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Challenging Times - a guest blog by Justin Somper

Posted By Jacob Hope, 06 May 2020

We are delighted to welcome Justin Somper, bestselling author of the Vampirates novels to the YLG blog to talk about his recent trip to Australia, his wedding, the challenges that he faced with the unravelling Covid-19 and how this fed the idea of devising a series of creative challenges.


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…


Saturday March 14th 2020. I’m standing barefoot on Redgate Beach in Margaret River. This glorious region of the Western Australian coast is celebrated in equal measure for its surfing beaches and wineries. Alongside me, also barefoot, is my partner PJ. Before us are arrayed a gaggle of family and close friends. To our left is Anita, our celebrant. After fourteen years together, eleven as civil partners, PJ and I are “upgrading” (now that it’s legal) to marriage.


This isn’t entirely the Australian beach wedding I was promised! Beach – tick. Barefoot – tick. A select gathering of our nearest and dearest - tick. But where’s the afternoon sun? It’s been raining on and off for most of the day. As we drove to the beach - in our friend’s uncle’s vintage Jag! - the rainfall became more persistent. We’ve all got umbrellas – several of them borrowed in haste from the reception of our guest house. Anita has brought her own - a rainbow one.


As the brief but beautiful ceremony progresses, the rain becomes heavier. By the time we are signing the wedding certificate, on a nearby rock, we’re deploying multiple umbrellas to keep the paper dry. We sip locally produced fizz to the sound of Kylie singing All the Lovers from a tiny speaker, then throw our umbrellas – and caution – aside, and allow the heavens to thoroughly drench us. It feels like we’re in a movie – an Aussie spin on Mamma Mia. Anita tells me that the rain is a good omen. It means the marriage knot will be tighter.


The morning after the wedding, reality hits like the heaviest hangover and the movie we’re living in – along with the rest of the planet – is suddenly something far more dystopian. It’s now clear that we’re not going to be able to fly out the next day to Tasmania, to see my father-in-law, nor from there to a weekend of friend catch-ups in Melbourne – in case we get stranded in either location. A more fundamental question looms as we drive back to Perth. What if we aren’t going to be able to get back to the UK?


The question hangs over us throughout the next week. Now that we’ve cut out the week of interstate travels, we find ourselves with time on our hands in Perth – and, surreally, the freedom to move around WA. Australia is well behind the UK in terms of cases of Covid-19 and there aren’t even social distancing measures in place yet – simply scrums in the supermarkets to secure loo roll and liquid soap, pasta and porridge oats.


That week, we drive up the coast to Cervantes (I love a town named after a writer, don’t you? *), to the Pinnacles and Nambung National Park, to Scarborough and Hillarys Boat Harbour. With the brilliant revamp of my Vampirates books by UCLan Publishing in March, it was always our intention to capitalise on the sun-drenched Australian coast to record some short films to deploy on social media at a later date. Now we have time and space to do this, but it feels oddly frivolous to record the standard Q&A about characters and inspiration.


I’m aware of the brilliant resources illustrators including Steven Lenton and Rob Biddulph are creating for kids on social media – and now in these unprecedented circumstances, it feels all the more vital for parents, librarians and teachers. I begin thinking about what I can offer in a similar vein. The answer comes to me while we’re out and about. How about I issue some bite-sized creative challenges to young people which they can engage with, whether or not they have read my books? Buoyed on this wave of positive energy, we spontaneously film three challenges that day at Hillarys.


The next day is a tough one. The UK is about to go into lockdown. My sister texts me, “come home now!”. My brother simultaneously texts, “stay there!”. We can’t get Trailfinders or Qantas on the phone. We start drawing up lists of contingencies. Can our dog-sitter continue to care for Bella, our beloved black lab? Can we get a mortgage holiday if necessary? What items would we need retrieved from our home office if we had to set up remote working from here?


