Winter Magic curated by Abi Elphinstone


Since the publication of the Mystery and Mayhem (Crime Club) children’s stories anthology, I’ve been looking for another book of short stories for children that really hits the mark in the same way. Luckily Simon and Schuster publishers, together with the esteemed children’s author Abi Elphinstone, have crafted a truly marvellous collection in time for Christmas.

The collection is magical in many ways, firstly of course, because it is packed with wintry stories, bound in the most beautiful egg blue fabric cover, complete with snowflakes and wintry trees, so that it feels like a Christmas gift, but also because the stories themselves are penned by a distinguished group of children’s authors, from Michelle Magorian – author of Goodnight Mister Tom, to Lauren St John, Berlie Doherty, Geraldine McCaughrean…and so many more.

The anthology kicks off with Emma Carroll’s beautiful historical tale of a Victorian frost fair, incorporating some magical realism, and a beautiful frozen Thames river. Carroll’s writing is always transportative, easily leading the reader into the past and creating a swirling atmosphere of bustle and intrigue. It’s a short story that’s both perfect escapism but also brilliant for teaching – and a wonderful start to the book.

Michelle Harrison takes inspiration from her longer novel, The Other Alice, to write a fairy tale about a stolen voice. Harrison has an immense talent for weaving an emotive atmosphere in the shortest passages, leaving the reader tingling with a sense of magic.

Woodfine borrows from a ballet long associated with the time of year – The Nutcracker, which has its own connotations of darkness and light, sugar plums and Christmas gifts. Marvellously, she evokes the warmth and nostalgia of Christmas, using a Russian setting to take the reader back in history to the first performance of the ballet. It’s a lovely tale, and well worth re-reading with the same zeal with which one re-watches the ballet each year.

Further in, there’s a beautiful poem about snow by Magorian, which pictures a child looking out onto a snowy landscape. Pure childhood delight.

In between there are tales of sneasles: a magical tale of the outbreak of snow measles involving elves; a brilliant boarding-school adventure from Lauren St John; new twists on The Snow Queen and Pied Piper; and a cautionary tale from Piers Torday about Christmas wishes and gifts.

Elphinstone herself brings up the rear with her usual affinity for bravery in the face of adventure, with a magical tale about a snow dragon.

Although there is a winter theme running through the collection, each author has their own unique style and imagination, so the reader really gets a feel for their writing as a whole. In this way, it’s a great sampler for each author, leading the reader to explore more books from the stories they most enjoyed. Personally, I couldn’t pick a favourite – this is a wonderful collection from a talented bunch.

The stories are for confident readers, but for this family time of year, they are also perfect as bitesize chunks to read aloud to a young family. My other delight about bringing together talent in this way, is for teachers to be able to teach a full story text, rather than just an extract. Many of the stories within this collection lend themselves to that.

There are eleven stories in all, each one perfectly crafted, each one a great taster for its author. The overall feel is one of snowy landscapes, magical witches, wishes and wolves, with families, fairies and fireside glows.

Featuring stories by Michelle Harrison, Piers Torday, Lauren St John, Amy Alward, Katherine Woodfine, Geraldine McCaughrean, Berlie Doherty, Jamila Gavin, Michelle Magorian, Emma Carroll, Abi Elphinstone.

You can buy it here.

Mystery Stories

We start solving mysteries from early on. Most toddlers play with some kind of shape sorting – working out that the square block fits through the square hole. Perhaps then moving onto jigsaw puzzles – at first the large ones with sticking up handles, and then finally the traditional puzzles, creating pictures of Disney heroines or maps of the world. All this goes towards child development in developing the gross and fine motor skills of course, but solving puzzles enables a child to hone memory, use logic and refine observation skills, and to sort the red herrings from the real clues.

Then eventually, putting pen to paper, children may tackle a spot the difference, a wordsearch, a crossword, a su doku.

What’s satisfying about these tasks is that by solving the problem, a child is restoring order at the end – bringing closure to the problem, much in the same way that authors end children’s books – with uplifting closure.

And the same applies to reading a detective or mystery story. Enid Blyton used to be the doyenne of such spiels – her Secret Seven and Famous Five solving mystery after mystery. Scooby Doo followed on TV, and we became a nation of child detective experts. Mysteries force the reader or viewer to hold information in their head, whilst following the story and working out critically where the story is headed – analysing characters for motive and honesty.

