How Writers Can Make Kids Lifelong Readers


kgik9yofrn0-mi-phamFor a long time, The Secret Garden has reigned supreme as my favourite book, but in January 2017, its forty-year rule of my Favourites bookshelf came to an end. Which children’s book knocked Frances Burnett Hodgson’s classic from its perch? Read to the end to find out!

The Secret Garden is the book that turned me into a lifelong reader and planted the seed of desire to write books. Why exactly did it make such a lasting impression on me? Was it about the book? Content, character, setting, cover design? Or was it about the reader? Age, readiness, timing? These are questions I’m pondering as a creator of children’s literature. What makes a book a classic?


A Book Hugger is Born

I distinctly remember finishing The Secret Garden and clutching it to my heart. I turned back to the first page and hovered there for a moment, tempted to start over then and there just to extend my time with the characters in their world.

I didn’t reread it. Instead, I savoured the delicious post-book thrill. With a rainbow of emotions zinging through me, I felt as if my heart had strings and someone had strummed a mysterious new chord. Happiness and satisfaction vibrated on the high notes, while loss and longing thrummed on the low.

Sounds Almost Psychedelic…

What was it that made my eleven-year-old heart swoon for The Secret Garden? My guess: neurochemicals. A crazy literature-triggered cocktail of endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin made me go gaga and googly-eyed over a book.

Dopamine is the main neurotransmitter of the brain’s reward and pleasure system. It plays a positive part in bonding, love, sex, and motivation, and on the negative side, it is a factor in all kinds of addictions. I haven’t been able to find any quality research proving that reading great books triggers the release dopamine, but if computer games, television and music can, I don’t see why good books can’t.

It’s all about Pleasure &Reward.

If a reading habit starts very young, children learn to associate books with all sorts of pleasant, happy things like comfort, safety, and positive attention. Books equal nurturing.

Parents can set the stage for a lifetime of reading, but what about the writers of children’s literature? Can we maximise the pleasure and reward factors of books? I think so! If we tick these boxes, we can make the reading experience truly memorable and rewarding.


Relatable characters increase readers’ engagement with the story. Now, this is coming from someone who dislikes the word relatable. However, remember: one of the reasons kids (everybody, really) read is because they don’t want to feel alone. They (we) seek connection and validation. So give kids characters that ring true. Make your protagonist not too perfect. Stick a thorn in their flesh, a flaw that they have to master. And relatable doesn’t mean vague or blank or ‘insert a you-shaped facsimile here’; it means authentic. Little details, funny quirks, secret foibles and fears—these are the things that make characters relatable. (Read this for  food for thought on ‘relatability‘).

In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox was a sour, unlikable little girl, which would seem ‘unrelatable’. She had suffered a lot, having lost parents to typhoid and been transplanted to the other side of the world to live with strangers. Few kids today can relate to this, but most children have had moments of being contrary or have said horrible things or felt angry at everyone. Mary is relatable because her response to loss is authentic.


Make the stakes high and also meaningful to kids. Who cares about an evil madman who wants to rule the universe unless it impacts your kid protagonist personally (and your young reader vicariously)? The madman’s sinister deeds have to threaten the protagonist’s school or soccer team, and the outcome has to change the hero—not just save the universe for another rotation of the earth on its axis. Your readers must care about both the problem and the outcome.

Mary Lennox lost everything, so the question is: is restoration possible? Can she ever belong again? Can her frozen heart thaw? The garden is a metaphor for the healing of the characters and the blossoming of hope and possibility. If Mary and the garden can regenerate and flourish, it gives readers hope that they too can heal and thrive.


Give the protagonists as much agency as possible. The kid heroes, not their parents or teachers, must be the primary doers. The heroes must be pint-sized (or more or less the size of your readers) but supremely resourceful. The best way to ramp up the reward/pleasure factor is to make the kid save the day by sheer determination and clever thinking. Avoid adult saviours and magical shortcuts for maximum reader satisfaction.

