The Jam Doughnut That Ruined My Life by Mark Lowery

Mark Lowery* is a funny guy! I should know, I had the hilarious pleasure of sharing a kitchen with him for a year when we were both mature (mature… snort) students at the University of Winchester. You’ve never really laughed until you’ve seen Mark sing Madonna’s Hanky Panky at pub karaoke night.

I loved Mark’s first two books (Socks Are Not Enough and Pants Are Everything-both shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize), so when his latest book was available I ordered my copy straight away.

Jam DoughnutA jam-fuelled week of disaster is set in motion by a single doughnut!

Roman Garstang is obsessed with food – particularly Squidgy Splodge raspberry-jam doughnuts – but he is about to learn that things are not always as sugar-coated as they might seem. Because of his Monday-morning jam doughnut, Roman’s week takes a very sticky turn . . .

By Friday Roman has been banned from eating for 24hrs, narrowly avoided a faceful of warm toddler-wee, accidentally shoplifted, been given a lift in a getaway van, styled his teacher’s guinea pig with a blue mohawk, started an OAP** riot . . . and still barely managed to scoff a crumb – or lick – of a single doughnut.

Who knew jam could be so deadly?

Mark has a real talent for writing the absurd. In the great British tradition of Basil Fawlty and Mr Bean, NOTHING goes right for our hapless hero, fate conspires against him at every turn and all his best intentions go horribly, hilariously wrong.

But more than that, Mark has the best turns of phrase. He writes things that make me laugh out loud as a reader and turn green with envy as a writer. Why didn’t I think to describe school cafeteria chocolate sponge as ‘as dry as a lizard’s underpants’?

I’d recommend this book to readers who like the Captain Underpants books, The Twits, Gangsta Granny and rooting for the underdog.

To find out more about Mark and his books (and read one of the funniest author bios of all time) visit his website:


*Since I know Mark, I can’t promise this review is 100% impartial BUT it is at least 99.99% impartial. If I hadn’t liked Jam Doughnut, I would have slunk away and hidden in the corner and never spoken to Mark again for fear he might ask me what I thought of it.

**For those reading this in America, OAP stands for Old Age Pensioners

It’s October, let the Halloween countdown begin!

Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays. Costumes and candy, what’s not to like? These days I get my thrills vicariously by handing out sweets at the door, but when I was a kid there was nothing like going out trick-or-treating with a group of friends.

Halloween 198?: That's me as Rainbow Brite

Halloween 198?: That’s me as Rainbow Brite

Here are 13 spooky books to celebrate the season:

1. In a Dark Dark Room and other Scary Stories Alvin Schwartz, Dirk Zimmer (Illustrator) This was the first ‘scary’ book that I had, and I loved it beyond compare. A collection of short stories with just enough scare for young readers.

2. I Spy Spooky Night: A Book of Picture Riddles Jean Marzollo, Walter Wick (Photographer) From the mad scientist’s laboratory in the basement to a spooky cemetery in the backyard, this visual walk through a haunted house is hours of spine tingling fun!

3. The Gashlycrumb Tinies Edward Gorey The definition of macabre.

4. Coraline Neil Gaiman This story is exciting and eerie, and does what all the best fairytales do: speaks to our deepest fears and helps us face them.

5. Clockwork Philip Pullman I won’t spoil it for you, I’ll just say I love how this book comes together. And it features the most terrifying ‘cuckoo clock’ of all time…

6. Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth E.L. Konigsburg After reading this book, I became obsessed with becoming a witch. Not strictly spooky, but a great story about loneliness and friendship (and witches).

7. The Pickle King Rebecca Promitzer The atmosphere of this book is so deliciously oppressive it felt like I was reading underwater. And there are ghosts too!

8. Skulduggery Pleasant Derek Landy A great action series with a skeleton detective and his apprentice/sidekick, Valkyrie Cane.

9. The Witches Roald Dahl Roald Dahl pulls no punches, the Grand High Witch is the scariest character I encountered as a child.

10. The Wardstone Chronicles Joseph Delaney Another great series. Thomas Ward is the seventh son of a seventh son, specially gifted to fight creatures of evil. The books follow his apprenticeship with the current Spook (professional evil-fighter) as he learns and battles all manner of things that go bump in the night.

