Category Archives: Book Talk

We don’t need no…age restrictions

GabbyToday’s blog is by Gabby Smith, an incredible fifteen year-old who has blogged for us before, and spent a week with us as an intern. While Gabby was interning, the discussion came up about age-banding and age-appropriateness of books. Below is Gabby’s opinion about the effect of placing age restrictions on books.

One of the most pointless things someone can ever do is tell you not to do something. This is, quite simply, because less than a second later, you’ve already decided to do just what they told you not to. The temptation is nearly always far too sweet to be ignored. So, when someone puts an age restriction on anything like a movie, some music or a book, you immediately want to watch it, listen to it and read it. It’s human nature. We cannot help it, just like a moth being drawn to a flame.

But temptation is only half of it. At the end of the day you will do what you want, when you want to do it, and nobody can stop you if you have the right amount of motivation. It is terribly annoying to spend time dodging rules to get what we want, but in the end, we get it. And at least half the time, the actual content isn’t even particularly harmful. But people nowadays always seem to have a ‘cover your back’ reflex. It’s a reflex which can often ruin my day.


Instead of age-banding, Hot Key put key rings on the back to indicate what’s inside.

As an avid reader all my life, age restrictions have somewhat been the bane of my existence in the literary world. Booksellers were constantly telling me that I couldn’t read ‘x’ paranormal book because it was ‘scary’ and it had 16+ plastered all over it. Instead they sold me, a nine year old at the time, ‘Class A’ by Robert Muchamore, a book full of sex, drugs and gritty action. I mean, seriously? I couldn’t read a fantasy book about faeries with crossbows even though it was all blatantly made up, but I could read a shockingly realistic book that changed how I saw the world forever (it was good, by the way)? Surely a book that represents some of the issues that are actually happening in the world today is more ‘scary’ than a book that that has elves fighting dragons on great mountainside battlefields (not that I don’t love that kind of stuff, for I am essentially a fantasy/paranormal girl at heart). This is every young reader’s really, really, annoying problem.

Books are mislabelled all the time, and it seriously impacts young peoples’ reading skills and awareness. Parents won’t buy books for their children which are labelled above their age, which just makes the children resort to secretly getting the books they want behind their parents’ backs (ever wondered where that massive Kindle bill came from? Yeah, sorry about that).

This is why Hot Key Books are so refreshing for a sixteen year old reader like me. No age restrictions means it is far more likely that I will pick up the book, which means far more readers for them. It’s as simple as that. I can read a book far younger/older than I should be and not have to worry about people telling me that I shouldn’t be reading it because no one can tell the difference.

It’s frustrating because buying books above/below your age really just shouldn’t even be a problem to begin with. It’s even been scientifically proven that everyone has their own mental reading age that has nothing to do with your actual age. Anybody remember that game Brain Train on the Nintendo? My reading age was at least twice my age whereas my Grandmothers was half of hers. Anybody remember Matilda? I’m pretty sure she read a whole library before she was even ten years old, and who knows what those books contained? People should have the freedom to read what they want and educate themselves. If kids they read something they find disturbing in a historically accurate book, so what? They’ve learnt something about a country’s past and how bad things really happen to good people. Even if it were a fantasy book, almost any situation can be stripped down to events that happen in real life. It can even potentially save your life, as you’re far more aware of your surroundings.

So parents, you may want to think twice before you restrict the books your children can read. You’re definitely not stopping them from reading them, as we are far more resourceful than you may think. Instead of deterring us from reading books you don’t think are “appropriate,” you are most definitely stoking the fires of our rebellious streaks. And at the end of the day, I’m sure you don’t want to deal with the consequences. Just think, when your kids sneak out late at night, because that’s what ‘x’ did in that book all about parents who age restricted books, you’ll be the one who has to go and pick them up.

What do YOU think about age restrictions on books? Leave your comments below or tweet us your opinions (@hotkeybooks).

