Guest Columns

Jonathan Stroud: 5 surprising things your kids will learn from being bored today

Jonathan Stroud is on a mission to unlock our children’s imaginations and natural creativity. How? “Give your child the time and space to start creating and there’s no limit to where they’ll go,” says the Lockwood & Co author. His Freedom To Think campaign, launched last year, calls for parents to ring-fence at least one period a week for unstructured thinking time. The result? A few minutes of boredom, a whole lot of play – and much, much more. Here, Jonathan explains…

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Today’s children seem to be under more pressure than ever before, with exams, homework, clubs and scheduled activities taking up more and more of their time. Many of these things are of course hugely positive and necessary, but it struck me (when considering my own kids) that there’s a danger that we neglect those equally vital quiet moments when children are free to drift, daydream and do what they like. It’s from these unstructured times that so much creativity develops. It’s also when many of us begin to discover who we are. Here are five surprising things that your child could learn from having freedom to think today…


  1. That boredom isn’t boring at all

Structured activities are fantastic in many ways, but when a child is left to his or her own devices, they gravitate naturally towards subjects/pastimes/skills that interest them deep down. To begin with there is boredom; boredom quickly leads to play; and out of play comes creativity. There’s a direct line between that first momentary emptiness of having ‘nothing to do’ and the inspiration that comes when you start to figure out ways of filling your free time.


  1. There’s fun to be had everywhere

Creative moments are often unexpected. When the mind wanders, surprising jumps are made, with outcomes that couldn’t have been predicted. Each period of ‘empty time’ varies – there might be new things lying around to play with; recent experiences are different too. The beauty of giving a child freedom to think is that there are no required outcomes. Whatever they end up doing is valid and a positive thing: this stimulates and encourages them.


  1. There’s no end to the possibilities

A stick found in a hedge might become: a sword, a magic wand, a witch’s broom, a dalek’s plunger, the leg of a fossil dinosaur, a conductor’s baton, part of a robber’s den in the woods, a pointer leading to pirate gold, the arm of a sundial – and that’s not even scratching the surface!


  1. From imaginative play comes self-belief

Following one’s own nose leads to greater self-confidence. As soon as you begin to devise your own stories, experiments, art, games or sports, you get a fantastic emotional kick-back. You’ve had a great time, and it’s come through your own efforts and your own imagination. That starts to instill a deep self-belief that should continue accruing through life.


  1. Less equals a lifetime of more

Left to my own devices as a kid, I wrote and drew and made stuff – stories, comics and games. Now, not entirely coincidentally, I’m an author, who is still doing pretty much the same sort of thing. I’m sure that many people in many fields would be able to show the link between those free-time activities they enjoyed when young, and who they’ve turned out to be.

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Follow the campaign on twitter at: @iamfree2think


Talking Point: Why children’s books are the most important books of all. By SF Said


I write children’s books because I believe they’re the most important books of all.

I remember reading Watership Down by Richard Adams when I was eight, and thinking it was the best book I’d ever read.  I re-read it when I was 35, and thought it was even better!  But where at eight I’d seen a thrilling adventure story about rabbits trying to survive in the wild, as an adult I saw a story about the big questions of human life.  Who are we?  Where do we come from?  Where do we belong?  How should we live?  And what really matters?


It was still thrilling – but now I realised it was full of politics, philosophy, mythology.  It dealt with the most profound themes imaginable.  But it did it in a totally accessible and page-turning way that I could easily grasp at eight.  I also realised how deeply it had shaped the way I see the world.  Because the books we love when we’re young stay with us forever, and make us who we are.

That was exactly the kind of book I wanted to write myself.  So I put everything I have, and everything I know, into writing children’s books.  I put years and years of work into making each of my books the best it can possibly be; making them as thrilling and page-turning as I can, but also filling them with the biggest questions and ideas that I have.


Varjak Paw is about a cat who learns a secret martial art known only to cats.

Phoenix is about a human boy with the power of a star, and an alien girl who is the most brilliant warrior in the galaxy.

But they’re also books about characters who are grappling with those big questions.  Who are we?  Where do we come from?  Where do we belong?  How should we live?  And what really matters?


So although my books are sold as children’s books, I think of them as books for everyone, really.  Books that anyone can read: boys, girls, men, women.  Whoever you are, however old you are, I hope you’ll find something of interest there, because those big questions matter to everyone.