11. One Day at Horrorland (Goosebumps #16) R.L. Stine I read Goosebumps like they were popcorn, but this was always a special favorite because of my childhood summers at Wonderland in Ocean City.

12. All the Lovely Bad Ones Mary Downing Hahn A classic haunting story, with some very naughty children…

13. The Letter, The Witch and the Ring John Bellairs I could put all of John Bellairs’ modern-gothic books on this list, but this one will always be my favorite. Rose Rita Pottinger and her friend (and real live witch) Mrs. Zimmerman are drawn into a terrifying world of occult mysteries.

  • Fun random fact: The baby in that picture is Ryan O’Keefe from the band River Whyless. Clifford the Big Red Dog is his brother Brendan: puppeteer, performer, builder of magical dwellings, and general renaissance man. The little Rainbow Brite? That’s me!

Waiter waiter, there’s a typo in my uncorrected proof…

A few days ago, Chicken House sent me the typeset pages of my new book. This is such an exciting moment because it’s the first time I get to see all the fancy doo-dahs that the publisher adds, all the front matter, the chapter headings and the words on the page just like in a real live book. It’s also the moment that makes me remember ‘oh my gosh, this is really happening!’

I got two great surprises when I looked at the pages:

First; Alice rides her bike all over Philadelphia while she’s chasing down leads, so I was thrilled that there was a picture of a bicycle on the first page.20150911_100616

Second; I had no idea Barry Cunningham, the Managing Director, Publisher and kid-lit genius, would write a little blurb on the inside. Wow, so exciting! I posted this on Facebook.Impossible Clue Proofs

But what’s this? In the blurb, oh my, is that a typo? (I’ve had quite a few eagle-eyed readers point this out.)

Yes, yes it is.

These typeset pages are called uncorrected proofs (sometimes page proofs, sometimes galley proofs). They are one last chance for the author (and a proofreader, thank goodness) to fix any mistakes before the book goes to print. This is not the time to rewrite chunks of dialogue or description since the typesetter has spent a lot of time fitting just the right number of words onto each page. But there is space to change anything small or obviously wrong.

And so for the next few days I’ll be rereading my work, looking for misspellings and other mistakes, red pen at the ready, jellybeans by my side. And then it’s back to finishing the next Alice Jones adventure.

Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue has a cover!

Alice-Jones-678x1024Maths-whizz Alice has already solved a mystery or two.

Persuaded by wannabe sidekick Sammy to investigate a scientist’s disappearance, she’s soon entangled in her trickiest case yet. Dr Learner is reputed to have invented an invisibility suit, but is wacky science really to blame for his vanishing?

With the unlikely help of erstwhile nemesis Kevin, Alice solves the puzzle – only to face another. Should she reveal the truth, or protect her most devoted friend?

I’m so excited to share the cover art for my next book, Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue (coming 4 February 2016) designed by the lovely Helen Crawford-White. I love the bright orange, and the nod to Alice’s interest in math and logic in the background.

For more information and updates check out my publisher Chicken House.


Different authors have different ways of tackling voice. Me? I come from a theater background, so a lot my writing techniques come from improv classes. I like to interview my characters by asking them a lot of questions and seeing what answers come up, sometimes I just ask them to write me a letter. The first rule of improv is ‘never say no’ you’ve got to take whatever comes out and run with it (anything that’s awful gets fixed later on when I edit-thank goodness for edits).

Here’s a letter my character Casey Quinn* wrote to me before I started writing Dreamer Ballerina. It was the first time her voice popped off the page, and that’s how I knew I’d finally found her voice.

Dear Sarah,

My name is Casey Quinn, and this may be the last thing I ever write, because Mrs. Hoover is starting to look like she might cut my head off if I make her stay after school one more day.

I am stuck here until I write a letter of apology to one Miss Priss-Ann Lee. I’m supposed to say I’m-ever-so-sorry I pushed you down and got your precious pink ballet slippers dirty. But I’m not, so any apology I wrote would be one-hundred-percent hooey—a big old lie, fatter than Uncle Albert.

And I ain’t gonna lie. That’s not my style.

You can’t make grown-ups understand, no matter what you do. And no matter what a teacher says about liking all her students the same, you can be well sure that she has a favorite. And you can be well sure that that favorite ain’t me.