How to Win a Writing Contest

This advice should be good for any writing contest, but is specifically in celebration of our Hot Key Books Young Writers Prize, supported by Kobo. We’re hoping to find talented writers from 18 to 25 writing fiction for children 9+ and all we need to start is the first 4,000 words of a novel. So, they have to be the best 4,000 words you’ve got!

If you want to win the contest, it’s simple, really:

1. Have a great opening line.
2. Have a great opening page.
3. Have a great opening chapter.

Okay, I admit, that is easier said than done. So I’ve put together some tips and examples that might help inspire you.

1. Have a great opening line.
First impressions do count, so give us something interesting to open. Don’t start with people being bored, just waking up or with unimportant or non-essential details. Be specific to create something vivid. Try to hint at the whole book in your first line. Show what’s different about your book from the very first moment.

Some of my favourites:
“The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say. About anything.”
Dogs learning to talk? I’m intrigued. There is also a touch of character here, learning that the narrator has a dog but isn’t all mushy about it. Plues the subtle but effective “yer” and “don’t got nothing” give a great sense of the voice.

Cover of Maggot Moon by Sally GardnerMAGGOT MOON by Sally Gardner
“I’m wondering what if.”
This is a great example of hinting at the whole book in one line. “What if?” is one of the central ideas of the story and something so essential to the main character. It draws me because, as a reader, I’m also wondering about this book and what it could be.

TALL STORY by Candy Gourlay.
“Rush hour. So many armpits, so little deodorant.”
Speaks for itself, really! It sets up the tone of this charming but funny book.

Peter Pan book coverPETER PAN by J M Barrie
“All children, except one, grow up.”
An iconic first line, that encapsulates the core of the book. Right away, I’m desperate to know all about the exception to the rule – and also kind of want to be the exception to the rule.

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
I read somewhere (deliberately forgot where), how could a series with such a boring opening line do so well. Ridiculous! This opening line is bursting with character. I don’t need one single other detail about the Dursley’s to know who they are – their surname, their street name and “thank you very much” creates such a strong feeling about them.

HOLES by Louis Sachar
“There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.”
(This is my favourite book ever, so I had to include it, even though this list is getting long.)

2. Have a great opening page
My advice for the best opening page is to introduce us to a great character – preferably by what they do/are doing, rather than what they look like or what the setting looks like. We shouldn’t meet them by being told what is happening TO them, but by seeing what they are making happen, be it good or bad.

Some of my favourites:
MILLIONS by Frank Cottrell Boyce is a great place to start looking at character introduction. We get a glimpse of Damian’s brother, but also such a charming introduction to quirky Damian and his obsession with the saints.

We first meet the terrifying Jack, but an even better character introduction is to Bod. The pages of him as a baby is one of my favourite character introductions ever, as he ingeniously and adorably escapes. I love him so much from that opening that I will go anywhere he goes from then on.

VIVIAN VERSUS THE APOCALYPSEIn one of last year’s winners, VIVAN VERSUS THE APOCALYPSE, by Katie Coyle, there is a delicious sense of controversy in the prologue. It reads like an official statement, but the deliberate wording “a kingdom called Florida” and “listened to rap music” makes a mockery of it and the character behind it. As I read it, I already knew that I wanted someone to rebel against him.

(Note: For the non-Hot Key books, you can “search inside” on Amazon to peek at the opening pages, if you don’t own the book. And for Hot Key Books, you can download the opening chapter on our website!

3.Have a great opening chapter.
The first two points are quite narrowly focused, but this is big picture thinking. For a great opening chapter, make something really interesting happen in chapter one. DON’T save it for chapter two or three. The essential “arrive late, leave early” rule should apply. Come to the scene as late as you can to make sense and get out as quickly as you can when your point is made.

In THE WIND SINGER by William Nicholson, the fabulous opening chapter has the main character’s littler sister, PinPin, failing her “testing” spectacularly by weeing on the Chief Examiner. I can see the world without it everbeing described with lengthy set up. I know exactly what I need to know to understand at the moment I need to know it.

