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An Interview with Helen Yoxall Burns

TAUK Publishing has had the pleasure of helping Helen and Jared launch their book today, Carleton’s Motto Saves the Grotto, which is now available on Amazon. Read our interview and discover why being sociable at the school gates can change your life.

 

Tell us about Carleton the mouse.

Carleton Mouse is the actual school mascot of Carleton House Preparatory School in South Liverpool.

In this story, Carleton is a miniature mouse with a huge heart and one very big problem—Santa’s school visit could be ruined by snow! Without revealing any spoilers, the essence of this Christmas tale is how Carleton and his friends discover how a little idea can snowball into great things.

Carleton lives within the school and roams the classrooms long after home time, so the children or teachers haven’t met him as yet. He wears an identical grey school uniform, and although he is a boy, he could represent any child from the school with his strong qualities. He is a determined mouse with the power to overcome obstacles with self-belief and ambition. He is a good friend with (mostly) a supportive network of friends around him too, with all the ingredients that add to the recipe of the school motto, ‘They Can Because They Think They Can’.

Carleton House Preparatory School

How did the story come about?

The Carleton Mouse Reader Night is a school event celebrated annually, except for the last couple of years. To celebrate its relaunch (post-2020), I was delighted and honoured to be asked to pay homage to the school mascot by writing a heart-warming Christmas tale in rhyme. In 2017, I wrote a poem for the Carleton House preschool, so my passion for writing in rhyme is known. As a member of the PTA, I am heavily involved in planning events for the school, so it felt quite organic to progress to writing a story about it too.

What is the most important element for you? Character, story, rhyme or illustrations?

I feel for a picture book to be successful, all elements must be represented equally. If the rhyme does not flow, that will detract from the story arc, and likewise, if the character is not relatable or likeable, excellent rhythm and rhyme won’t matter if the reader cannot connect with the character. To get every element spot on in under 700 words is a big task! Illustrations equally bring all of the above to life. My passion is rhyme which initially brought me to writing children’s books, but rhyme alone will fail if all the other elements aren’t there.

Was it important that it had a Christmas theme?

The Christmas theme was a timely factor due to the event being held in November. However, it certainly did add to the magical message and plot. What was important was that the story had a theme to which all children could relate—believing in oneself. To me, boosting children’s self-confidence following the last couple of turbulent years is more important than ever.

You used your own illustrator. How do you know him?

I met Jared Burki and his family in the preschool about five years ago. A small group of parents collected their children at 1 pm each day, so it was a less chaotic pick-up which gave us time to chat, and he was one of them. We discovered we had a mutual creative interest in creating children’s books. I wanted to write professionally, and Jared wanted to be a children’s illustrator. We agreed we should pursue our dreams and maybe, one day, even work together. It’s amazing that our chat came to fruition and led us both down this exciting path.

Jared and Helen

Have you always been writing?

Yes! Funnily enough, only recently, my mum reminded me of a school poetry competition I’d won at St Julies High School in October 1994. I still have the photograph of my prize—an anthology of love poems, proudly displayed on my Instagram grid! It’s always been a passion of mine, and I guess this boost led me to write bespoke poetry professionally for special occasions such as wedding speeches, which I started 20 years ago (I’m showing my age now!).

You’re watching TV and wish you were part of the writing team. What are you watching? Explain what it is about the writing you like.

Gosh! As a busy mum of two, I really don’t get any chance to watch TV. I think the last thing that gripped me was BBC’s Line of Duty. The writing was so fast-paced with technical police knowledge and so many twists and turns that I’d have to say that. Plus, I’m a fan of Liverpool actor Stephen Graham so that’d be a bonus too!

What would you write if you couldn’t write children’s picture books?

I’d probably be a lyricist! In 2010 and 2011, I entered the UK Songwriting Contest and won two semi-finalist certificates and a commended entry. My husband and I were married in 2009 and Matt Johnson from One True Voice (from Pop Stars the Rivals TV show) sang at our wedding. He noticed my poetry as wedding favours for our guests and asked if I’d ever thought of writing song lyrics. I think I’d like to pick that up again! It all works back to rhythm and metre required in picture book writing, so it’s all connected.

Why did you choose TAUK Publishing?

I attended Jude Lennon’s Creative Writing Course in October 2020. It was on my agenda to join in 2017, but my daughters were babies then, and I backed out last minute as the evening courses did not suit their bedtimes. During the 2020 course, Sue Miller of TAUK Publishing made a guest appearance and I was intrigued. Since then, I have attended many writing courses and connected online with Jude. I reached out to Jude to ask for advice on this project and the rest, as they say, is history! I had also attempted to attend the TAUK Writing Retreat earlier in the year, but my daughter was poorly. Carleton Mouse wasn’t on my radar then. I believe everything happens for a reason.

Have you learned anything while on your publishing journey?

This has been an absolute eye-opener and a huge learning curve from start to finish. That, in itself, is invaluable.

Will there be any more adventures for Carleton?

Oh, I certainly hope so! From the amazing feedback from the Carleton House families, it sounds like a sequel could be on the cards. Carleton Mouse has many class mascot friends, so there’s room for a host of spin-offs! And in the ethos of the school, why not?! They Can Because They Think They Can!

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