That favorite is Miss Ann Lee. Pretty pink and pirouetting, with ribbons and bows, but certainly not sugar or spice or anything nice. Miss Ann Lee is nothing but nasty. But I’m the only one who knows that.

I am not her favorite, because I have a skinned knee, runny nose and shoes a size and a half too big. They used to be two sizes too big, but I’m growing. So my feet go slap slap slap when I walk across the room and slap slap slap when I walk back, and no one but me hears the rhythm.

Because no one but me is a true blue, natural born sky dancer.

I dance everywhere and everything. My feet twitch-twitch me awake in the morning and shuffle-toe-step their way through my day. I dance when I’m happy, and I dance when I’m bluer than huckleberries. My feet can even dance a smile out of my old mama’s tired face. And one day my feet are gonna dance me right out of no-good, nothing-ever-happens Raleigh.

I’ve been dancing to New York City since the day I was born, and my feet won’t quit til I get them there.

Mamma says I might as well dream of dancing on the stars, but you gotta have a dream. And you can’t let no one, not even no Miss Priss Ann Lee, step on it.

*Fun fact: Casey Quinn was originally named Spiney Babler after a Nepalese songbird.

How many drafts?

“Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl

A few years ago, I was giving a talk at my old elementary school. The students had so many great questions about the book and about being a writer. And it was fun to see Mrs. Tripp, my fourth grade teacher, trying not to cry when I talked about how much I loved writing choose your own adventure stories in her class. One student asked me how many drafts I wrote of Dreamer Ballerina. When I answered him, the entire auditorium gasped. Seriously, if there was a video, you’d see the collective intake of breath make my hair move.

Can you guess what the answer was?


From the first handwritten draft I scribbled down in a notebook, to the final published book, I wrote twenty drafts.

It sounds like a lot. The student’s looked horrified. But hey, writing is hard work, and it’s good to know that up front. I think it’s also good to know that first drafts are almost always rubbish. My first drafts are so full of mistakes, cliches, bad ideas, clunky dialogue and wrong-plot-turns, that it scares me to think about someone reading them.*  Thank goodness I get a chance to rewrite!

So, to the wonderful students at Mt. Desert Elementary School, don’t let the 20 drafts put you off. Don’t stop writing because your first draft doesn’t work, or your second, or your third, or your twentieth. If you love to write, keep on writing!

*Seriously, I have nightmares.

What’s in a name?

As an author, it’s easy to forget that a title is more than just the name of your book. When I first started writing Dreamer Ballerina it was called You Can’t Do Ballet in High-Tops. It was a line from the first draft of the book, a line that didn’t make it into the final version, but I still thought it was a great title. In a lot of ways I still think it’s a great title, IF a title was just the name of my book, but it isn’t.

A title is your book’s first impression. The first chance it has to grab a reader and say ‘Hey, over here, look at me! I’m exactly the kind of book that you love!’ It should give clues to the genre and tone of the book. (Did you know that Twighlight was originally called Forks after the town where the book is set? Do you think Forks would have been the same international phenomenon with that title?)

My published had a lot of reasons for wanting to rename my first book. They wanted something warm and simple, and a bit more hopeful because the book is a dream-come-true kind of story. The reason that surprised me the most was that You Can’t Do Ballet in High-Tops was too long. Not just that it was too long to say, but a title that long would mean that the cover design would either be all words OR the words would be small, maybe too small to stand out in a crowded bookstore. As an author, the visual aspect of my title had never occurred to me.

I have to admit, it was difficult to let go of my original title at first. But, I was lucky to work with a group of editors who I trusted. Once they explained why they wanted the change, and what they were looking for in a new title we worked together brainstorming new options. Some of the proposed titles included:

  • Toe Tied
  • Toe Shoe Blues
  • Bigfoot Ballerina
  • Dance Child
  • Ratty Tatty Ballet Shoes
  • Barefoot Ballerina

Eventually we agreed on Dreamer Ballerina and now I can hardly imagine my book had any other title.

Of course, when it started coming out in international editions there were a whole new set of new titles to get used to. But by then I was just excited to see what kind of title other people thought summed up the spirit of my book.