In contemporary children’s literature the depth and breadth of mystery stories is quite astounding; more and more of these land on my desk every day.

detective dog

Detective Dog by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
In picture books, the most recent is Julia Donaldson’s The Detective Dog. Not her strongest, but this time she’s paired with illustrator Sara Ogilvie, whose illustrations are bright, comic and refreshing. The Detective Dog’s mission is to see where all the books from the school have disappeared to. Despite some rather tenuous plotting, the book celebrates love of libraries (if only I knew of a real library that looked like the illustration in here – every booklover’s dream), but the story is sweet and the illustrations exquisite. There’s no doubt Donaldson is our queen of picture book rhyme:

“Thousands of books, from the floor to the ceiling.
The books gave the thief the most heavenly feeling.
He gazed in amazement. “Where am I?” he said,
And Peter replied, “In the library, Ted.”

You can buy it here.

dotty detective

Dotty Detective by Clara Vulliamy
For newly independent readers, Clara Vulliamy’s offering, Dotty Detective, fits the bill beautifully. Filled to the brim with illustrations, capital letters, italics, and written in a clearly paced diary format, this is the story of Dot, a little girl with more personality than doodles in the book. The text reads breathlessly – Dot talking to the diary – and soon she forms a detective agency with her school friend and faithful dog. There are some lovely ideas tucked in here, from the pink wafer code to homemade periscopes – lots of references to what’s important to this age group – sparkly red lucky shoes and yummy dinners, and enough dropped clues that the young reader can solve the mystery ahead of Dot. This is a perfect step up from picture books – the number of maps, illustrations, fake photographs, notes and even word searches mean that this is a story that lends itself as much to visual literacy as to textual. Seek the first in the series here.

nancy parker

Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection by Julia Lee
Another diary format, and more mysteries in this historical book from Julia Lee. It is the 1920s and Nancy Parker has been employed as a housemaid for her first job. She has a penchant for reading six-penny thrillers, and wants to be a detective, so she seeks our mystery where she can. And luckily for her, there does seem to be some strange activity from her new employer – she has lavish parties, a murky past and a cook with a secret. Add to that a spate of local burglaries, and Nancy’s detective skills are put to use.

There’s a lovely rounded cast here, from the boy next door – Quentin Ives who wishes he was a dashing undercover spy called John Horsefield, but is really rather a nincompoop, and Ella, the brave and daring daughter of a local archaeologist. The three children are thrown together in solving the mystery, and although reluctant at first, realise that they are stronger together.

This book is full of wry comic fun, and great characters. Each child is so well painted, so thoroughly flawed and yet likeable that the reader will never tire of reading of their adventures (albeit there is no massive mystery to solve in the end). Partly written as Nancy’s diary in stunning handwritingish typeface, and partly in third person prose from the different children’s points of view, this was a really enjoyable read with great historical detail. Highly recommend. For 9+ years. Buy it here.

alice jones

Alice Jones by Sarah Rubin
Far more contemporary, Alice Jones is presented as a bit of a whizz kid. She excels at maths, and has a reputation for solving mysteries before the story begins. When a famous scientist goes missing after reputedly inventing an invisibility suit, Alice has to work out how to find him, at the same time as protecting her friends.

Alice is a great character, not merely a Nancy Drew who only solves mysteries, but someone with a life outside, including school, friends and family. She is clever but displays dry humour, and develops well during the novel, realising that classroom troublemaker Kevin Jordan may work as a good ally in problem solving. She also has to deal with her home life – a family that needs some problem-solving too.

The story is set in Philadelphia and there are definite Americanisms throughout, but the hardest task was solving the mystery – readers will need to be steered thoroughly by Alice – there is none of the blatant clue-dropping as in the titles above, where the reader learns more than the protagonist. However, it’s great to see a heroine deciphering clues with her intelligence rather than random flashes of intuition, and it makes for a gripping read. Age 10+ years. Buy it here.

There are so many more mystery stories for this 9+ age group, that it’s hard to cover them all, but here are some of my favourites:


The Wells and Wong Mysteries, starting with Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens is one of my favourite series. Set in the 1930s, it mashes Agatha Christie mysteries with Enid Blyton boarding schools. In the first in the series, Daisy and Hazel set up a detective agency in their school to look for missing ties and suchlike, but then stumble across the body of the science mistress lying dead in the gym. Suddenly they have a real mystery to solve. A brilliant story, complete with boarding school rules and regulations, but also the twist of a murder to solve. Great gentle fun; if you haven’t discovered them yet, you’re in for a treat. Seek it here.