Mary Lennox is left to her own devices at Misselthwaite Manor, which is sad for a child who’s lost her parents and her home. Mary uses her freedom to her advantage. Unencumbered by adult interference, she seeks and finds; she toils and reaps; she makes herself vulnerable and wins. And in all this doing, she changes, heals herself and helps others.


Let your readers ride in the skin of your protagonist. Sensory detail and visceral responses help draw your reader in. But show it, don’t tell it.

Dickon with his sweet nature is a wonderful foil for sour Mary Lennox. Compare mollycoddled Colin Craven who’s restricted to a dreary room and rigid routine for his lifetime to a girl who experienced the colourful world of India and roamed the lonely moors, a girl about whom no one cared a bit, not her distracted, socialite parents when they were alive, and not her heartsore, distant uncle. These contrasts are brilliant showing exercises to help the reader zero in on the frustrations and experience the truths in their starkness.

My New All Time Favourite Book


The Secret Garden was supremely satisfying, but I recently read another book that pipped it. Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea surpassed my old favourite. I loved it from cover to cover, and when I turned the last page, I burst into tears, startling my husband. “It’s the best book I’ve ever read,” I sobbed.

That perfect, mysterious chord of emotions thrummed in my soul: elation at the satisfying resolution; loss at leaving the world and its inhabitants behind. Professional jealousy and inspiration vied uncomfortably inside me. Here’s a link to my Goodreads review.

Journey to the River Sea ticks all of the boxes—and then some! Twists galore, fantastic characters, hateful villains, a setting to swoon over…

Connection – we’ve all felt friendless and alone and utterly unwanted.

Significance – What greater need than to find a place where you belong and matter.

Agency– Maia is resourceful and brave in bucket loads. Her governess, Miss Minton says, “Children must lead big lives… if it is in them to do so.” With this belief firmly fixed, she lets Maia star, doing all the exploits and working out the puzzles on her own.

Senses – a feast. It’s set in Manaus, Brazil along the Amazon at the turn of the century. The characters are British and very much out-of-place, but it is one’s attitude that makes all the difference.

My Aspiration

My highest goal as a children’s writer is to create for my young readers that singular experience of exalting in the joy of reading. I won’t mind a bit if a few neurotransmitters enhance the moment and motivate kids to keep reading!

Image Credit: Mi Pham, via Unsplash

How to Write a Superhero Story


Featuring guest blogger, Karen Tyrrell

Karen, tell me about Song Bird Superhero.

Song Bird Superhero is a humorous adventure with positive messages for kids.

Kids can stop the bully … Kids can do STEM science … Kids can do anything.


“Rosella Bird’s nightly dreams are filled with flying. Too bad her waking hours are a living nightmare:

Her flying inventions crash.

Her kooky parents are overprotective.

Her singing shatters windows.

The principal bans her from the science fair.

Worst of all, she lives next door to Frank Furter, an evil boy-genius whose sights are set on seeing her fail! Rosella is the girl least likely to soar, and yet when she learns to sing something incredible takes flight. Rosella becomes Song Bird, a flying superhero who saves the day.

Can Song Bird defeat Frank Furter’s evil bullying ways?”

Song Bird Superhero meets Captain Cybersafe at the launch.

Song Bird Superhero meets me–I mean, Captain Cybersafe–at the launch.

Why did you write a Superhero novel?

A: Readers of my Super Space Kid series (Jo-Kin Battles the It AND Jo-Kin vs Lord Terra) requested I write a superhero action adventure for girls. They wanted the main character and her side-kick to be heroic kick-ass girls. Rosella Ava Bird is a bullied girl who dreams of flying. Her side-kick, Amy Hillcrest, a super smart girl with cerebral palsy revels as a positive role model for diversity and disability, crushing stereotypes. Both girls excel with girls-can-do-anything and STEM science.

B: Song Bird is inspired by my real childhood events. I was bullied terribly in Year 6, losing my self-confidence. Each night I dreamed I could fly to escape my bully. I discovered my super powers when I sang in the choir and dabbled in science.

What are the rules of the superhero sub-genre?