CLOCKWISE TO TITANCLOCKWISE TO TITAN has the such a sense of movement and action, with the three friends escaping the Institute, along with great characterisation. It sweeps you along the opening scene, hinting at the past and the future of the story. Read the opening page in this PDF sample.

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins
The opening chapter brilliantly sets up everything that Katniss is about to lose. It has such a great last line, too, when she loses it. We see how strong Katniss is (the lynx!) and how tough she has it.

BOONIE PaperbackBOONIE by Richard MassonA winner of a different contest (Undiscovered Voices), the opening scene is simply stunning. You immediately feel for JD and hate those who he must fight against. With a strong voice and wonderful visuals, reading this sample will definitely inspire you!

Do you have any tips to share? What has really helped you focus on a great first 4,000 words? Or what are some of your favourite opening lines?

And GOOD LUCK if you’re entering. Take your time and make it awesome.

The savage truth about cannibalism

Though dietary habits are not a usual focus on this blog, we felt it an appropriate topic as we celebrate the publication of the wonderful Matt Whyman’s new book, THE SAVAGES . It follows the lives of the Savage family, their strange family tradition and, shall we say, interesting taste in people. For more about the novel, check out Matt’s intro video below and explore more content on the web site.

For me, the question was what started this bizarre family tradition? I found the answer in the novel, and a particularly horrific and devastating time in history…

The siege of Leningrad began in June 1941, when Stalin and the Soviet Union were attacked by their supposed ally, Nazi Germany. By the end of August the German forces has reached Leningrad (St Petersburg). By 8th September 1941, every road and rail line was cut with devastating air raids starting the next day and continuing for 17 months. The citizens of Leningrad were totally isolated – no one could enter or leave, let alone bring in basic supplies like food.

At the start of the siege  it was estimated that the city had enough flour for 35 days, cereals for 30 days, meat for 22 days and sugar for 60 days. The siege however, lasted until 27th January 1944 – that’s 827 days.

Ration cards were distributed, but these were dependent on status with the lowest category of dependent receiving only 125g of bread a day (3 thin slices); bread that contained a high proportion of nutritionless fillers like cottonseed. Queues lined the streets, while the weather dropped to -30 degrees, and people who managed to get their rations lived off 300 calories a day.

Desperately in need of food, the citizens of Leningrad did what they could. At first animals from the city zoo were eaten, followed by household pets (with reports that families swapped their pets with neighbours so they didn’t have to eat their own), and then wild rats and birds. Wallpaper paste was made from potatoes and so people scraped it off their walls. Grass and weeds were cooked, leather was boiled to produce a kind of edible jelly, and sheep’s intestines were boiled down with oil of clove to be used instead of milk. There are reports of men drinking oil from oil cans, eating grease from machines and joiner’s glue in their desperation.

One diarist noted ‘Hunger has changed almost everyone’, and perhaps it is unsurprising that these desperate, isolated citizens resorted to cannibalism. Police records from the time show that 2,000 people were arrested for cannibalism, while 586 of them were executed for murdering their victims, although the actual number could in fact be much higher. The Leningrad police formed a special division to combat cannibalism as these cases became more regular. Sadly, the majority of people arrested were women, as mothers resorted to desperate measures to feed their children.

When the siege finally ended it was estimated that over 750,00 people had died from starvation – between a quarter and a third of the original population.

I can remember a surprisingly substantial amount of the World War II history we learned for GCSE, but the siege of Leningrad was just another date stuffed in amongst the Beer Hall Putsch and Home Front propaganda posters – and I think that’s wrong. The dark, horrific history of the siege, and perhaps in particular the lengths people went to to get food, reveal so much about human nature and human need. Not only how far we will go when we’re desperate, but also what we will do to provide for and protect those we love.

