Category Archives: children

How I wrote my first published novel – Helen Dennis

Helen Dennis, children's author of The Secret Breakers and River of Ink series
Helen Dennis

I’m so pleased to be kicking off this new blog series, where I’ll be talking to authors from a variety of genres about how they wrote their first novel. It always fascinates me the different approaches and methods a novelist takes. There isn’t one right or wrong way to do it but the common thread seems to be, not surprisingly, hard work and lots of reading. Today’s interview is with award winning children’s author Helen Dennis. I met Helen at Winchester Writer’s Festival this year when she was running a workshop on writing for middle grade readers. She was full of energy and enthusiasm for her passion and this spills over into her interview below.

I hope you enjoy it and the rest of the interviews that will appear over the next few months. I’ll be promoting them on twitter, so do look out for them.

How long had you wanted to write for before you began?

I have wanted to be a writer from the age of about six when I first realised that books just didn’t appear out of nowhere! I did get a ‘proper job’ when I left university, but I never lost sight of the dream that one day I would be a published author.

What stopped you from writing a novel?

Time. But I have learnt that you have to make time for something that you really want to do and see the craft and the learning that goes with it as valuable in themselves. The other thing that stopped me was ideas. Not the lack of them…but the deluge of them. I still find it hard to decide which idea is the best one to focus on and give my time to. So I had lots of beginning of novels…and very few endings!

What was your first published novel?

Secret Breakers: The Power of Three

Is this the first novel you wrote?

No. I wrote three full novels before this, all of them unpublished…and countless bits of novels and opening chapters!

How did you write it?

I did several courses. A correspondence course and two courses at University…one of them an MA in Creative Writing Education and the Arts. Having to produce work to a deadline for a course was really helpful…and also putting yourself out there as someone who wants to write helps make you more accountable. I spent years planning the Secret Breakers series. And there were many full drafts as I tried to work out the age group I was writing for and the scope of the story. I love to plan and so I spent hours researching and plotting story arcs.

I was very lucky that I attended the Winchester Writer’s Conference and met an editor who loved my first chapter. Her input in crafting the novel and series was invaluable but it certainly helped that I had so many notes and plans about what would happen! Secret Breakers is a six-book series and I had to get all six written before the first book was published.

What was the most difficult part about writing The Secret Breakers? 

Finishing it. I was so excited about all the ways the story could go and so keen to use all my research that actually sitting down and getting a finished draft completed was tricky.

How did you overcome that?

There came a point when I understood that what didn’t work I could fix later and that it was important to get the story down on the page. I had so much fun with the world building and the research that it was hard to trust that the reader did not have to know everything right away. For me that is the beauty of writing a series and actually having to write all six books first was quite freeing. I knew I could come back to each one and change and edit it when the whole series was complete.

How did you find your agent? Was that an easy process?

I didn’t get an agent until after I had signed a six-book deal. I had met my editor at the Conference and we worked so well together that there was no way that I would have offered my idea to someone else. She was the first person in the industry to see it…and she bought it! Friends I’d made in publishing helped me find an agent later when all six books were out and I was about to launch a new series.

Once you had an agent/publisher what did you learn through the editing process?

That pace is so important. And that everything you write has to drive the story onward. I thought I knew this…but my editor taught me how to strip back work and make it much sharper.

What advice would you give to any aspiring novelist?

On a practical level, write as often as you can. And read lots.  I try to ‘close read’ books to work out what an author has done and why. And I read about writing and still go to courses about how to write.

Put lots of hours into working out what you want to do and looking round at examples of how to do that.

I’d also say on an emotional level that it is vital to try and enjoy every stage of the journey and to see every completed chapter or scene as a victory in itself. Publishing is a tricky business and the work doesn’t end with that first publishing deal.


Helen Dennis is the award winning writer of the Secret Breakers series and the River of Ink series for middle grade readers, both published by Hodder Children’s. Her books have been translated into seven languages and River of Ink was chosen as a Book Trust Book Buzz Choice for 2016/17. Helen worked as a teacher for 20 years before leaving to write full time. She spends her days creating adventure stories for children and making school visits to celebrate the power of reading.

To find out more about Helen’s books visit her website.

All of Helen’s books are available on Amazon. Links to her latest series of books are below.

Next month’s interview is with prolific author Anna Jacobs. Anna writes historical sagas, has published over 80 books and is the 4th most borrowed author of adult fiction from UK libraries.

The child reading gender gap


Child reading a book
Child reading

I’ve been fascinated by a survey by

They surveyed 904 parents of children aged between four and twelve years old about their bedtime reading routines. Surprisingly (for me) there was a difference in whether children were read to at night based on the gender of the child.

67% of parents with only daughters read to them more than four times per week whereas 33% of parents with only sons read to them more than four times per week.

Interestingly, 29% of parents with both sons and daughters admitted to reading more often to their daughters.

Many parents also admitted that their sons were more interested in playing on the iPad before bedtime.

I can’t help but feel sad that boys are getting the rough end of the stick here. Yes they might love playing on screen before bedtime but they are missing out on a lovely opportunity to bond with their parents over a magical adventure or fantasy story.