A superhero battles against a super villain as he/she strives to keep the world safe. Super heroes and super villains co-exist in a supernatural world, a familiar world, but much darker than ours. The story begins with an inciting incident, when an ordinary person is initiated into being a superhero. In Song Bird Superhero it was from the accidental bite of a crimson Rosella. Rosella Ava Bird must then learn how to control her super powers. Eventually, Song Bird Superhero becomes the ultimate force of good, saving the world, and her school with her super powers.

What are challenges did you face writing Song Bird superhero?

  •  To create an original superhero with new superhero powers, appealing to children. Song Bird gains her superpowers from singing, science and self-belief.
  • Explain Song Bird’s super powers by Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths in a fun easy-to-understand way.
  • To create a relatable evil opponent, Frank Furter as the evil boy genius. Kids immediately identify Frank as the nasty school bully, who calls them names and trips them over.

What are the Top Tips in writing a superhero adventure for children?


Song Bird Superhero meets Super Girl at Oz Comic Con – Brisbane.

a. Create an appealing superhero. Make sure your hero saves someone/ something in the very first scene to create empathy from the reader. Add lots of FUN humour. Give your superhero and her side-kick positive heroic qualities to inspire kids. Readers want to connect with the characters emotionally, not just observe their physical amazingness. That means giving them a full range of emotions and an interior life, people they care about, obstacles and goals.

b. Create super cool and interesting superpowers. But not so complex that we can’t quickly grasp what your character can do. Readers of this genre expect characters to do amazing and unusual things, but they don’t want to have to take a crash-course in physics before they can understand what’s happening.

c. Create a FUN super villain that we LOVE to hate. Make them as powerful as the superhero, adding to the conflict and tension. What powers does the villain possess? How do the villain and the hero interact?

d. Explain the superhero’s super powers by STEM science. Research scientific explanations on how superpowers work. Use simple yet engaging language to explain these powers.

e. Create a super world where the superhero and his nemesis exist. What are the rules to this world? Ask yourself: How is your super world the same and different to a real world?

f. Create FUN names for your characters. ie Rosella Ava Bird AKA Song Bird, Ms Bamboozle the school principal, Frank Furter the villain and Perry Poopa, his evil side-kick.

FREE Teacher Resources and kids’ activities for Song Bird!

Includes STEM science, creative writing, flying history, art, craft, maths, literacy, drama, social skills and bully prevention. Download HERE.

Song Bird Superhero by Karen Tyrrell is now available on Amazon HERE.

Song Bird Book Giveaway

Let’s celebrate the release of Song Bird Superhero by Karen Tyrrell on Amazon. Comment below to win a signed “Limited Edition” copy of Song Bird Superhero. Giveaway closes on October 20. Good luck!

Answer this question: Why do you want to win a copy of Song Bird Superhero?

Thanks Karen! All the best with Song Bird Superhero!

James Moloney: Writing a Series


With fifty books to his credit, Aussie kidlit author James Moloney has plenty of wisdom to share about writing a book series.

Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 10.27.34 amHis first series was The Book of Lies. Because it was originally written as a stand alone, he learned what not to do for future series.

Here’s the Goodreads blurb for the book (How good does this sound?)

The newest boy at Mrs. Timmins’s Home for Orphans and Foundlings awakes at first light with no name and no memory. But a strange girl who hides among the shadows of the orphanage tells him that a mysterious wizard’s creation, the Book of Lies, holds the answers, and then gives him one clue: “Your name is Marcel.”

The Book of Lies trilogy was followed by the Silvermay Series and the Doomsday Rats, with numerous other books and collections all around. [Buy James’s books here]

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Writing a Series Workshop

Brisbane Write Links hosted James at their May meeting at the State Library of Queensland. He presented a workshop called Writing a Series, which was a sell-out. It included lots of great tips, some of which I tweeted. Like this one about the new sophistication of young readers. Publishers are not shying away from tough subjects and harsh realities (like beloved characters dying).