There are some parts of history that are so dark and so terrible, it’s hard to comprehend how society could have permitted such terrifying human behavior. And oftentimes, the only way we can truly explore the reality of the people who experienced these terrible things is through fiction. Fiction allows us to ask questions and experience empathy in a way that non-fiction sometimes does not permit.

Now, don’t get the wrong idea, THE SAVAGES is not a dark exploration of World War II Russia. Instead, Matt delicately uses this horrible historical event as an anchor for the family’s behavior. It makes the family real. They don’t just have some strange desire for blood. They are a regular family with an unusual family tradition. A tradition that has been passed onto them, so they can appreciate all they have around them and never forget the past.


Philosophy made simple

Today’s blog is from Peter Clapp, who interned for us a few weeks ago. Peter studied Philosophy and Theology at Oxford University and then spent a few years acting, mainly in the back rooms of pubs but occasionally in exciting places like New York. Having realised the life of an actor probably wasn’t quite for him, he’s now hoping to pursue a career in another of his passions, children’s publishing. A career move his one year old brother is particularly excited about.

When people think of philosophy, they tend to think of dry, dense tomes that are full of more semicolons than sense. The sorts of books that are no doubt very important, that influenced society in some indefinably crucial way, but, y’know, you wouldn’t actually want to read them. And in many ways those people are right.

Philosophy can be dense. It can be pretentious, and reading it can often feel like unpicking a knot with the lights turned off. But at its heart philosophy is none of those things. It’s not about overly complex language; it’s about incredibly powerful ideas that make you see the world in a completely different way. The trouble is, though the ideas may actually be quite simple, they’re really very hard to express.

Now, you may be wondering why I’m waffling on about philosophy on Hot Key’s blog. Well it’s because I think YA and children’s fiction can be a brilliant way of exploring these big, philosophical ideas.

Take Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – an obvious example I know, but also a good one – over the course of the trilogy Pullman precisely questions the role and influence of religion. Now, a lot of people might say that’s all well and good, but you could explore those ideas much better by reading Paradise Lost and Richard Dawkins. But I’d argue they don’t offer an inherently better way, just a different one. All too often I think we’re guilty of thinking that ideas can only be weighty if they’re also heavy. Whereas in reality a fast-paced, gripping narrative can be just as good at exploring big ideas as something that’s considered more high brow.

Anyone who isn’t convinced should read Lois Lowry’s The Giver. It’s a brilliant dystopian thriller set in a society where everyone has chosen to repress their memories and limit their experiences in order to live a life free from pain. Unfortunately, it also means they’re pretty incapable of dealing with threats so they elect one person to receive the memories and experiences they lack and act as a leader.

The novel follows 12 year old Jonas as takes on this role and in the process finds his coddled life blown apart. But what’s really fascinating is that Jonas doesn’t just get more knowledgeable, rather his fundamental experience of life begins to change. In one particularly powerful section he starts to see colours he’s never experienced before. Lowry seems to be suggesting that our minds aren’t just blank slates that the world imprints on; instead they’re more like filters that influence our experiences. More than this, if you change that filter in some way – by providing new fundamental knowledge – then your basic experience of the world can change too. And, as Kant will happily tell you, that’s a deeply philosophical idea.

Now, if that last paragraph has left you scratching your head, then in a funny kind of way I think I’ve sort of proven my point. Expressing these ideas in an article or blog is hard and sometimes it’s far more effective to express them in a story. In my opinion YA and children’s literature does that brilliantly. It can take these big, bold ideas and create a story that is illuminating, unpretentious, gripping and fun. It proves the point that big ideas aren’t just for dusty old men in ivory towers – they’re for everyone.

Can you think of other examples of this in YA books published today? Or do you remember having any philosophical epiphanies after reading a particular title when you were growing up?

Want to know what teenagers want? Ask them!

Write Ideas group shot_low res

This year, we have been working closely with the fantastic Platform youth hub in Islington to build a series of author-led creative writing classes for young people aged 13 to 19 called Write Ideas, which runs every Tuesday evening in term time.