PJ suggests I take a break from this and focus instead on a list of Vampirate Challenges, which rather than being random will work in a coherent sequence. I’m hot. My brain is frazzled. My emotions are see-sawing. But I really want to do this. I want to make the most of the amazing location and I really want to make a positive contribution to the daily lives of children and parents entering this incredibly odd and scary set of circumstances. I pull it together over lunch and confirm there will be a sequence of 15 challenges! That very afternoon, we head to one of our favourite spots – City Beach. There, to my amazement, we record four of the short challenge films. I had a cry earlier and I’m wondering if that’s noticeable. It’s not the mood I want to project through these short films. I want them to be fun, inspiring and maybe, as a result of the locations, a tad soothing too. PJ assures me that I don’t look upset, just maybe a bit hot and red!


When we finally get Trailfinders on the phone, they strongly advise us to stick with the flight we always planned to return home on – the flight everyone wants – direct from Perth to London, departing Friday evening. But what if they cancel all flights by then? It’s a risk but, at this point, we realise that it’s a risk we’re going to have to take.


Within all the craziness of the following 5 days – trying not to dwell on the ‘what ifs?’, contending with increasingly stressful calls home and the beginnings of the goodbyes to our family and friends here – I find that making these short films is grounding me. My writing has always been a place of escape for me and I guess with my Vampirates books, it’s a world where readers and I can escape together. I’m relishing being back in that world. I’m enjoying this sense of connecting directly with my readers. I’ve always loved going into schools and festivals, whether to talk or conduct workshops, and what I’m doing here - in the dunes, at the harbours, in the searing heat around the Maritime Museum in Fremantle – feels like it’s harnessing that same impulse. I just hope people won’t be irked by the sight of me moving around freely in the Australian sunshine.


Friday March 27th – late afternoon. Perth airport is surreal, silent and largely empty. Every other seat is covered in black and yellow hazard tape like a crime scene. The few passengers are edgy. Many sport face masks. After a couple of eleventh hour scares, we are sitting in our seats on flight QF09. This will be the last direct flight out of Australia. The air crew are professional and upbeat despite the pervasive fraughtness. One of the stewardesses learns we have just got married and brings glasses of fizz to our seats. Our seventeen-hour flight commences. Before you know it, we’re eating cottage pie, watching Jumanji 2 in perfect synchrony, trying to make out like everything’s normal. But it isn’t. But you know that.

* In the interests of full accuracy, I have to acknowledge that the town of Cervantes was named after a ship, which was wrecked nearby. The ship, in turn, was named after Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote.


You can find Justin Somper’s #Vampiratechallenges every Monday, Wednesday and Friday on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook (all @JustinSomper) and the full sequence of challenge videos at


Whilst in Australia, Justin was also able to record a “Ten Minute Writing Challenge” for Authorfy, which you can find along with a host of other resources at


New editions of the first three Vampirates novels - Demons of the Ocean, Tide of Terror and Blood Captain – are available now from UCLan Publishing. They each contain bonus content including new stories, new artwork and Reading Group Questions from Jake Hope.




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Tags:  creativity  reading development  Reading for Pleasure 

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World Book Night and the National Shelf Service

Posted By Jacob Hope, 22 April 2020
Updated: 22 April 2020

The lockdown has seen a massive surge of interest in public library joining figures and in e-lending.  The National Shelf Service is intended as means to help to promote books and reading, to showcase the expertise and knowledge of librarians and also to help parents, carers, teachers and young people themselves connect with some truly incredible reads!  


We are delighted that on World Book Night we will be hosting a special day of activity.  From 11.00am until 7.00pm we will have recommendations on the hour each one themed in some way around books, reading, stories and libraries!  At 7.00pm we will have a special online storytime with award-winning children's poet and author Joseph Coelho followed by a short talk with him about why libraries have meant so much to him as well as his exciting membership tour of libraries around the UK!


The final recommendation of the day will happen at 8.00pm.  Throughout the day we will also be on Twitter giving book recommendations using the Twitter handle #DrBook do join us and help to make World Book Night a special celebration of books, reading, stories and libraries!