James made it clear that for series writing, the author has to make sure that her ideas will sustain a story for multiple books. This has to be considered when:

  • Creating a great concept and hook
  • Building an overarching series conflict
  • Developing strong protagonists (and worthy antagonists)
  • Planning a full cast of characters
  • Designing a compelling world

Attendees were given a glimpse of James’s creative process, which involves:

  • Telling himself the story until he knows the climax and resolution
  • Creating character sketches that flesh out as the story reveals itself
  • Mapping scenes on a physical corkboard with coloured post-its and brief handwritten notes
  • Creating a series bible, in which characters, worlds, and ideas are developed and stored

Do Editors Even Want Series?

James was honest about the chances of breaking in with a series. Even seasoned writers are not getting multiple book contracts these days. Instead, publishers buy one book and see how it goes before committing to a whole series. Even then, it might be bought book by book.

James finished the workshop  with some insights into what editors are hungry for and sick of nowadays. In short for YA: Paranormal is done, kaput, so yesterday. Contemporary realism (a la John Green) is hot. James noted that the “first-person, in-your-face female narrator” seems to be getting a lot of airtime.

Read More!

James’s workshop was spot-on—lively, interactive, and full of insight. The James Moloney website has heaps more information. Be sure to check out the Write Links website to read my interview with James, where he spills the beans on early influences to his writing and other really good stuff!


Rubbing shoulders with a kidlit star. I hope some of his genius rubbed off on me!

Image Credit

Top photo of James Moloney by Yvonne Mes

Inspiring Aspiring Young Authors

scrabble-931988_640Writing a book is huge undertaking for anyone, let alone for a young person who could be doing almost anything other than slaving over a manuscript.

People of any age can start writing a book. The tricky part is finishing it! Completing a book-writing project demands perseverance. Uncommon grit. Grit is the very same stuff that toughens up rugby players, Japanese ama pearl divers, crocodile wrestlers, and those rent-a-clowns who do back-to-back kiddie birthday parties.

Writers young or old need Grit in mega-doses. It keeps the writer on track when an uninvited download of cool (or not?) ideas threatens to hijack the whole project. Grit galvanises a writer to work the saggy ‘muddle’ into a sleek, taut middle. Grit talks back to self-doubt and puts that bossy-bottom inner critic in its place. Grit hauls the writer down the homestretch to The End.

Exhausting? Yes. Tough? You bet. Rewarding? Like nothing else this side of heaven.

Have you got the necessary grit to start and finish writing a book? Read on for some inspiration.

A Few Famously Young Authors

You may have read some books written by young people without realising it. Do you recognise any of these titles and authors?

  • Mary Shelley was 19 when she wrote Frankenstein (1818).
  • Anne Frank started writing Diary of a Young Girl (1952) on her thirteenth birthday. Read more here.
  • Christopher Paolini started writing Eragon (2002) when he was 15. Originally self-published, the book went on to international acclaim and a series of four books with 35 million copies sold!
  • JJ Halo, the Super-Cool Spyling (2009), was written by an eight-year-old Australian school girl named Miss Juliet Davies. The series includes four books.
  •  A 14-year-old Victorian school girl named Isobelle Carmody began writing a book titled Obernewtyn (1987). The Obernewtyn Chronicles just released its eighth and final episode, The Red Queen (2015). Just a month ago, Isobelle was named Australia’s favourite author!

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 1.00.46 pm   Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 12.58.42 pm   Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 12.58.54 pm   Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 1.00.04 pm

Youth is clearly no obstacle in the publishing world.

Newly Inspiring

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 12.59.20 pmRecently, the Australian publishing world was all abuzz about primary school girl Hannah Chandler who wrote a book when she was eleven. I Don’t Like Cheese (2015) is about a mouse named Mike who thinks he doesn’t like cheese.

Exisle Publishers say, “This delightful picture book explores how even the fussiest eaters can be tempted to try new flavours. And, if you’re anything like Mike, you might find you develop quite a taste for international cuisine along the way!”

Hannah, now twelve, is living the author’s dream life with a few more adventures in the pipeline for Mike the Mouse. She’s been interviewed on the famous book blog, Kids’ Book Review and in newspapers and magazines all over Australia. She now has her own website, and she’s even on YouTube! You can watch her talk about her experience here.

Inspired, Young Writer?

