My inspiration: blizzards and baddies, amongst other things…


It started with a comic. A whole bag of them, in fact. I was 8 or 9 years old and a friend passed on a heap of back numbers so that, instead reading one issue and having to wait a week for the next, I could feast. It was there I found The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by the incomparable Joan Aiken…


I recently wrote about this book for The Guardian, and why it – and its utterly glorious sequels – really inspire my writing. You can read the whole piece here.


Discovering the new cover for ‘Gully Potchard’

My new book, The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard, will be out in six weeks. And it has a brand new cover. This is the da-da-daaah! moment. (It took me at least two minutes to decide how best to spell that.)

Beady-eyed readers will have spotted that there was already a cover image out and about for this book. It was red and flame-yellow. But the team at OUP Children’s had second thoughts and came up with something far more spectacular. The cover of a book is so important: it’s crucial to get it as right as it can be. There’s still a dog, a sinister baddie, and a hatchet involved. But now it’s a stunning night-time blue and there’s one helluva chase for my hero, Gully, an ordinary boy who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances.

The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard by Julia lee, Oxford University Press, cover image


Modern heroines – kick ass or convincing?

When writing for adults I’ve been perfectly happy creating flawed, even unlikeable, main characters. I still like them! But it seems to me that in writing for children there’s a complex responsibility to writing heroes – and even more so heroines.

Ellen Page as Juno in the 2007 film Juno

Ellen Page as fast-talking quirky heroine Juno

Much as I love quick-thinking smart-mouthed lead characters, I think most people are only smart-mouthed in their heads. Me included. That witty put-down, that perfect quick-fire response? Half an hour too late. Always.

Katniss Everdeen heroine of The Hunger Games

Katniss, of course

Much as I love strong, skilful, intrepid heroines, I am not and never will be one of them. Me and most of us, I think. (I would love to write a thriller about someone who can’t drive and is useless at climbing over chain-link fences! But it may not even be possible…)

I have never like mimsy* good-girl heroines, particularly the needlessly self-sacrificing type, and I quickly tire of them being strikingly beautiful, too. I don’t think that’s a desirable role-model.

So, my choices about creating lead characters I, and I hope readers, can identify with – though not extensively and perfectly thought out – are going to be loaded with these thoughts, feelings, intuitions.

Currently my children’s repertoire is historical, slightly over-the-top, adventure stories. However exaggerated some of it may be, this world must have its own logic. The emotions, strengths and weaknesses of the main players have to be convincing. (Ok, for the sake of my argument I’m selectively forgetting a sprinkling of psychic powers.) When I began writing The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth I had the set-up, some of the twists and turns, and I knew that it needed to turn out well in the end. Somehow. And of course it was up to me to make that happen.

So, how do you solve a problem like Clemency? She’s small, unworldly, and isn’t used to speaking up for herself. She’s had a conventional childhood in colonial India: brought up by servants, educated by English governesses, and pretty much ignored by her parents. Privileged, yet neglected. And she has never kicked against this system, partly because before the start of the book she’s never known anything else. Then – due to the dastardly interventions of the author – she finds herself parentless, penniless, and far from home.

Clemency from The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth by Julia lee

Clemency, as depicted on the cover by Ross Collins

Writers are advised not to create passive heroes. They’re much harder to prise out of their difficulties, and readers find them unsympathetic if they’re too pathetic. But Clemency was already Clemency in my mind, and besides, just how kick-ass would a typical middle-class Victorian girl be? I couldn’t make her a superhero or give her a personality transplant. How could I turn her around without breaking the bounds of the story’s internal logic?

As events progress Clemency finds herself in deep and perplexing danger. She needs help. But I felt very strongly that I didn’t want a heroine who simply got rescued. However much I rallied the cavalry (almost literally) on her behalf I still wanted her in some way to rescue herself. She doesn’t start out with much in the way of resourcefulness, unlike some of the other young characters who have had to be self-reliant, persistent, and cunning, just to get by in life. Yet the working title of the book was originally The Wrigglesworth Rebellion, because I knew that eventually she rebelled against all that had kept her a quiet, polite, obedient Victorian child.