As part of Word 2013, Islington’s month-long celebration of reading and writing, authors Sarah Mussi and Sara Grant have put together an event to showcase the young people’s writing from Write Ideas, and to chat about the books they enjoy reading and draw inspiration from for their own writing.

The event gives anybody interested in literature the opportunity to hear directly from young people about what inspires them and to engage in a lively and interactive discussion about teen reading habits. You’ll also get a chance to network a bit and meet other attendees. Here are the details:

Where: Platform, Hornsey Road Baths, 260 Hornsey Road, London, N7 7QT
Time: Tuesday 21 May 6.30 – 8pm
Ages: Everyone welcome
Price: free, just turn up.
More Info:

Bank Holiday Reading

Happy May 6th Bank Holiday! We hope you are enjoying the weather (please no rain!), having a delicious meal, spending time with your favourite people, and finding time to enjoy a good book. Even though most of us spend the majority of our reading time pouring over our own books, we do manage, especially on these holiday weekends, to fit in a few titles outside our list. So, here’s what we’re reading this weekend:

Amy: I’m so close to finishing THE ACCURSED by Joyce Carol Oates, which I feel like has taken my brain and twisted it into an origami crane (or more appropriately, an origami vampire bat). It’s a completely bizarre and beautifully written story set in the early 20th century about a curse which descends upon the inhabitants of Princeton, New Jersey. Just read what Stephen King had to say about it. If I manage to finish that, I’ll move onto either LET’S EXPLORE DIABETES WITH OWLS by David Sedaris, or WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK by Nathan Englander. Decisions, decisions!

Sarah O: I’m reading a book called A HORA DA ESTRELA by Clarice Lispector. I’m reading it with my Portuguese teacher. In Portuguese! It’s the story of a young woman from the north east of Brasil who moves to Rio de Janeiro  for work and things dont go well for her. It was Clarice’s last published work, published posthumously, and exhibits all her courageous and innovative use of language and attitude to structure. Though she is one of Brazil’s greatest writers she is published a bit too little outside the country. Maybe that will change.

Emily: For me it is BE AWESOME – Hadley Freeman’s alternative to HOW TO BE A WOMAN by Caitlin Moran.

Sarah B: I am reading, in chunks, (when I have time –  which I hope to be this bank hol!) – LITERARY ROGUES: A SCANDALOUS HISTORY OF WAYWARD AUTHORS which I picked up in New York. It’s the perfect read for a) a person in publishing and b) someone who lives with an author – just to watch out for the warning signs of bad behaviour! :) Each chapter is on a different author, period and their vices and normally, their tragic ends!

Cait: BAD PHARMA by Ben Goldacre – terrifying so far, I’m desperate to finish over the weekend!!

Naomi: THE CRANE WIFE by Patrick Ness. As a huge fan of Patrick Ness (although come on, who isn’t?! Even my severely dyslexic boyfriend who has only ever read the Harry Potter books and several Guns N’ Roses themed  autobiographies loved the CHAOS WALKING series!) as well as Japanese folklore, I was very excited to hear that he was releasing a new book for adults, based on a traditional Japanese fairytale. As I already know how the original story goes, I am pretty certain there will be no happy endings here, but it still looks like an amazing read and one I can’t wait to sink my teeth into. Also the cover is gorgeous! And I can (probably) exclusively reveal that the double-matte finish FEELS LIKE VELVET! (Not that I know this from repeatedly rubbing it on my face, of course.)

Sara OC: I’m reading THE END OF BIG by Nicco Mele on my Kobo app. Nicco is a friend of mine from high school and basically revolutionised the way presidential campaigns are run. He pioneered the grassroots social media fundraising as webmaster for Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign.

Emma: THE GREAT GATSBY – because it is a modern classic I have never read. And because the film is coming and I HATE seeing the film before I have read the book. Also WONDER – the story of a boy with severe facial disfigurement. I am reading this with my 9 year old. He is loving it and so am I.

