Helen releases her second book today in The Carleton Mouse Book Series – Empowering Our Children series – Carleton and the Christmas Grump. She talks to us about how the first book in the series propelled her to write this instalment and the impact the book has had.
This is your second book in the Carleton the Mouse series. Were you under pressure from your fans to create another book?
I was pleasantly surprised at all the ‘book number two’ questions! I thought once I’d ticked my bucket list of writing a children’s picture book, my inner voice would be satisfied—but no! So, the pressure to create another book came from within. Writing the first book opened so many opportunities for me. It was and still is a huge learning curve. I’ve made some lovely industry mentors and contacts, and naturally, I wanted to evolve as a writer and evolve Carleton Mouse. It was an organic process.
How was the last book, Carleton’s Motto Saves the Grotto, received last year?
More than I ever imagined. As Carleton Mouse is the actual school mascot for Carleton House Preparatory School in South Liverpool, the face-to-face feedback from families has been amazing. I’ve had parents tell me their children request it nightly as their bedtime read throughout the year, several children, locally, dressed up as Carleton Mouse for World Book Day, and one little pre-schooler visited the school gates to see where Carleton lives! It was a delight to receive feedback from children and families unrelated to the school, which was a dream come true to hear my little protagonist appeals to all, which was my main goal. Amazing Amazon reviews from Dubai, America and Canada were the icing on the cake!
Where do your ideas come from?
Being a mum to two happy and clever-witted little girls, I am surrounded by inspiration! Our daily conversations spark so many ideas, anything from a funny throwaway comment to something eventful in their lives. I love getting down to their level and thinking back to my childhood and what was important to me growing up.
What was the inspiration for this new story?
As a child, I was often told by grown-ups that I was shy. I remember starting my Accounting Technician Apprenticeship at 16 and the office manager announcing to my colleagues that as I was so shy, that the day when I did speak would be something of fundamental importance. Well, that just made me clam up more! Internally, I really did want to join in, as I didn’t particularly think I was shy, but the label started to define me. With my own inner circle, I was a different story, so I wanted to share the message that we can be any type of emotion or feeling on any day of the week, which is fine! My mum and her mum, my Nana Emmeline, were advocates of not labelling children, and this was my inspiration.
Both of your books have had a Christmas theme? Why is this?
Accidental, I think! Firstly, I adore Christmastime, so I may be subconsciously drawn to this theme. The writing possibilities are endless with lyrical descriptions and vivid imagery; it’s easy to get absorbed in the magic. I enjoy reading books where the message is so subtle the reader hardly realises there is a message, and I feel a Christmas setting is a lovely place to do this.
Last year, Carleton’s Motto Saves the Grotto coincided with The Carleton Mouse Reader Night, which is an annual event celebrated in school in November, so it was a timely factor. This year, I attended the Write Mentor ‘Write Rhyme’ 6-week online course led by author Catherine Emmett in September. Submitting work each week to a supportive critique group, I got my writing mojo back. It was a personal challenge to try and turn a piece of homework into a book! And just like last year, the story snowballed into an idea that together, we (illustrator Jared Burki, school, TAUK Publishing) could pull off the magic again. It was fitting to have Carleton’s prequel set at Christmastime again.
Do you plan out your story first, or just let it flow?
Being an ultra-methodical person, I think my writing style surprised me – I am a bit of a ‘Pantser’ (a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants writer). I always begin with a message that I am super passionate about and take it from there. In this case, my original protagonist was a mouse called Mabel No Label. The story had been ‘put on ice’ until I had the lightbulb moment that Mabel had to be Carleton instead. Picture book writers must follow a certain element of planning, for example, when to introduce the main character, any uh-oh moments, and ta-dah moments. But overall, I enjoy running with different ideas and going with the flow until my gut says so!
When you are not writing, what else do you do?
As previously mentioned, I’m a mum to two young daughters. Their school, extra-curricular activities and social lives keep me on my toes! It doesn’t leave much time for me, but the time that I do have, I enjoy running or reformer Pilates for that little bit of head space. Or giving Mrs Hinch a run for her money—oh, the glamour!
What did you read growing up?
Anything by Enid Blyton: The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, Malory Towers, Amelia Jane, The Enchanted Wood, St Clare’s– to name a few. I shared a bedroom with my twin sister—one early bird and one night owl did not bode well, so I used to hang out of my single bed to catch the landing light through the crack of the bedroom door so I could read in the dark!
I remember having to learn and recite a Roald Dahl poem in primary school. The poem was ‘The Cow’—and I was immediately captivated by the humour, rhythm, and rhyme. Roald Dahl was another big inspiration growing up.
Any advice for a new author?
Keep learning! My New Year’s resolution is to attend as many writing courses as I can this year. It’s the best way to keep me motivated. Otherwise, life does get in the way. Social media is a great place to engage with the writing community. And shop local! I remember buying Jude Lennon’s book, The Dragon of Allerton Oak, at a local community centre whilst at a playgroup with my eldest daughter when she was a baby. Jude made me realise that the writing dream is attainable with hard work, determination and the proper guidance.
Is the book how you imagined it to be?
Completely! I’m so grateful to illustrator Jared Burki and delighted we could work together again. To create a character who is loved and recognised by so many children is something Jared should be very proud of. From Sarah Fountain, who designed the spectacular cover and interior layout, to Estelle Maher, for her expertise and guidance, and the high-quality cover and internal pages from Custom Print, it really was a team effort. I think our efforts shine through!
If you could pick anyone to read your story on Jackanory, who would it be?
If I can hypothetically pick someone who is no longer here (and in keeping with the ‘local’ theme), then I’d say John Lennon. Carleton Mouse seeks to empower his little readers, and I think Mr. Lennon would approve. Plus, their homes do share the same side on Menlove Avenue. Maybe Carleton’s next supporting character could be a beetle…
If I’m allowed to manifest a real reader on Jackanory, I’d say Hugh Grant, purely for his dulcet English accent (ahem)!
Are you writing anything else?
Carleton and the Christmas Grump is book number two in The Carleton Mouse Book Series – Empowering Our Children. It’s a series of books aimed at empowering children during the trials and tribulations of growing up, themed around overcoming obstacles and becoming stronger and more confident in navigating childhood. I have a few work-in-progresses and ideas to revisit to make a start on book three.
Will there be any more adventures for Carleton?
Yes! I’m excited to see where Carleton Mouse and his determination lead me next. I think Carleton also flies by the seat of his pants, so your guess is as good as mine. Wherever he is next, he will bring the magic!
What was the best thing about working with TAUK Publishing?
Estelle Maher, Managing Director of TAUK, is an author herself, so as well as the expertise and guidance I’ve already mentioned, there is warmth and empathy from Estelle for writers wanting to fulfil their writing ambition. TAUK is a lovely community; I’ve been fortunate to meet some amazing people online and at events, and the support from TAUK really does continue long after publication day.
Carleton and the Christmas Grump is now available here.
Also available from Helen Yoxall Burns