Go for it. Write that book! Pen that poem! Articulate that article! Do whatever it takes for however long it takes to bring your story-baby kicking, screaming, gooing and gahing into the world. You’re never too young to try. Be fortified with a mega-dose of uncommon Grit to achieve your biggest book dreams!

Know of some other books written by young authors? Share them in the comments!

Media Credits

Dream Big, CC.0 Public Domain

Video from Exisle’s YouTube channel

Cover image from Exisle’s Webpage

Other covers from booksellers


Rubbing Shoulders with a Famous Author


Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy by Karen Foxlee is a magical, gripping story set in a vast, echoing museum. In the unlikely event that description doesn’t grab you, check out these snippets from blurbs and reviews:

  • “Magic is messy and dangerous and filled with longing.”
  • “A brave tale of grief, villainy and redemption that borrows from the story of the Snow Queen…”
  • “Foxlee’s writing is elegant and accessible, with a pervading melancholy; this is as much a story of loss as it is an adventure.” (Publisher’s Weekly)

If that’s not enough, how about:

  • “A present-day fairy tale that practically sparkles with its own icy menace.” (The Wall Street Journal)

Gotcha! Didn’t I? Read it–it’s delightful.

With reviews in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy has seen international success. Amazon and the School Library Journal named it Best Book of the Year, and Publishers’ Weekly selected it as a Top Ten Book.

From the first heart-palpitating moment I heard about Ophelia, I knew I had to read it. And when I found out the author, Karen Foxlee, is not only an Australian, but a fellow Queenslander, I nearly had a coronary incident. Born in Mt Isa, Karen works as a writer and nurse in regional Gympie, a few hours north of Brisbane.

Well, imagine how my pulse accelerated when I found out that Karen was visiting WriteLinks, my writing group, to share highlights and insights from her writing journey so far.

Selfie with KarenFoxleeYou’ll be relieved to know my heart behaved itself, and so did I. No fan-girl squeals, no stalkerish behaviour, no dramatic swoons at her feet. I did, however, relax my strict No Selfie Policy for a photo (above). Sadly, my dog-eared copy of Ophelia remains unsigned. In my excitement, I left it at home. *Still kicking myself…*

Karen’s Road to Writing Success

Karen shared her whole journey, which began as a child writing stories on butcher’s paper on the laundry room floor. In her twenties and still writing, the loss of her dad made her question the meaning of life. In the aftermath of that loss, she went back to uni and completed a degree in creative writing at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

She entered The Anatomy of Wings in the 2006 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award. “I’d expected them to say, ‘This is pretty good. Try this and this, and see how you go’.” Instead, she won the award and landed a book contract with University of Queensland Press.

TheAnatomyofWingsbyKarenFoxleeWings went on to win the 2008 Dobbie Literary Award and the 2008 Commonwealth Prize. It was short-listed for the ASA’s Barbara Jefferis Award. Not bad for a debut novel!

She signed her second contract while nursing a five-day-old baby. Consequently, The Midnight Dress took about three years to complete. She described a challenging writing experience, snatching moments to write while the baby napped and jotting down the story phrase by phrase. “Alice was a baby who only slept for 45 minutes at a time.”

Her publisher’s initial reaction to The Midnight Dress was devastating. Their verdict: nothing was salvageable; in particular the voice wasn’t right. Karen reflected, “It was a lesson about knowing when a manuscript is ready to send off.”

Karen took the feedback on board but disagreed that the story was unsalvageable. She believed in the story and was determined to work it out. Deep inside, though, she was stumped. “I thought I’d never solve the problem of that book.”

Instead of jumping straight back into it, she listened to her heart and wrote something completely different. “I needed to practise writing in the third person, which is what I did with Ophelia.”

Ophelia started with a wondrous what-if. What if you saw something in a museum you weren’t supposed to see? Not far into that story, Karen was dismayed to discover she was writing a children’s story. What would her publisher say?

TheMidnightDressbyKarenFoxleeShe persisted despite the looming contract for another book for grown-ups. In the process of finishing Ophelia, she somehow acquired the solution to fixing the voice in The Midnight Dress. In a testament to the power of author’s intuition, the book went on to be a great success. Aussie author extraordinaire Kate Forsyth gave it a 5-star review on GoodReads.