marsh road mysteries

The Marsh Road Mysteries, starting with Diamonds and Daggers by Elen Caldecott. This series, all set in the same street with the gang of children who live there is reminiscent of Emil and the Detectives simply because the setting is almost as much a part of the story as the mystery itself. Caldecott is a very skilful writer, and hops from head to head in the narrative, so that each child’s viewpoint is seen. The first book in the series tells the story of a missing diamond necklace – a famous actress comes to the local theatre, but when her necklace goes missing, the prime suspect is one of the local children’s dads. Piotr has to fight to find out who really did it to avoid being sent ‘home’ to Poland with his security guard Dad. Each character is well defined; and the readership will adore the familiar territory of friendships and loyalties as the series progresses. Compelling and really vibrant – a modern day Famous Five (but better!). Buy it here.


Mystery and Mayhem anthology
This is one I have featured before here, when Helen Moss kindly guest-posted. This is a sumptuous book of mini-mysteries from many of the authors featured today, so the reader can have a sample of small mysteries (which are easy to solve by the reader) and find out which author’s style they like. My favourite, The Mystery of the Green Room by Clementine Beauvais.

Try also Helen Moss, The Adventure Island and Secrets of the Tombs series, Lauren St John, The Laura Marlin Mysteries, and Katherine Woodfine, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow.


Pockets, Lockets and Wigs: A Guest Post by Helen Moss

I’m delighted to welcome Helen Moss onto the blog today. Helen has written numerous children’s books including the Adventure Island series. Her latest story is published in the Mystery and Mayhem anthology – a wonderful collection of short mysteries from some of today’s best children’s writers. The book splits the stories into types of mysteries – closed system crimes, and canine capers as well as impossible mysteries – but Helen’s fits into the poison plots section. The beauty of the collection – as well as gathering such a huge pool of talent – is that readers can crack the mysteries as they read the stories. The stories are also a delicious taster to the world of these particular authors – I heartily recommend it. Today, Helen reveals the inspiration behind her story – The Mystery of the Pineapple Plot.


Pockets, Lockets and Wigs

(a.k.a. a thinly disguised love letter to the Victoria and Albert Museum!)

One of the most exciting things about being invited to contribute to the Mystery and Mayhem anthology was the chance to write a story set in the past. My Adventure Island series takes place in contemporary Cornwall, and even though the Secrets of the Tombs series has an archaeological theme, the action all unfolds in the twenty- first century. The Mystery of the Pineapple Plot was my first foray into a full-on history mystery.

I knew straight away that I wanted to set my story in the eighteenth century because it’s full of larger than life characters, new discoveries and amazing events. It’s a favourite period for romantic novels and historical dramas, but it’s not all that familiar to younger readers (it tends to get rather skipped over as the-bit-between-the-Tudors-and-the-Victorians in school history).

Background research is always one of my favourite parts of writing a story – the more obscure the topic the better! I had great fun with the Pineapple Plot. First I had to find out everything about the central theme of the story – the mania for growing pineapples that swept eighteenth century Britain. I’ve talked about that part in another blog post, so will restrain myself from telling you all about it again here (even though it’s one of my all-time favourite subjects!)

But it wasn’t all about the pineapples. I also had to find out all kinds of other details of everyday Georgian life so that I could create a believable world for the story. The opening scene is a grand dinner party, so I had to make sure that the foods and drink and table settings I describe would all have been around in 1761. Luckily there are some fascinating books and websites on this topic. I leaned that French cuisine was all the rage (hence the French chef and the boeuf a la mode) and so was fancy sugarwork. The sugarpaste Taj Mahal (the one that Mrs Fitchett faints into) is exactly the kind of centrepiece that might have graced a high society Georgian banquet table.

georgian sugarwork
A recreation of a Georgian sugarwork centrepiece – yes that building is really made of sugar! Photograph:

As well as creating an authentic backdrop for the story, I discovered that there is another even more important motivation for a historical mystery-writer to do painstaking research about the time period of their story; it’s critical to plotting the crime and setting the clues. You can’t, for example, have a suspect drop a cigarette end or chewing gum wrapper at the scene of the crime when cigarettes and gum hadn’t even been invented yet (at least in the UK). A snuffbox would be just the thing though!

I had so much fun finding out about eighteenth century fashion in the interest of getting my clues right that I thought I’d share three of my favourite details with you. This research involved several trips to the wonderful Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. If you can’t get there in person, they also have one of the best websites in the history of websites – just make sure you have plenty of time free when you log on as you could be there for days!