What could I do with her? When she was trapped, cold, lonely and hopeless, what could she do? What would I have done as an 11-year old? Cried, of course. Fallen in a miserable heap, probably, and never got up again. Not heroic at all. But falling apart at the seams wouldn’t be exciting or uplifting to read about, and I needed hope.

My lifeline came when I began to think about injustice. Clemency has been treated very unjustly, and I believe that all children feel very strongly about this. It might be personal injustice – remember how incredibly frustrating it was when your whole class was punished because of something one person did and wouldn’t own up to? Or it might be witnessing someone else being treated unfairly and feeling furious on their behalf. Children burn with a sense of injustice. And it’s helpful for girls and women to make use of their anger, even though they may be trained not to, rather than turn it inwards and feel depressed. Clemency gets angry – she can’t do anything yet but her burning rage stops her from dissolving into a waterfall of tears and actually physically warms her up when she most needs it.

From there I had my key to getting her up and active, finding her voice and answering back, running risks. And then discovering that, although it’s often scary, taking matters into your own hands is energizing and sort of fun. It’s certainly fun to write about.

There’s also a kind grown-up who Clemency meets early on, an expert on how children’s minds work and how adults often discount them. In the edits I was able to plant some more positive thinking into Clemency’s head from the encouraging words Mrs Potchard says to her about having ‘inner resources’. Not super powers, or some kind of unjustifiable ninja skills, just inner resources. A growing self-belief.

Throw in an increasing circle of friends and supporters, a happy coincidence or two, and a weapon I hadn’t even realised I’d placed there, all ready. Clemency had definitely become an active part in her story’s resolution.


*Mimsy is not in my dictionary or thesaurus. Who cares? It’s a good word.

Midnight is a Place New 40th Anniversary Edition

As any regular readers know, I am a big fan of Joan Aiken’s children’s books so I am really happy that Midnight Is A Place is having a new edition and hope it will reach a whole new young audience. And for me, too, as I’m sure this is one title of hers I haven’t read!

Joan Aiken


One of the most highly praised of Joan Aiken’s historical melodramas is now being republished to celebrate the book’s 40th anniversary.  The story of Midnight Court, and two of Aiken’s most unfortunate orphans,  the doubly disinherited Lucas and Anna-Marie, was hailed variously as “the stuff of nightmares,” but also as a deeply moving portrayal of the real evils of industrialisation and child labour, and while “steeped in nineteenth century literary traditions,”   and  “juggling an army of seedy villains with Dickensian aplomb” it also “earns its place in the landscape of humorous fiction.”

Should we go on?  “In this thrilling tale we have machines which crush children to death, herds of man-eating hogs in subterranean sewers, and a wicked old gentleman  “charred to a wisp” in the burning remains of his ill-gotten house…” all described “superbly, with a force, a colour and strength of imagination that one encounters all too rarely.”…

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heid by Johanna Spyri Puffin edition

Heidi front cover

This pretty Puffin edition of Heidi with the price of 3/6d on the cover was irresistible. It goes on my (growing) pile of books from childhood to be revisited.

I’m not sure I would have been drawn to reread Heidi (I have a vague feeling there is something a bit goody-goody about the story – though I may be wrong) had it not been for this delightful cover by Cecil Leslie. It’s colourful and delicate and full of sprightly movement. Heidi’s grandfather has a luxuriant Father Christmas beard, the goats are truly goat-like, and Heidi’s are toes are spread out on the Alpine meadow in a way that reminds me how wonderful it is to go barefoot in soft grass. There are further line illustrations inside. As far as I can work out this edition is from 1956, my copy being one reprinted in 1964. The pages are quite yellow but the spine is unbroken.

I must have read Heidi several times as a child. It was one of those books that was around a lot, that everyone read, almost without choosing to – because everyone else had read it. I’ve just looked up its background: it was first published in 1880 and is one of the best-selling books ever written. It has been filmed and televised a number of times, including a 1937 movie with child-star Shirley Temple in the lead role. So it was well-known to our mothers and grandmothers, too.

Cecil Leslie, it turns out, was a woman, and illustrated a number of E Nesbit books for Puffin. She also illustrated Alison Uttley stories, and Pauline Clarke’s fascinating tale of what happened to the toy soldiers once owned by the Bronte children, The Twelve and The Genii. 

