless book may invite more discussion and interaction between parents and young children. The Midnight Fair is a delight, and an example of the worth of wordless books.

By contrast, October, October is a literary book aimed at middle grade readers. Whilst young readers like those of The Midnight Fair, and older readers in their teens, have lots of choice when it comes to books, the middle grade age group does not. So, it is significant to see this book winning the award. The protagonist is 11-year-old October who lives with her father off the grid in a forest. That is until her father is rushed to hospital after an horrific accident. October must then go to live with her hated mother in London where there is little in the way of a natural environment. And she must attend school for the first time. The story weaves in several threads, many, though not all of which, are tied up at the end. The open-endedness of certain aspects is a theme of the book. A brave and perhaps unusual one for this age group, but one I feel is important. Because life simply is not a neat and tidy affair at any age. Apart from the characterisation and the multilayered yet easy-to-understand text, what I most appreciated about Balen’s writing was her careful attention to ‘show don’t tell’. Writing courses urge writers to craft stories using ‘show’ – actions, dialogue, body language – rather than ‘tell’ – wordy descriptions. Balen does this throughout, resulting in an immersive reading experience in which the reader lives the tale and enters the character’s head. To some degree, as a result, October’s experience with a wild owl, her befriending of a boy at school, forgiveness of her mother, grieving for her injured father, and more, are like The Midnight Fair’s evocation of a clear and emotive story.

These two books, obviously loved by young readers, will be appreciated by adults and writers of children’s book. A real pleasure.

Stories You Can Chew Over

Short stories can be clever. They often make comments on society and focus intensely on a moment in time. Because of their brevity they don’t have to tell the reader everything or tie up every loose end. This invites readers to think, to fill in the gaps. Despite these positives I have not always liked short stories. My exposure to them at school and in tertiary education was usually as a random collection, or as a once-off in a magazine. This made for bitty, unsatisfying reading – almost like watching a variety show, or eating fluffy popcorn when I needed a proper meal. So I was very pleased, recently, to have read two books that were written as a series of interconnected short stories. Although true to the short story style, each story in the books was linked by overarching themes and a main narrative arc. The result was an in-depth, wholesome reading meal.

The first, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, is an adult read set in the fictional town of Maine, USA, and usually featuring (whether closely or distantly) the character of Olive Kitteridge. Olive is a cantankerous woman who nevertheless has some wisdom, insight, love and faithfulness. Despite her many failings – nastiness to her husband, control and lack of understanding towards her son, and intolerance of others – the reader just cannot hate her. And by the book’s end she acknowledges her faults, thereby exhibiting growth and change. Each story in Olive Kitteridge describes different characters in an unhurried way, focusing on them as if through a magnifying glass. And together the stories dwell on the themes of ageing versus adult children, the search for meaning, vulnerability, acceptance, and extramarital affairs (or at least attractions that most of us, it seems, fall into). The latter is in no way seedy and is portrayed as simply an aspect of life. Eating/food is a constant, with one character suffering from anorexia, and Olive often being featured eating. Indeed, one of the most memorable and life-altering scenes of the book occurs after one night at a restaurant. Olive and her husband stop at a hospital on the way home to use the toilet and are taken hostage. More than the hostage drama itself, it is the hurtful things Olive and her husband say to each other, that cause the lasting damage. Although difficult subjects are dealt with in Olive Kitteridge, their treatment is not morose. It is beautiful.

The deliciously titled Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock also handles heavy subject matter in an engrossing and sometimes humorous way. It is a young adult novel on the shortlist for the Yoto Carnegie Medal 2022. Written in accessible language, it features teenage characters who invite reader sympathy as they deal with trauma. The main narrative arc here is one that involves child abduction and murder, while other subjects included are child molestation, gay relationships, and the power of nature in the form of biting cold and raging fires. The stories are set in small towns along the west coast of North America, from Alaska, to British Columbia to Washington. They feature main and secondary characters and, as the stories move along the coast, so each new story starts with a secondary character from the previous story who then becomes the focal point. Like a chain, snaking along the coast adding links as it goes.

Because of constant characters, bigger themes and plot lines I finished both Olive Kitteridge and Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town full and happy. But because of unexplained elements and clever titles, I was also left pondering, chewing over what this or that meant. The style of these books is a fabulous way to present short stories and I highly recommend them.