Join us on Twitter @youthlibraries and at the #NationalShelfService YouTube channel





Tags:  National Shelf Service  Reading  Reading Development  Reading for Pleasure  YouTube 

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People, Place and Peru - How far do you go to taste a guinea pig - by Chloe Daykin

Posted By Jacob Hope, 01 August 2019
Updated: 01 August 2019
We are delighted to welcome author Chloe Daykin who talks here about her new novel, 'Fire Girl Forest Boy' and launches an exciting competition for National Libraries week supported by Faber Children's Books.

I’ve been lucky enough to go on a couple of amazing trips for writing research. The first was thanks to the inaugural Julia Darling travel fellowship (after the much loved and missed wonderful person and author/poet/playwright Julia Darling). On that trip I travelled up to the arctic circle and beyond, to the Lofoten Islands on a sleeper train, staying in log cabins, swimming in fjords and eating cinnamon buns and salmon and hot potato cakes and seeing what emerged into my second book The Boy Who Hit Play.

Last year I was lucky enough to be awarded an arts council grant to travel to Peru to research my third, Fire Girl Forest Boy.  I travelled to shiny white volcanic towns, high altitude lakes, canyons, in rickshaws, buses (so many buses), reed canoes, up through the forest mists to Machu Picchu, the water filled streets of Ollaytaytambo stayed in houses with hot water bottles made from old Inca Cola cartons, soaked in hot springs and drank herbal altitude remedies up high, so high your lungs shrink so small you feel like you’re walking on the moon. 

A key thing to me when writing set in different places is people. As much as I like seeing landscapes and places it’s really people for me that matter and it’s them, their food, their culture and honest way of being that I need to soak up. It feels important to be genuine. And personalities for me need to come from a really real place. So, as much I loved it all it was really the people I went for. The people and the food!

I ate rice pudding from carts, hot dripping charcoal roast chicken with sweet purple chicca morada, alpaca, a little bit of guinea pig, alfadores (cookies sandwiched with caramel), passionfruit three milk cake with thick whipped white icing and red tea, and quinoa. Loads of quinoa. My favourite was quinoa porridge from a family up in the mountains. Delicious! 

On coming home and getting on with the writing it’s hard to know what’s going to make it in or out. 
What I hope that’s made it through into the book is the people’s soulfulness. Their honesty. Integrity. Openness and kindness.  I love their belief in magic. And if you belief in something enough you see it around you. I hope I’ve been able to capture some of that.

As a kid I thought the most exciting place to explore was the jungle. Flying over the amazon while eating my inflight dinner is something I’ll never forget.  So I hope that’s in there too.  A love of the jungle, told at a pace that feels like running through it..  A wild environmental journey through the cloud forests, lawless towns, crisp cities and up into the otherworldly Lima Cathedral - with its art of decapitated martyrs, monsters exploding out of bellies and guinea pig last supper! 

Some of the landscapes are remembered. Some imagined. The environmental aspect came later from home based research. I guess if you love a place you want to protect it. So raising awareness of the illegal logging that’s going on (largely un-reported) - that’s effecting Peru so badly right now felt really important. 

Just after finishing the novel I read of a man was burned alive in Iquitos (where a chunk of the book is set) for standing up for indigenous communities, against mining and logging. His braveness and courage is humbling. I hope this books brings awareness of this cause in whatever small way it can. Without people standing up for each other we’re sunk.  And the people of Peru need standing up for and alongside.