Some of my favourite moments are when I get to sit down with my youngest two (a boy and a girl for the record) and read a chapter from a story. They love reading by themselves too so we don’t do this every night these days but it does mean that they get to hear a more challenging book than they might read to themselves. We get to talk about the vocabulary – they are always allowed to interrupt to ask what a word or phrase means – and we find ourselves discussing the story at random times of day.

According to a Scholastic report 83% of children love being read aloud to. The only thing that surprises me here is that the figure isn’t higher.

And finally, 39% of fathers admitted they never or very rarely read to their children (compared to only 4% of mothers). This is a tricky one. Many fathers don’t come in from work before the children are in bed and yes, I know it’s sexist and old fashioned but bedtime has long been seen as the mother’s domain. But even so, if boys don’t see that reading is something that daddy does, then maybe they don’t see that it’s something they should do either.

Perhaps it’s not surprising then that boys in general under perform in reading tests compared with girls. And could it be changed by more bedtime reading at home?

The Referendum for kids

Today I’m going to copy a post from fellow journalist Ellie Levenson which gives a fairly simple, balanced overview to the referendum for kids.  Ellie wrote this to help promote her new children’s book – The Election – see the link at the bottom for more information.  (I wish there was an adult equivalent.  It would be more helpful than all the half-truths and smears bandied around over the last few weeks).

On Thursday grown ups in our country, the United Kingdom, are allowed to vote on whether we stay in the European Union (EU) or not. This type of voting is called a referendum.

The European Union is like a club. All the countries that are members agree to do some things the same. For example, let people live in any of the countries also in the club, sell each other things without paying extra money, and have some of the same laws.

There are four main areas people are thinking about when deciding whether to remain a member or leave.

1) The Economy
People who want to remain think that our country will have more money if we stay in the European Union. People who want to leave think that our country will have more money if we leave the European Union. If the country has more money then we can have better services such as more doctors, nurses, libraries and schools, and there will be more jobs so people will also have more money to spend.

2) Immigration
People from countries in the EU are allowed to live and work in any other country in the EU. When people come to live in a new country it is called immigration. People who want to leave the EU think that we should only allow some people to come and live here because they don’t think we have enough space or houses or jobs for everyone and they worry it stops the United Kingdom from feeling British. People who want to stay in the EU think that anyone from the EU should have the opportunity to live in any other country and that having people from lots of countries living here makes our country more exciting because we get to share different types of food and music and art and because those people help do jobs in our country and think of ways to make life better for everyone. They also think it is the right thing to do because anyone who wants to have the opportunity to get a good job and to give their family a nice life should be allowed to. People who want to leave the EU worry that that people from countries who are not part of the EU club will come into other countries in the EU and then find it easy to get to this country. People who want to stay in the EU mainly think that if someone is unhappy in their country, either because there is war or not enough food or no jobs or because they can’t live their life the way they want to, then they should be allowed to live here while we work with other countries to make their country a safe place for people to live.

3) Workers’ Rights
Many of the laws that help people at work are because we are a member of the EU and have to have the same laws as the other countries in the EU. An example is if your mummy was allowed to have some time not working when you were a baby but still got paid, or if your parents can have holidays from work while being paid, and people not being able to work so many hours that they are too tired. People who want to leave the EU either think these laws are not important or that we don’t need the EU to help us make these laws.

4) Peace
A long time ago, probably when your grandparents’ own mummies and daddies and grandmas and grandpas were alive, there were wars in Europe and our country was involved. War is when countries fight each other. When we are in the same club like the EU it means that if countries have an argument with each other then they are more likely to sort it out by talking than by fighting. This is very important because when countries fight they use guns and bombs and people get hurt and can die. People who want to stay in the EU think that there is less chance of our country fighting other countries if we are in the same club.

Whichever way the country votes, you don’t need to worry about it. Grown ups vote for a government and it is their job to sort things out so that you are safe and can have a happy life. But it is important to understand what the grown ups are talking about and voting for, so that when you are a grown up you can have a say and make the world better for everyone.

Like this? Please share it. And if you want to explain General Elections to your child do buy our book The Election by Eleanor Levenson and Marek Jagucki, a non partisan story book for 3-8 year olds that explains about voting, elections and democracy.

What’s your favourite genre?

Child reading a book
Child reading

New research into the nation’s reading habits published today has found that the thriller is the UK’s favourite genre of book, closely followed by the detective novel and in third place, fantasy.

And when you think of some of the biggest name authors (Peter James, Agatha Christie and James Patterson for example) and also some of the block buster books from the last year or two  – The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl and Before I go to Sleep – it’s probably not surprising.  I didn’t expect to see fantasy in third place although maybe that’s because I’m a woman and when you analyse the results between the sexes then it drops down into fifth place.

Having said that, I write in the fantasy genre, so I’m pleased to see it up there.

Here’s how the lists look split:


Science Fiction 37%


Thriller/Suspense 31%
Romance 31%

The research was conducted by Explore Learning to mark the final week to enter the National Young Writers’ Award whose deadline is Tuesday 7th June.