I think children’s literature is more than capable of dealing with such questions.  The great stories that we’ve handed down from generation to generation – since our ancestors sat around campfires 70,000 years ago, which will still be handed down in space stations, 70,000 years in the future – these stories all embody ideas about what it means to be human and alive; about how we should live and treat each other; about what really matters.

I think you’ll find them in all good children’s books.  So that is why I write them – and why I believe they’re the most important books of all. @whatSFSaid



Hear SF Said talking about his journey from being a young reader to an award-winning writer at the Barnes Children’s Literature Festival on Sunday 15th May at 2.30pm. Tickets are available HERE.


Watch the Phoenix book trailer created by Dave McKean!


For more from SF Said, visit 







TALKING POINT: “I want books that show my daughter there isn’t only one way to be a girl.” Clare Furniss on feminism in YA fiction.

Clare Furniss

“Mum,” my soon-to-be-teenage daughter said to me recently. “Why do people think that anything teenage girls like is stupid?”

She’d summed up in one question the way that society so often makes teenage girls feel: silly, dismissed, unsure of who or what they are supposed to be.

In my latest book, How Not To Disappear, there are two teenage stories, one set in the 1950s, one set now. Things have changed so much for girls in that time, but with a daughter on the verge of adolescence, I’m feeling particularly aware of the mixed and often negative messages teenage girls are given about themselves and the women they are expected to emulate and grow into.

They are constantly set up to fail. You’ve got to be pretty; every woman you ever see on TV or in magazines shows you that you’ll be judged by your appearance. Yet girls who are interested in fashion and make-up can’t be taken seriously. You should be unfeasibly thin but healthy, clever but not too clever. Girls don’t get to be ‘authoritative’ or ‘natural leaders’, they get to be ‘bossy’. And there’s the sexual double standard, still going strong: don’t be frigid, don’t be a slut. The pressure to meet the impossible expectations of the ‘perfect’ girl isn’t new, but social media makes it harder to escape.

Books for young people are a really important space where these assumptions and expectations can be challenged. There are so many ways that this can happen and, wonderfully, is happening. Books showing girls who don’t fit the stereotypes – passive ‘good girls’ or one-dimensional ‘feisty girls’ – but can be something more complicated, something real. Books that value girls for more than their looks. Books that celebrate female friendship. Books where all a girl’s problems aren’t solved by a boy. Stories that don’t present romance as the only goal for a girl. Books that directly address issues that disproportionately affect girls such as self-harm and eating disorders. Books where girls are allowed to get things wrong. All of these are important ways to show their readers – male or female, old or young – that girls are worthy of their attention.

‘Feminist’ books don’t have to be about feminism. They can be fantasy, sci-fi, historical, dystopian, love stories. They don’t have to be serious, earnest books. They don’t have to be books written for girls. They don’t have to have kick-ass, tough female main characters. They don’t even have to have a female main character. They just have to take teenage girls seriously, to show girls as real people, complex, flawed, interesting, worthy of attention, central to their own story. I don’t write my stories with an agenda. I want to write funny, exciting, moving stories about characters who interest me.

Stories showing girls who are strong, unconventional, opinionated, is nothing new. I grew up loving Anne Shirley from Anne Of Green Gables, Jo March from Little Women, Lizzy Bennet from Pride And Prejudice. These were girls who knew their own minds, girls who made mistakes, girls I wanted to be.

Reading as a kid or a teen is different from reading as an adult. It shows you what’s possible. At its best, reading makes you ask questions: about the characters, about yourself, about other people, about the world. I want books that show my daughter there isn’t only one way to be a girl. I want her to be able to read about girls, real and imagined, of all cultures and backgrounds and personality types, who are so much more than their looks or the person they’re in love with, girls who aren’t perfect but who are valued. @ClareFurniss



Clare Furniss is appearing at the Barnes Children’s Literature Festival alongside fellow authors Holly Bourne, Lisa Williamson and Sarah Crossan. Hear them talk more about feminism in YA literature at 2pm on Saturday 14th May at the Barnes Methodist Church – Upstairs. Tickets are available HERE.