But the only things from Heidi that stay with me all these years later are mountains, goats, and wheelchairs. I shouldn’t think mountains and wheelchairs mixed well, not in the days before disabled access. I shall find out…

Heidi by Johanna Spyri back cover Puffin edition Cecil Leslie

back cover

Dumb Animals – Black Beauty revisited (2)

Black Beauty The Autobiography of a horse by Anna Sewell book

‘We call them dumb animals and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words.’

Spoilers throughout!

Well, it didn’t end quite as I remembered. It ended well, for Beauty at least, but not as neatly as in my imagination -reunited with Merrylegs in the vicarage paddock. Black Beauty was not such an emotional story, either, only to be read through a veil of tears, though it certainly has its moments. Although Beauty suffers, the amount of time he spends with good – or good-ish – owners rather than bad ones is much higher than I thought!

As a child, after the first reading, once I knew about Ginger’s tragic fate, this was always the lowest, saddest part in the story which I approached with dread and a big lump in my throat. Yet this episode, which loomed so large, lasted barely two sides of a page. After one brief conversation with Ginger on the cab rank, Beauty isn’t even sure it is Ginger he later sees lying in the cart. ‘I believe it was Ginger. I hoped it was, for then her troubles would be over.’ Gulp!

My first tears came when Beauty is parted from his second home and the kind coachman, John Manly: ‘I held my face close to him, for that was all I could do to say goodbye: and then he was gone, and I have never seen him since.’ This briefly-described image felt so powerful. It embodies so much of the wonderful bond that can exist between domesticated animals and humans and the wordless communication we understand so well.

Black Beauty the autobiography of a horse by Anna Sewell

It’s the compassion and wisdom of humans that keeps the horses from trouble, because they are dumb animals. Beauty can’t tell his driver when he has a crippling stone in his hoof and the driver fails to notice. He can’t say he’s cold and shivering after a long hard day, or thirsty, if whoever is meant to take care of him is lazy or ignorant or just absent. Anna Sewell has to say all this for him, to the readers, educating them along the way. All animals – including humans, I would add – communicate through behaviour, but that behaviour has to be understood and not dismissed, and that’s part of her lesson. At first Ginger protests through bad behaviour but that doesn’t serve her well. ‘Men are stronger, and if they are cruel and have no feeling, there is nothing we can do, but just bear it, bear it on and on to the end.’

Beauty’s progress is one of regular partings and losses, with the horse in no control over any of it. His mother Duchess tells him, ‘A horse never knows who may buy him or who may drive him. It is all chance for us.’ On finding out that a horse he saw killed in a hunt was his half-brother, Beauty reflects, ‘It seems that horses have no relations. At least they never know each other, after they are sold.’

black beauty Anna Sewell

It was on this re-reading that the troubling parallel with slavery kept coming to mind, which never occurred to me as a child. I was too wrapped up in the story of beautiful, noble, helpless horses to imagine that humans were treated in a similar way. Perhaps back then I knew little about the details of slavery. But the themes of power and ownership versus powerlessness and voicelessness, being bred for work and sold away once old enough to be useful, of being treated like machines with no thought of what was going on inside the creature, of monetary value based on strength and health, kept reinforcing this.

Black Beauty the autobiography of a horse by Anna Sewell

Of course Sewell doesn’t think in terms of animal rights; or even the possible rights of workers like the downtrodden rental cab-men, stuck in a vicious circle of debt and overwork, harsh masters and cheating customers – she knows it’s a bad situation but having shown great understanding says, through the Governor at the cab-rank, ‘but who’s to mend it I don’t know.’ People – and horses – right at the bottom of the heap disappear from the story into destitution and death. Like many a Victorian campaigner, she’s against the evils of drink, and she even has a chapter on elections, which are ‘a serious business’, not to be approached in an atmosphere of foolish drunkenness, bribery, and bullying. But Sewell is firmly lodged in the paternalistic world where all good deeds are in the gift of good masters, or those with a conscience, and she can only try to educate those who aren’t so enlightened.

black beauty by Anna Sewell vintage book cover

There is one scene which I fondly imagine is Anna Sewell herself, reasoning with the carter who overloads Beauty and keeps him on a bearing rein so that he can’t throw his weight into pulling the load. The anonymous lady proves her theory by demonstration, treats the man with respect and thanks him for trying out her plan. This is a modest lesson in how to win people over, at least temporarily. As a child I learned a lot about horse care from Black Beauty, although I was never lucky enough to own a horse to try it out on! I don’t remember all the other moral lessons at all, but I suppose I must have taken them in.