I hope you enjoy the book. When I was writing it I was thinking a lot about Journey to The River Sea, Trash, Matilda, Rooftoppers, Keeper and One Hundred Years of Solitude. So perhaps some of that may have seeped in too.  
This week we have the incredibly lovely news that Fire Girl Forest Boy has been long listed for the Guardian’s Not The Booker prize.  And I am very proud and honoured! If you fancy a look at the list - for there are many many wonderful books on it - or a vote the link is here.
Before I was an author I started out as an artists/designer//bookbinder and to celebrate the brilliant National Libraries Week (organised by CILIP, the library and information association), in October we’re running a prize of having a library window painted in a lush tropical jungly style (by me!).  Simply tweet a pic of your library window with the hashtag #firegirlforestboy #librariesweek to be in with a chance to win. I would love to meet you and make your library look even lovelier!  Till then, happy reading and a massive thanks for all the hard and wonderful work you do!!!


Tags:  National Libraries Week  Reading  Reading Development  reading for pleasure  travel 

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Tunnels Below

Posted By Jacob Hope, 21 May 2019
The Youth Libraries Group blog is delighted to be part of 'The Tunnels Below' blog tour.  Celebrating the publication of a compelling new fantasy, here author Nadine Wild-Palmer talks about how a passion for libraries and working with children influenced her debut.

I discovered I had a real passion for working with children after university when I was hired by The House of Fairy Tales to travel around festivals with a caravan of creatives, running workshops that focused on creative storytelling, singing songs and immersive play. However, like so much of life this job was seasonal and I found myself needing and wanting to develop my skills in a more concrete way. I did a lot of soul searching and discovered I was missing a connection – Books! This was very much a eureka moment for me, I had spent my childhood writing and reciting poetry and making up languages so it made perfect sense to literally hit the books.  I was going to embark on a mission to become a Children’s Librarian and that, is just what I did.

I applied for a part time job at St Nicholas Preparatory school (Part time because I still needed time off for writing) and the head teacher at the time - Jill Aisher – Invited me in for an interview. I remember discussing my love of books and children with her during the interview and that I was very keen to start writing my own books. I landed the job and I believe it was at this point that The Tunnels Below, although already deeply seeded in my mind began take roots. I was in an environment that was filled with thousands of doorways to different worlds all aimed at the people I was working with: Children. It was magical. I know now, that when you are conscious you are being given an opportunity, even though you don’t know where it might lead it is full of anticipation and this excited energy is what I used to create the world of The Tunnels Below.

However, once I actually started working with the children I discovered that what I thought about what made a good book, was more often than not at odds with what the children I was working with actually wanted to read. Despite already having a masters in Creative and Critical writing there is nothing like hands on experience to really highlight what you don’t know about your chosen field of study or your profession! I learnt a lot about language, illustration, style and subject matters from the children and the librarians I worked with. A big thank you to:  Mrs Skipworth, Ms Pepper and Mr Bruce is deserved here, a trio of kind intelligent people who generously shared their wealth of knowledge with me and which, I have never forgotten.
Working in the library brought me back to the feeling of reverent calm that I had as a child walking to the local library in Balham. I’m grateful for that, especially when so many of our local Libraries are under threat.  
After a year or so working in the Library the school and parents of St Nicholas presented me with an opportunity I could not refuse. I was commissioned me to write and illustrate my first children’s book for the Library and Chicken & Egg was born. The process of creating this book made me realise that I had more to say than a picture book would allow and that, although I was alright at drawing I was no illustrator. So I kept going back to The Tunnels Below, flashes of inspiration followed me around London until I had written the first four chapters at which time a chance meeting with my editor Sarah Odedina, flung the doors wide open.

However, I know, in my heart of hearts, that had I never spent the hours I did in the Library, I may never have been brave enough to write a book. I am dyslexic and dyspraxic and as a child I was a painfully slow reader (I am still pretty slow but I remember books in a lot of detail). Being back in a children’s library gave me a chance to catch up on the titles I couldn’t keep up with as a child, which gave me a chance to reconcile some of the negative feelings I harboured about books. Libraries have always evoked a sense of wonder in me but working as a Librarian in one showed me how much healing they can provide as well as how much magic they can work on a non-believer who needs reminding that they have the power within them too!

Tags:  libraries  reading development 

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