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Guest Author - Penny Dolan

Penny Dolan has written many much-loved stories for younger readers. ‘A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E’ is her first book for older readers. It tells the thrilling tale of a small boy whose parents are lost at sea and whose life is threatened by his money-grabbing Uncle Scrope.

Penny works happily as children’s writer and storyteller, dreaming up all sorts of characters in her head, acting them out within the words of her writing, as well as sharing stories with children and young people on her many school visits. Her writing includes picture book texts, early readers and novels for older children. She enjoys djembe drumming, books, map-reading and art.

For further information about Penny and her work

How old were you when you started writing?

When I was young, I loved writing. However, when I went to college, I lost confidence, and didn’t start writing again until my children were grown up.

Do you prefer writing poems or stories?

I sometimes write poems but I really like creating a “story world” and working out what happens to the characters. I use poetic language to add interest and description to my writing.

Where do you find your inspiration?

I find inspiration in things I see or hear or discover when I look at pictures, books, people or places. I find myself wondering “What if?” or “Why?” ‘A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E’ was inspired by several “Victorian” ideas. For example, I used an ornate palm conservatory, an old school building, information on the lives of actors and child actors and much more. Each idea became a scene in my imagination, but it took me ages to thread them together.

Do you have a special place you write?

I have a rather untidy workroom and usually work on my computer there. But I also scribble down ideas or questions about plots or characters anywhere. I feel very uncomfortable if I haven’t got a pen and paper near me.

Your characters have great names! Do you choose them first and base the character on the name, or does the name come once the character is formed?

I don’t really know, as often the character and name arrive together! If I am not completely sure a name is right, I will use it as a “working name” and just get on with the story until the right name arrives. I use quirky names to remind the reader that I’m creating fiction, not writing directly about real life.

‘A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E.’ is your first novel. What is the difference in writing a novel compared to writing short stories for younger readers?

Time! A long book needs perseverance and long days of concentrated time. I kept all the parts of MOUSE working in my head while I wrote and it felt like spinning lots of plates on sticks. I kept thinking things like “What about this?” and “Have you forgotten that?” or “Isn’t that another character’s favourite word?” I keep a pad by my computer, so I can note down all my worries or questions as I work and then I sort them out afterwards.

What does ‘M.O.U.S.E’ stand for?

I’d always called the manuscript “Mouse” after the main character. Then I needed to explain the story wasn’t about a rodent but about “a boy called Mouse”, so that’s how I got the title. Does what it says on the tin. However, as the plot developed, the name suddenly became much more important. How? I’m sorry! You’ll just have to read the book to find out!

Why did you choose to set the book in a Dickensian world?

I set my stories in the past because it gives me the chance to write dramatic and exciting adventures for my child characters, as well including interesting machinery of all sorts. The Dickensian world was full of inventions and social changes.

Do you have to do much research when writing your novel?

Yes. I read all sorts of books about how people lived in Victorian times. I also visited places like Charles Dicken’s House in London and the Theatre Gallery in the Victoria and Albert Museum as well as touring York Theatre Royal to see what the theatre looks like backstage.

Can you tell us a bit more about ‘A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E. ...

My book is a classic dramatic story of an orphan boy searching for his “family”, with several exciting twists. Mysteriously, young Mouse is snatched from his happy life at Roseberry Farm and delivered to the unspeakably grim school of Murkstone Hall. Eventually he escapes and, after many adventures, ends up befriended by Kitty and her eccentric aunts and becoming part of backstage life at the famous Albion Theatre. Meanwhile, the reader knows more about Mouse’s true story, and also that the villainous Mr Button is on Mouse’s trail

What is the best thing about being an author?

There are three best things. One is that YOU are the person making the story, acting out all the characters words and actions and directing what happens in all the scenes there inside your head. It feels like painting a picture on a grand scale! The second moment is when an editor says they want to publish your story, and the third is when you find someone enjoying your book, especially if they don’t know who you are.

And the worst?

There are two worst things. One is getting stuck on a story and being afraid the thing will never ever work or come to life again. It usually does, if you think hard about the structure and characters, and are ready to change things. The other worst moment is when you discover that one of your favourite published books has “died” or gone out of print. Sadly, you can’t do very much about that.

Who are your literary idols?

Two people I admire (and envy) are Joan Aiken, especially for the books in her “Wolves Chronicles”, and Philip Reeve for his wonderful “Mortal Engines” books. But I love lots of other writers and illustrators too, and especially like the illustrations that Peter Bailey drew for ‘A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E.’

In your opinion, what makes a good story?

I think stories need to have a mix of interesting characters (good or bad), atmospheric and believable settings, as well as including unusual and dramatic events.

Do you have any top tips you can offer our budding young writers?

  1. Don’t only read books by your favourite author. Read as many different writers and poets as you can and you will gradually develop your own writing “voice”.
  2. Get into the habit of writing regularly each day - even half an hour will do. Soon you will be able to slip easily into writing whenever you need to, rather it being a big, awkward activity.
  3. Do listen to the sound of your sentences as you write and edit. Writing is rather like music the words needs to make interesting sounds and patterns when you read them aloud.

Do you have any literary ambitions you’d like to fulfil?

I have ideas for a couple more novels set in Mouse’s Victorian world, and they feel enough for the moment, other than hoping that lots of people will love MOUSE!

What do fans of Penny Dolan have to look forward to in the coming months?

I hope to be out and about talking about “A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E” in schools and libraries, so if we meet, do say hello!

Can you sum up ‘A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E.’ in 3 words?

Dramatic, exciting, interesting.

Book Review

A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E by Penny Dolan (Illustrated by Peter Bailey)

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Published 25th October 2010
RRP 10.99 hardback
ISBN 978-1408801383

(Book review by Katy Hawkins, Young Writers Contributor)

‘A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E.’ tells the story of a boy, Mouse, who is taken from his grand home at Epton Towers after his parents are forced by his fever to leave him behind when they go travelling around the world. His nursery nurse, Hanny, takes him to her home where he lives as her ‘best boy’ until he is six years old. But behind the scenes, the machinations of his villainous uncle, Scrope, mean that he is sent away to Murkstone Hall, a place more like a workhouse than a boarding school. Run by the repulsive headmaster Bulloughby, Mouse is soon banished from living above the scullery and sent to the kitchens to work for his keep.

Eventually, Mouse escapes and that’s where the brighter part of his tale commences. Mouse meets up with a cast of characters that weave in and out of his story, including the Punchman, Wayland the tramp, the evil Mr Button, Nick Tick, Vanya, Kitty, the Aunts, Flora and Dora - to name but a few. Mouse’s life seems to pick up and he becomes happy once more, even reuniting at one point with his Ma, Hanny. He ends up working at The Albion Theatre and the descriptive efforts of the author in this part of the book are truly fascinating. Later, his true parents, who were believed to be lost at sea, return into Mouse’s life too and leave him with some difficult decisions to make.

The story is told with - who else? - Mouse as the narrator, and he gives an interesting look of life in a Dickensian world where he spends equal parts of his time being wanted and unwanted. I found some of the characters in the book, such as Kitty, more interesting than the protagonist at times and would have liked to have known more about her, but it is Mouse’s story that we are led to focus on, understandably. I thought the book could have stood to be a little shorter. It seems to stand still in places, for instance when Mouse is at Murkstone Hall you wonder if he’ll ever get out - but that’s the point really, to get a good idea of Mouse’s suffering there. All in all, it was an entertaining read and I would recommend it if you like character-led, Victorian-style novels and happy(ish!) endings.

Recommended for readers 9+