When I started writing The Finney Island Files series for Reading Planet, I was trying something brand new: namely, a short snappy series that would keep the reader hooked! Normally I write much longer books for ages 8-12, or picture books for younger readers: this was a chance to think about the books that I loved reading when I was a kid, before I had to confidence to tackle much heftier 200-300 page books. What did I want out of books at that age?
Here are the golden rules I set myself while writing - and in fact, they could work for any writer, from age 4 to age 40!
1. THINK ABOUT YOUR MAIN CHARACTER
I’ve always loved stories where children know more than adults. When I think back on the books, films, computer games and comics I loved most as a child - The Goonies, Earthbound Ging Gang Goolie It's an Alien - it was always stories where the only chance of survival lay in the hands of kids. Children have so little power and agency in their own lives: sometimes it feels like nothing they do or say really matters to the adult world. But of course, having total responsibility over your own life is terrifying! That’s why fiction is the best way for kids to explore what the alternative - what if the fate of the world was in YOUR hands?
That was the key, I decided: I wanted to write a story where one child is the only one who can save their hometown from being destroyed. I realised fairly quickly that he or she would need to live on an island. I love stories that are set on islands - there’s always a sense that it can have its own rules. I think it’s why stories set in boarding schools are still so popular - it’s safely cut off from the rest of the world, and there’s no way out! That way, all the power can be in the hands of one kid - the perfect fantasy!
2. DON’T BE AFRAID TO MAKE CHANGES!
At first, I imagined that the island would be hit by a zombie invasion - but I realised fairly early on that this wasn’t going to work. For one, it’s too scary… for another, how has everyone on the island become a zombie? Have they all died?! I decided to get rid of the zombies - but kept the name Ash for the main character anyway, as a nod to The Evil Dead!
Instead, I decided that the island could be the victim of an alien invasion. I used to *love* stories about aliens. At once, I realised what this story was going to become… Invasion of the Body Snatchers! This wasn’t going to be a story about one boy fighting off an alien horde… it was going to be much creepier than that. The threat was that there was no way for Ash to work out who was human and who was not. It would build and build, playing on his paranoia until finally it was him against a whole island of aliens!
This is where another name was stolen - I took the name of Invasion of the Body Snatchers author, Jack Finney, for the name of Ash’s hometown Finney Island.
3. SHOW DON’T TELL
Children love feeling like they’ve worked something out by themselves. My favourite parts of picture books are the small details hidden away on the page for the reader to notice on their fifth or sixth rereading - as a child, I loved feeling like I was the only one who had noticed these hidden clues in the story.
This was how the alien invasion would play out for the reader, I decided. Ash might not notice what’s happening at first - that his parents are acting stranger and stranger - but the reader would. They would read between the lines, piecing together what was happening before Ash did - but as the story continued, would paranoia get the better of them too? Might they suspect people who were perfectly innocent? I loved the idea of filling the story with a creeping sense of unease, as Ash begins to slowly realise that something unusual is definitely going on around him…
4. MAKE IT FUN!
But then I realised that too much unease would be… well, not much fun! And if these books needed to be anything, it was fun. How was Ash going to outsmart and defeat these alien invaders? That’s when I decided that he needed a gang to help him out - and not just any gang, either. I gave him a genius-inventor aunt, Aunt Emmy, who lives in a lighthouse on the island - someone who could build ray guns and thinking caps and even ride a spaceship if need be. I gave him an annoying sports-mad little sister, Tabby, who keeps squabbling with him Best of all, I teamed him up with a gang of bullies at his school, including the worst bully of all - Barry “Knuckle” Sandwich. Can they put aside their differences to save their hometown?!
5. KEEP THEM GUESSING…
When I realised that I was going to write a series, I knew exactly what I wanted to do - cliffhangers! What better way to get children to keep reading on to the next level up - to make them feel like they’re reading for the pleasure of unwrapping a story, rather than simply building their skills?
So that’s exactly what I did. The four Finney Island Files books are one story, tracking young Ash as he realises something very strange has happened to his messy parents… that they have, in fact, been replaced by robots! Soon Ash realises that every adult has been turned into a robot, and it’s the plot of an evil alien invader… but where is the alien? How can they stop them? And what do they want?
Each book is designed to keep children in a state of absolute suspense, right until the very end. Will Ash ever manage to find and stop the evil invader? And most importantly of all - can he get to the end of the week without being beaten up by Barry Sandwich?!
About Ross Montgomery
Ross Montgomery is the award-winning author of The Midnight Guardians, Max and the Millions, The Finney Island Files and more! He has worked as a pig farmer, a postman and a primary school teacher, so writing books was the next logical step. He spent his childhood reading everything he could get his hands on, from Jacqueline Wilson to Beano annuals, and it taught him pretty much everything that's worth knowing. If you looked through his pockets, you'd find empty crisp packets, lists of things to do, and a bottle of that stuff you put on your nails to stop you biting them. He lives in London with his girlfriend, a cat called Fun Bobby, and a cactus on every available surface.
Follow Ross on Twitter here or on Facebook here
About The Finney Island Files series
The Finney Island Files is an exciting four-book series from Reading Planet aimed at children aged 7-11. The books follow the adventures of Ash, a boy who leads a quiet and boring life on Finney Island. One day, he notices that his parents are acting strangely... suddenly his ordinary life becomes not so ordinary as he's forced to tackle aliens, robot-making machines and intergalactic invasions!
View an extract from The Finney Island Files here
View teaching notes here
Access The Finney Island Files series as interactive eBooks (with accompanying self-marking quizzes) via the Key Stage 2 (P4-P7) Online Library. Register for a free 30-day trial or subscription here.
Buy the whole series as part of the Reading Planet Key Stage 2 (P4-P7) Complete Pack here or contact your local consultant to discuss options for your school.
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