YA Panel – Sarah Crossan, Holly Bourne, Clare Furniss and Lisa Williamson with Katherine Woodfine


For more from Clare, the author of How Not To Disappear and The Year Of The Ratvisit

Talking Point: 10 reasons why Sean Taylor always reads to his children


Sean Taylor with his sons Joey (left) and Rafa (right), on the publication of his picture book ROBOMOP


As well as being an author of some books for children, I am the father of two boys under 10. Like many (most?) parents, I can sometimes feel regrets about the things I’ve not managed to do together with my children. We’ve never built a tree-house. I haven’t taken a half day off to sit down with them and make that model pirate ship they were once given. The campervan trip to Ireland hasn’t happened yet… But I have read to them. I have always read to them as much as I possibly can. And there are no regrets about that. These are ten reasons why:


In modern times, many parents have lost touch with what you could call ‘traditional children’s culture’. I’m thinking of the stories, games, songs, rhymes, traditions and rituals which would once have been passed from one generation to the next. Reading to your children can go some way to making up for that. If there were books you loved as a child, it’s easy to pass them on. I’ve had a fantastic time revisiting (by reading aloud) old favourites of mine like John Burningham’s Humbert, Winnie the Pooh, Moominsummer Madness, James and the Giant Peach and Treasure Island. And the fantastic-ness is doubled when it’s shared with a child.


Books offer language that goes beyond the range of everyday talk. And stories offer delights that ordinary conversations rarely do. So reading aloud to a child is a great way to help them become confident language users. This has been particularly important in my family. I’m British, but my wife is Brazilian. Our boys grew up in São Paulo. Their ‘mother tongue’ is (quite literally) Portuguese. I know the fact that they are both good English speakers today, owes a lot to all the books in English we’ve enjoyed together.


Inside good picture books you get characters that children love, page-turning stories, inventive, skilfully-crafted illustrations, flights of imagination, colour, humour, emotion and –  as if all that wasn’t enough –  endings which uplift, provoke, surprise (or do all three!) As far as I’m concerned, the picture book is up there as one of the best artistic forms to come out of the 20th century. (Along with the three-and-a-half-minute rhythm and blues song…) The wealth of picture books available is a treasure chest to share with any child. And it’s not just picture books that are special. Middle grade fiction is very much abuzz. So I’m not planning to stop reading to my boys any time soon!


Most children find learning to read and write a tough business. But if they’re being read good books they’ll be more motivated to succeed at it. They’ll be more at home in the landscape of words on pages. And you can give them bits of practice too – by pausing the flow of a story, and getting them to read out words. Our six-year-old doesn’t have much patience for practising his phonics and key-words. But if I give him reading challenges from a book that I’m reading aloud to him, he’s noticeably more motivated, calm and persistent.


Children’s questions are wonderful (wonder-filled) things. They are a marks of curiosity and the desire to learn. They contain hope. So I always listen carefully to them and give the best answers I can. (Even if the conversation goes: “Does everyone in the world die?” “Yes, it’s sad but everyone does.” “What about mermaids?”) Reading-time with children is a great space for these questions to come out – whether they’re old questions waiting to be asked, or new ones inspired by what’s being read. When you’re reading together, there’s time and space for reflection. Your child can ask you things. Or you can ask them.


Sometimes children need you to go with them on the journey into a book. Our 9-year-old likes to read a lot of things on his own, these days. But there are books he’d like to have read to him. This may be because the story looks challenging to him, in some way. Or it may be that it’s a book from a different era that he’d like an adult to help ‘interpret’. One way or another, if you offer yourself to a child as a book companion, you’ll broaden their reading horizons.


There is so much comedy in writing for children. And laughter (like most things) is best enjoyable when it’s shared. I did actually fall off the bed from laughing so much…when reading our oldest son Roald Dahl’s, The Twits.


It’s not just questions. There is other talk sparked during and after the reading. Good stories stay with us. My boys and I chat about books we have read days, weeks, months or years after we have finished them.


You can choose what direction to travel (towards adventure, humour, poetry, magic, or more besides.) You take a break from the busyness of things. You can do it every day, home or away. You find somewhere comfortable to sit yourselves down. There is calm. You journey into the imagination, together with a child. It’s a delight.


All around us as night draws in, parents start up the quiet rhythms of telling stories to children. It goes on right round the world. And there’s nothing new in the knowledge that a story is the best way to end the day’s excitement and settle down for sleep. It’s been going on for tens of thousands of years. They are bridges that lead from the real world into the world of our dreams. (And if the adult readers sometimes fall asleep too…well…it happens!)

These are ten reasons why I have spent hours and hours reading to my sons. On reflection, I suppose those hours have really been our tree house, our pirate ship and our campervan adventure across the sea… @seantstories 



Come and join Sean Taylor for riddles, rhymes and storytelling at 1.30pm on Saturday 14th May at St Osmund’s Primary School, Barnes. Tickets are available HERE.

For more from Sean, the award-winning author of Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise, A Brave Bear and over 30 more books for children, visit