Someone in my story (I won’t tell you who, so as not to give the game away) conceals a fairly large object about their person. That might seem a bit unrealistic in these days of skinny jeans and crop-tops, but luckily for me, in 1761 the fashion was for huge voluminous skirts – which were often worn over padded frames called panniers.  You could hide a week’s shopping in there! In fact, in turns out, ladies often did more or less that!

hoop skirt


And they had the pockets to put all the swag in too. Pockets weren’t sewn into the clothes as they are today; they were detachable ‘pouches’ tied on with ribbons, hidden between the layers of skirt, underskirt and petticoat. (If you’ve ever heard the nursery rhyme Lucy Locket Lost her Pocket, and have wondered – as I did- how Lucy managed to lose a pocket – now you know).

There’s a whole page on pockets on the V&A website with lots of lovely descriptions of the contents ladies would stuff into them, including snuffboxes, smelling salts, pincushions, money, combs, nutmeg graters, handkerchiefs, and even snacks. See here. There are also instructions for sewing your own eighteenth century style pocket.


Embroidered satin pocket, Germany, 1775-1825. V&A website

If my story had been set some forty or fifty years later, in the Regency period, my plot would have been scuppered; big skirts were passé by this time. Flowing, simple dresses (think Jane Austen heroines) were now in fashion. A bulky pocket would have ruined the look. Ladies began to carry small handbags called reticules – as people complained at the time, you could hardly fit a thing into them . . . and definitely not the thing in my story!


Another important clue in Pineapple Plot concerns a locket containing a miniature portrait. People do still wear lockets these days, of course, but they’re much less common than they were in the eighteenth century. At that time a locket might have been worn as part of a bracelet or belt, as well as on a necklace. These days we can carry photos of our loved ones around on our phone. In 1761, a miniature portrait in a locket – usually painted on ivory – would have been played the same role – a keepsake of a family member or sweetheart.

The best miniature painters, such as Richard Cosway, were highly sought after – a bit like celebrity photographers today. You can read a fascinating history of miniature portraits on the V&A website.

locket 1

18th century portrait miniature with pinchbeck locket frame with engraved border. Bonhams.

Lockets could also contain a lock of hair (sadly this was commonly a memento of a loved one who had died). Often the locket would have a glass front so that the hair could be seen inside. Sometimes the hair would be artistically arranged to form a design, or even part of picture – something I think we find a little creepy now.

locket 2

English, High Relief Urn, c.1775; Photograph from Art of Mourning Website. Yes, that willow tree is made out of hair.

In my story the lock of hair in the locket is not on display but hidden away – for a very good reason . . . I’d better not say any more.


Another important clue in Pineapple Plot concerns poor Lord Ponsonby and his wig. I wanted to show Ponsonby as a rather vain and pompous man, and an elaborate wig was very much part of that image. It was fashionable for both men and women to wear powdered wigs throughout the eighteenth century. You’ve probably seen pictures of Marie Antionette and other society ladies wearing enormous wigs complete with ships and birds’ nests and other assorted objects (although these were often not strictly wigs, but huge wire frames, around which the person’s own hair, plus lots of extensions, were woven in what was called a pouf).

high wig

Hand-coloured etched engraving published by M Darly in 1777

The height of fashion for very tall wigs (excuse the pun) was in the 1770’s and 1780’s, so just a little later than my setting of 1761.  This was the case for men as well as women, particularly for the wealthy, fashionable set, often referred to as the Macaroni Club (because they had been on foreign travels and eaten exotic foods like macaroni). These guys – the hipsters of their day – were known for wearing flashy clothes and over-the-top wigs. Not surprisingly, cartoonists couldn’t resist making fun of them.


Macaroni Cartoon: 1774 (Wikipedia)

In 1761, Ponsonby probably wouldn’t have had a wig quite this outrageous (but he’d be rushing out to buy one a few years later) but he would certainly have worn a sizeable white-powdered wig of some sort.

Exactly what happens to it in The Mystery of the Pineapple Plot I will leave you to find out! In the meantime, I have one last page on the V&A website to recommend to you. This one is an interactive game where you can design your own wild eighteenth century wigs. It’s hilarious, but be warned – it’s really addictive! Find it here.

If you’d like to peruse even more eighteenth century food and fashion you could also have a look at my pinterest page (where you’ll also find out more than you ever needed to know about the history of pineapples!)

Thank you for giving me this chance to share some of my favourite bits of research and I hope you’ll enjoy spotting all these clues in The Mystery of the Pineapple Plot.

With thanks to Helen Moss. You can buy a copy of Mystery and Mayhem here. For age 8+ years.