This time around, with my second book, I was much more prepared for the naming process. I started with a rough working title (The Invisible Scientist) and expected changes. After bouncing around a few different ideas, I’m very excited with the final result: Alice Jones Investigates: The Impossible Clue.

I hope it does what a good title should: make you want to pick it up and give it a try.


My own personal Waterloo.

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of things I struggle with when I write. I could fill a book. The reason this one issue irks me so much is that I should know better. In fact, I do know better.

I know it’s is a contraction of it is and its is a possessive. But when I type at speed, my fingers refuse to leave out the apostrophe. I have resorted to using the Find All feature to check each one before I send out a draft.

I wish I’d figured that trick out in college. I had one professor who delighted in red-penning this particular mistake. He didn’t hate me. He thought it was funny. When I was a senior and he asked me to proofread his own book, I was ready for payback.

I poured over each page of his manuscript looking for a similar mistake. I bought my own red pen just for the occasion. Did I find one? Nope, not a single incorrect it’s or its in the whole 300 pages. Ten years later and I’m still disappointed.

Dreamer Ballerina Around the World…

After Dreamer Ballerina came out in the UK, something unexpected happened, Greece wanted to publish a translation. And Germany. And Poland. I remember getting the news and just being dumbfounded.

The best part about this, besides having my books in bookstores in Holland(!), was that I get two copies of all foreign editions. You can see bits of them in the photo at the top of the blog, but here they are in detail.



Dreamer Ballerina

The original. The first cover to my first book. Getting these in the post was like getting to celebrate all of my birthdays at once.







Someday Dancer

A more wistful cover. It reminds me of the Wizard of Oz. There are some lovely black and white illustrations on the inside as well.





Tanczaca: Dancing

The Polish version is a paperback, but it comes with built-in flaps like the dust jacket of a hard-cover so you can mark your place while reading. I love that!






πιρουέτες στο χωμα: Pirouettes in the Dust

This was the first foreign translation of Dreamer Ballerina to come in a totally different alphabet. Even if I couldn’t read the others, I could sound them out. Not this one. It was a challenge just finding the right letters to Google Translate the title.





Ein Traum und Zwei Fusse: One Dream and Two Feet

This cover is the closest to the one I pictured when I was writing the book. I was so excited when I saw this design!






Dansen Tussen de Sterren: Dancing Among the Stars

This is one of my favorite covers. I love the rich blue and how it contrasts with the warm orange and yellow stars.



Czech R.



Tancit ke Hvezdam: Dance to the Stars

The same cover design as the UK, but the inside is full of stars, bows and hearts decorating each page. My name got changed to Rubinova too, which made me smile.

The Story of My First Rejection…

Every author has to deal with rejection. And every author has at least one rejection story they like to share. This is mine.

When I was 12, I decided to be a writer. And not just any writer, but an honest-to-goodness published author. That meant no one could know I was still just a kid, at least, not until I showed up for my first book signing. (Oh I had big plans.)

My local library had an old beat-up copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook which I studied diligently, taking notes on how to format my manuscript and write a cover letter. I made a list of publishers that accepted picture books, put together my submission packs (refused to let my mother proofread anything) and mailed them off.

And then I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Eventually, I started to suspect my mom was hiding the mail. (She swears she wasn’t.)

Finally, months later, I got something back. Not the SASE I had painstakingly provided, but a big padded envelope. It looked like someone had mailed me a dictionary. My mom sat on the couch next to me, bracing herself to soften the blow when the inevitable rejection came.

Except it didn’t. Not exactly.

Inside the package was a letter stating that the publishing house I submitted to was closing down, and therefore could not accept my submission. But, the letter encouraged me to continue writing and seeking publication. To help me on my journey, someone had photocopied the ENTIRE Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and mailed it to me. Not only that, they’d highlighted the publishers who accepted unagented submissions of picture books.

Sadly, I lost that letter years ago, and I can’t remember the name of the publishing house that was so encouraging. BUT, if you were an editor or editorial assistant or some form of sainted intern and you photocopied an entire book to send to a kid (because you must have figured it out, who was I kidding with that handwriting, right?) who wanted to be a writer, Thank You! I didn’t give up. I kept on writing.

20 years later, I’ve had a lot more rejections. But I’ll always remember my first as being the sweetest.