Jan: Right now I’m plowing through my haul from the Stockholm International Comics Festival that I attended to last weekend. Most of all I’m looking forward to reading STORIES FROM ENGELFORS. It’s an interlude graphic novel, published between book two and three in the YA trilogy “The Circle” by Sara Bergmark Elfgren and Mats Strandberg. It’s been making it’s way around the world for the past few years and since the co-writers and artists Kim W Andersson  (who also designed the trilogy covers), Lina Neidestam and Karl Johnsson are friends of mine I’m hoping this graphic novel gets the same treatment!

Another two beautiful finds that I’ll be ogling are Sigbjørn Lilleeng’s  GENERATOR which looks a bit Akira inspired, with a Paul Pope treatment – Norwegians really know their stuff when it comes to comics! So do Germans, and even though I won’t get as much of DAS INFERNO by Michael Meier it’s looking amazing!

Becca: Over the bank holiday  weekend I am reading THE LAST GIRLFRIEND ON EARTH by Simon Rich. My little sister sent it to me in the post because she loved it so much, and I definitely trust her judgement. So far so good, it’s a collection of quirky, surreal and hilarious short stories and sketches about love. My favourite so far involves an over-amorous goat and the grisly troll that ‘got away’. I’m excited to see where this goes….

Georgia: I’m reading THE LOST ART OF KEEPING SECRETS by Eva Rice – Emily’s copy via Becca! I’d never have picked this book up as it has the most dreary pastel cover and looks like godawful chick lit, but it’s a delight – a kind of pastiche of a 50s novel, full of wonderfully eccentric characters, fabulous period detail, written with great wit and warmth but also real poignancy. Utterly delicious and unputdownable!

What are you reading today? Tell us below!

The beautiful or the cursed?

In THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE CURSED by Page Morgan, gargoyles are far more than deliberately ugly stone statues attached to the side of churches, cathedrals and abbeys. Yes, some are troubled and have stone forms (some of the time) but they also act as the guardians of the buildings they decorate.

(And decorate they do – they’re also beautiful. As in, bizarre creature hot-beautiful. As in I may have a tiny bit of a book boy crush on a gargoyle. Never thought I’d write that).


These fantastical stone beasts have fascinated Page Morgan ever since she first went to Paris and saw the famous gargoyles adorning Notre Dame:

Like this…

and this…(though he looks a bit bored)

It’s very difficult to separate gargoyles from their ecclesiastical setting (especially if you studied Theology) and so I have always thought that gargoyles were meant to symbolise the dangers of evil and sin, to act as a didactic, visual warning and deterrent to congregations. After all, isn’t there something eerily recognisable about them?  They are monstrous distortions of things we recognise: animals, emotions, our own faces even?

However, in THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE CURSED Page Morgan has created a cast of gargoyle characters who act as guardians and protectors of the buildings they adorn in their stone form, and the people who live within them. A little bit of internet procrastination later, and I’d discovered that actually, in a way, the fundamental role of a gargoyle was to protect – they’re super sophisticated-looking gutters that prevent rainwater eroding mortar and stone. They’re not screaming, but draining.  I honestly think this is one of the coolest things – just look at this example of a gargoyle from Wawel Cathedral in Krakow.

A gargoyle from Wawel Cathedral, Krakow

Moreover, many suggest that gargoyles do not act as a deterrent towards people, but towards evil itself. Just look at the images above of the Notre Dame gargoyles nestled over the city; there’s an alertness and battle-ready feeling to them. They’re up in the heavens, encircling the cathedral and the congregation therein; manning their particular look out post, almost taunting any evil forces stupid enough to come near. I look at them and think you’re strong, and strangely elegant, and I need some new gutters so you’re coming home with me to keep me safe, thanks.

Look out for THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE CURSED out this week at bookstores everywhere!