Interestingly they also uncovered that seven to 10 year olds love reading the most with 87% of children having asked for a book as a present.  And despite the ever-increasing rising popularity of technology, books are still the nation’s favourite form of reading material which 81% of children aged 4 to 14 choose the read from – twice as many as those who read magazines (41%), comics (37%) and from an iPad or Kindle (35%).

Which I’m heartened to hear.  It’s easy to think that children would rather be building castles on Minecraft or texting their mates all day than losing themselves in a book but it looks like they still enjoy a good story.

Super 7 fruit and veg for kids

Jacket potato with chilli and saladIt’s impossible to pick up a newspaper without the latest advice on what we should or shouldn’t be eating and sometimes the research and advice is so contradictory it can be hard to know what to eat.

However I don’t think there’s any doubt that eating fruit and vegetables are a good thing to do to be healthy.

Just this week we’ve seen that we need to be eating more than the government recommended five a day.  Some research suggests eating seven portions can reduce the chance of an early death and some experts are even suggesting up to ten portions a day.

I must admit I was pleased to see these figures – my own personal experience tells me that the more “plant-based” food I eat, the healthier I feel.

And so it’s not surprising that I encourage my children to eat healthily too.  That’s not to say that they don’t eat cake and sweets but I try to keep them to a minimum and encourage them to fill up at meal times with fruit, salad and vegetables.

Back in January, in a bid to eat more of the green (red, yellow, orange and blue) stuff and less of the refined products (for that read sugar) we launched an initiative called Super 7 days.

This was two days a week where the children had to find seven different fruit and vegetables to eat during the course of the day.

The rules were simple – and discussed and agreed with them before hand so they bought into it from the concept:

1. Juice didn’t count

2. Dried fruit could only be counted once

3. Portion size wasn’t crucial but they couldn’t for example count just one blueberry it had to be a handful

4. There were no cakes, biscuits etc on Super 7 days.

The children were quite excited about this – they love a competition and they wanted to outdo each other – and I threw in a chart and stickers for the younger two which always seems to produce results.  So we were off to a good start.

I discovered some interesting things in this experiment.

1. The children didn’t moan or whine if they forgot the no sugar rule on these days.  If they asked for a biscuit I just said “no, it’s a super 7 day today,” and they were like “ok,” rather than the usual begging, pleading, cajoling routine.

2. They were keen to get more fruit or veg so they asked me to give them more.

3. Because their focus was on achieving the goal I was able to give them meals they hadn’t tried before without the usual: “What’s this? Do I like it?” instead if they could see that it had vegetables in they were more interested about how many vegetables it would give them towards their daily count and guess what – they just ate it.

4. It made me raise my game a bit.  Some times in the morning when I’m making the lunches it’s easy to throw in a bag of dried fruit and think that’ll do.  But because I wanted them to succeed I was chopping up cucumber, carrot sticks, washing blueberries, slicing apples etc

They didn’t always hit the magic seven.  sometimes they only got to five, but sometimes they got to eight.  However we celebrated them all, because at 5, 6 and 11 years old I think that looking for ways to eat more fruit and veg is something to be celebrated.

Unfortunately Super 7 took a bit of a hit over the last half term and never got properly reinstated.  Although habits certainly got changed and we are at five portions of fruit and veg a day on a regular basis.

However reading those newspaper articles this week has reminded me that we really do need to ensure we get more fruit and vegetables into our daily diet.  So with the Easter holidays upon us, the season of chocolate, it seems like a good time to start again.

The format may get changed a little, I’ll be consulting with the children later how they’d like to see it implemented and then we’ll get on it again.

The school run

I like driving Jhaven-5756ack (age 6) and Poppy (age 4) to school in the morning.  It’s always a good time for a chat about the day or anything else that springs to mind and we talk about things we wouldn’t if we were walking or cycling.  It’s only a two minute journey but we get to cover a lot of topics from school to friendships to love and anything else that crops up.

Today’s was a particularly deep conversation.

Jack: “Who would take us to school if you were dead?”

I’m not sure what prompted this question although I was amused that faced with my mortality he was only worried about how he would get to school.

Me: “Daddy would have to take you.”

Jack: “But what if he was dead too?”

Me: “That would be tricky then.”

Jack: “But if Sam (his 10 year old brother) was 17, then he could drive us.”

I liked his thought processing here but felt he was missing the bigger picture.  The one where social services come and take you away to a foster home and then split you up etc.  (Note to self – must get that will sorted). I figured though he could do without this kind of detail so decided to focus on the positive.

Me: “Good thing I’m planning to hang around to see you grow up and have families of your own.” But not wanting to put pressure on them: “Or maybe you won’t have babies, who knows.”

Poppy: “Why wouldn’t we have babies?”

Me: “Well, maybe you won’t want any.”

Poppy: “Why not?”

Hmm I could think of a few reasons.

Me: “Well some people just decide that they don’t want children.”

Poppy: “How do they stop them? Do they have an operation like Cleo (the cat)?”

Me: “Grab your bags it’s time to get out.”

Sometimes I’m glad the journey only takes two minutes.