Today on the blog I have a brilliant new narrative non-fiction book that I’m really excited to share with you. ‘Find the Spy,’ by Zoë Armstrong & Shelley Laslo is a clever combination of real-life spy biographies and interactive spotting. Children will be able to explore the lives of eight fascinating spies whilst learning actual top-secret skills including the art of disguise, coding secret messages and writing in invisible ink. Zoë has packed this book with the most intriguing and interesting information, that will astonish and astound the reader it will satisfy the appetites of the most mystery loving child. Not only that it is a visual feast for the eyes with Shelley’s intricate illustrations which invite the reader to explore every page. A real highlight in non-fiction, this is an absolute stand out book.
To celebrate the release of this book I have a special guest post from Zoë about her journey to publication…
Journey to Publication – Zoë Armstrong
My mum told great stories when I was growing up. True stories, as she put me to bed, about her vegetarian, co-ed boarding school. And off-the-cuff adventures, on holiday, about ‘devil divers’ swarming the Mont Saint Michel.
There were beautiful board books and picture books too, at a time when far fewer were being made – Maurice Sendak, Judith Kerr, John Burningham, Helen Nicole and Jan Piénkowski. The rhythms of my first picture books have always stayed with me.
I won a writing competition when I was eight. It was all very unexpected, and there was uproar from certain quarters of the classroom. I’d only written one side of A4, you see. Others had written five. Still, my essay on our class trip to the local nunnery (we stamped crosses on to communion wafers by pulling a big lever) was chosen by the nuns as the winner. My prize was a copy of Black Beauty and a sparkle of interest inside.
I continued to enjoy writing – I even illustrated my words back then!
I want on to work as a journalist, then as a publicity person for an animal charity. I taught English in Italy and media production in Derbyshire. But it wasn’t until my daughter was born that I began writing for pleasure again.
Being immersed once more in children’s books seemed to light up a part of my brain that I hadn’t used for a while. I began playing around with verse and making up little stories for my toddler. I loved that picture books are so full of possibility – how playful you can be with language, rhythm and ideas.
I was spending less time focusing on my paid freelance writing work, and more time on the writing that I really loved. My new ‘hobby’ was ruining us! I decided to take it more seriously: I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers an Illustrators.
All of a sudden, I was part of a huge network of people who felt the same way that I did about children’s books. There was access to information, guidance and workshops.
I was accepted on to the Golden Egg Academy’s Picture Book Programme. It gave me confidence and a determination to make space for my writing. I worked hard on my picture book texts, moulding the good ideas into better shape and letting go of the duds.
Then one day I decided I was ready to enter a competition. It was an international contest open to SCBWI authors from around the world. The wining text would be illustrated live by two artists at the Bologna Book Fair, in a kind of duel!
The judge was Emma Ledbetter who was, at the time, senior editor at Simon & Schuster’s Atheneum Books for Young Readers in the US. Somehow I won.
This was a massive boost. There are so many stumbling blocks for authors – having a stepping stone moment like this was just what I needed to keep going.
So I entered another competition: the SCBWI British Isles Slush Pile Challenge, set by Peter Marley, Senior Commissioning Editor of Picture Books at OUP. Unbelievably, I won that one too. Peter’s encouragement and advice, when I met with him at the OUP offices, was invaluable.
From there I was invited to read one of my picture book texts at the Golden Egg Academy’s Spring Social, in Bath. I was utterly terrified. Public speaking is not my thing, and this was in front of a room full of writers, agents, editors and publishers.
But I made myself do it. Which was a very good thing, because that was the day that I first met Alice Williams, who is now my agent.
After signing with Alice, things began to take off. A narrative non-fiction text, in particular, was receiving attention from editors. Puffin mulled it over but ultimately felt it would compete with other books they had in the pipeline. I was disappointed but picture book writers must get used to this so I tried not to think about it.
A few days later Alice received a phone call from a fantastic editor at Puffin called Emily Lunn. Would I be interested in writing something about spies? I didn’t hesitate, I just said YES!
So that was the beginning of Find The Spy. Emily calmly guided me through the process of making a book. We were delighted when Shelly Laslo was signed up to illustrate my words. It was a true collaboration – one of the many things that I love about picture books.
I’m currently working on a series with the wonderful independent publisher Flying Eye Books, which I’m very excited about.
Thank you to Zoë for this really insightful guest post and to Puffin for sending me a gifted copy. ‘Find the Spy,’ is available to buy now from your local bookshop or online.