In old age Beauty comes to a place of safety where he will never be sold again ‘and so I have nothing to fear…My troubles are over and I am at home.’ Which is probably all that any of us might ask.

black beauty Anna Sewell

‘Black Beauty’ revisited (1)

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell cover image

In preparation for drawing up the list of my Top 5 Horses in Children’s Books, I am reading Black Beauty. It was one of my best-loved books as a child yet I hadn’t picked it up since. I must have owned a copy as I read it a number of times but I have absolutely no memory of what the book looked like, whether it was hardback or paperback, of jumble-sale origin or brand-new.

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell cover image

This time round I’ve bought a secondhand copy as the covers of new ones I found in bookshops came nowhere near what my idea of Beauty ought to look like. (The ones I’ve included here are ones I do approve of!) As a classic book, long out of copyright, there are lots of editions available with variable cover images. Some make Beauty look handsome and noble (correct). Others are frankly naff, the artwork apparently based on a plastic toy animal rather than a living, breathing horse. One audio version cover makes Beauty more like a plump cartoon pig than well-bred horseflesh!

It is hard now to imagine a world as full of horses as ours is full of cars. They were ridden or driven as transport, pulled everything from smart carriages to ploughs, omnibuses to hearses, were used for pleasure riding, and as pets-cum-playthings and teaching aids for children. We understand that cars are owned and run by experts and enthusiasts, by those who just use them to get from A to B but take reasonable care of them, and by people who don’t know what goes on under the bonnet or how to drive sensibly or safely. And, before the advent of the internal combustion engine, it was just the same with horses. But horses are sentient beings and herd animals, not machines.

horse-drawn vehicles traffic jam

I now know that Black Beauty was written as a kind of 19th century best-practice guide to horse care rather than a pony story for children, which was how it was presented to me. Anna Sewell was concerned about the ill-treatment of horses, through ignorance, arrogance, and thoughtlessness as much as through deliberate cruelty or neglect. This is the only book she ever wrote and she frequently strikes a practical rather than a romantic note, trying to appeal to common sense, and even economy, if entreating compassion won’t wash. One of her lessons is that if you treat a horse well and don’t overwork it, you will get better service and more years out of it. She obviously understands the different conditions that must prevail in settings like livery stables – the hire-car outlet of its day – and cab ranks, grand country houses with designer stable blocks, and pleasant vicarage meadows. Some of the difference is down to sheer economic necessity, but not all. Some is due to the temperament of the owners and workers. Sewell seems to me a keen observer of human nature, even if her humans tend to embody types she wants to show us rather than 3-dimensional characters.

horse-drawn Victorian Hansom cab

Black Beauty is a short book and I am only a quarter of the way through – nothing too dreadful has happened to Beauty yet. But on this reading I can see that each chapter presents a small moral and/or practical lesson: how – and why – to break a horse in gently and slowly; how to get it used to traffic and trains; why bad habits like biting and kicking are a result of bad treatment; even how to find out the true character of an employee in a subtle way.

But as a child I just consumed Beauty’s narrative, even if on re-readings I knew that it was all going to go horribly wrong before it came right again. I think it’s where I first appreciated that there was a narrative arc to a story – for example, from riches to rags to riches again – or in Beauty’s case from bran mash to beatings and back. The book’s subtitle is The Autobiography of a Horse and it’s told in the first person (or first horse) by Beauty himself. I had forgotten this. I wonder if it was the first novel to be narrated by an animal? I’d also forgotten that Beauty (!) is male, and that poor put-upon, biter and kicker Ginger is female.

I know that Beauty, like a long-lost childhood sweetheart, has got to be top of my list. I just had to check him out first. More about Black Beauty later…

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell book cover design