The exciting news is Karen has another children’s book in the pipeline. Set in Victorian London, A Most Magical Girl is about a child who can see the future reflected in puddles. Be still, my racing heart! Watch for it in early 2016.

Karen was honest about the life of an author. “Writing is trying to find your way through the mess. I thought a writer was someone who knew what they were doing. I felt naughty writing.”

For lone writers ploughing away with nothing but a shiny dream and a burning story, Karen’s honesty was refreshing and inspiring.

Karen’s tips for aspiring writers:

  1. Be disciplined. Treat your writing like a job: turn up every day.
  2. Believe in yourself and your story.
  3. Be persistent.
  4. Write something that means something to you—something that moves you.
  5. Find the balance between self-criticism and perfectionism.

KarenFoxleeImageBuy Karen’s Books

The Anatomy of Wings

The Midnight Dress

Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy

Exciting Update on Greenglass House


Some ticker-tape for Kate Milford, winner of 2015 Edgars (Children’s Book)

Did you read my April 2015 book review of Kate Milford’s middle grade mystery Greenglass House? I’ve got great news to share!

We Picked a Winner!

Kate Milford won the children’s category of the 2015 Edgars.

Congratulations to Kate and the team at Clarion Books for creating such a captivating, atmospheric story. It’s a gorgeous book.

The Edgar Awards are an initiative of the Mystery Writers of America. The highly coveted prize is recognised as one of the most prestigious in the mystery genre. Kate Milford is rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ellery Queen and Louise Penny. Stephen King took out best novel this year for his book Mr. Mercedes.

I wholeheartedly agree with the judges’ selection of Greenglass House. Read why here.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford,  Clarion Books 2014 ISBN: 0544052706

Greenglass House by Kate Milford,
Clarion Books 2014
ISBN: 0544052706

A Sad Side-Note…

Two-time Edgar winner Ruth Rendell passed away on 2 May 2015 at the age of 85. She penned more than sixty novels and brought to life Inspector Wexford. Her death comes only half a year after that of another uber-famous Edgar winner, PD James, who died at the age of 94 in November 2014.

Here’s to Kate Milford–may she live long and have many more successes, following in the footsteps of these great ladies of mystery.

CC Image Credit:

PARTY! by Patrick Hoesly

Five Cool Facts about Astrid Lindgren



Astrid Lindgren, author of Pippi Longstocking and many other timeless children’s classics, was born today, 14 November 1907, in Sweden. Here are some things you may not  know about her.

“A child’s imagination needs books in order to live and breathe.” –Astrid Lindgren

  1. Her first work was published in the newspaper at age 13 when her composition won a local competition.
  2. From 1945 to 1970, she worked as an editor of children’s books at Rabén & Sjögren Publishing House.  She was a tireless advocate for children’s literature . When her publishing company awarded grants to authors of adult books, she demanded the same honour be extended to children’s authors. The Astrid Lindgren Prize was first awarded in 1967 and continues yearly to this day.
  3. Her book sales reached an estimated 150 million copies and have been translated into 96 languages.918662074_86bdf7cfba_z
  4. She’s literally a super-star author, because in 1988, an asteroid or minor planet was named Lindgren 3240 in her honour. She quipped that her new moniker should be Asteroid Lindgren. The next astrological honour came when  a Swedish mini-satellite was called Astrid-1 and its instruments named after her characters. Continuing with the starry tributes, she is the namesake of a crater on Venus. (Apparently there’s a tradition of naming craters on Venus after famous women and goddesses. Who knew?)
  5. In 2014/15, the Bank of Sweden will issue 20 Kronor banknote featuring her image. Germany created a postage stamp in homage to her life, and there’s even a rose  and an amusement park that celebrate her books and literary career.

The official website for Astrid Lindgren brims with information, beautiful photos and memorabilia. It’s well worth the visit.

Image Credits:

Stamp by Roswitha Siedelberg, CC

Rose by Sirpa Tähkämö, CC