Holly Webb | "Yes, there are a lot of pink and sparkly books, but there are also lots of series where the girls are very strong characters"

Holly Webb | "Yes, there are a lot of pink and sparkly books, but there are also lots of series where the girls are very strong characters"

Wannabe sleuth Maisie Hitchins is obsessed with the famous detective Gilbert Carrington, and dreams of a life of adventure and solving mysteries instead of a life of chores in her grandmother’s boarding house.

Maisie’s wish soon comes true when she finds an abandoned puppy and is thrown into a world of stolen sausages and pilfered sixpences, putting her detective skills to the test.

Maisie Hitchins: The Case of the Stolen Sixpence (Stripes, May) is the first book in a six-strong series from bestselling children’s author Holly Webb, and came about because of Webb’s love of another famous detective. “I used to really love the Sherlock Holmes stories, I read all of them and some of them still really sick in my memory.

“I remember the amazing deductions that Sherlock would make, and the point about Maisie is that she is desperate to do that sort of detective work too, and although her work is not on the same sort of level, her natural nosiness always wins out. I still love detective stories. I love Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, so I’m really enjoying writing Maisie.”

Webb has written three Maisie books so far, and with plans for five more, she suggests it is nice to have a long story arc to plan ahead with. The series is set in the cobbled streets of Victorian London, and Webb says: “I love writing historical fiction, I read a lot of it as a child and I still find it really interesting. It is also easier for children to have adventures if the story isn’t set in the present day, because as a parent I worry about letting my children go to the end of the road by themselves. It can be difficult to think of ways of getting children into modern adventures while keeping them safe.”

All that glitters

Maisie is nosy, determined and ready for action. As one of the leading series fiction authors for girls, does the assumption that bookshelves are overstuffed with pink, glittery books about girly characters of no substance frustrate Webb? “I think that idea is a bit of an over-simplification. Yes, there are a lot of pink and sparkly books, but there are also lots of series where the girls are very strong characters. There are a lot of people who are very dismissive about the Rainbow Magic books for example, but I’ve got three children and when my eldest son was five one of his best friends adored Rainbow Magic—because she read all of them, he read them as well and they made him enjoy reading.

“A lot of children have one series, or one character, that breaks the barrier of reading being a difficult thing you need to decode. Although people laugh at how many of the [Rainbow Magic titles] there are, as long as there are significant things afterwards that children can move onto, I think having a comforting series—one that you can fall back on, one that doesn’t change—can be a really useful thing, especially if you’re a reluctant reader.”

Webb describes herself as a procrastinator, but in just 10 years she has written over 60 books across almost 10 different children’s series—not bad for an author that tends to only write in the evenings. Starting her publishing life as an editor at Scholastic—her first series, Triplets, was written while she was still there—working with Jane Harris, Webb’s big writing break came when Harris, who moved to set up the Stripes Publishing list, commissioned her to write Lost in the Snow (Good Books, 2008), the first in an incredibly successful line-up of animal books.

Juggling act

Some of Webb’s most popular books are the Rose and Lilly series for slightly older children (both series are published by Orchard Books) which tell the story of Rose, an orphan who discovers that she has magical powers, and Lily, a girl from a magical family who has to rescue her sister. “I do quite often work on two books at once and it can be good to have a break on whichever one isn’t working properly. The lovely thing about older fiction is being able to go on for a bit longer,” she says. “But, it can be quite tricky writing books for several different age groups, because I’ve heard from quite a few parents whose children have  grown up with the animal stories and moved on to Rose and Lilly expecting them to be similar, and of course they’re not. So although I have mixed feelings about age banding on books, I think it’s good in a way that they [the Rose and Lilly titles] say 9+ on the back.”

For the busy Webb it is not just the publication of Maisie that is on the horizon, either. The first in a new series about an adopted girl who has access to a hidden world of fairies, Emily Feather and the Enchanted Door, will be out in May from Scholastic—“that’s been fun to write, as it involves lots of mad spells, and as Emily’s a bit of a keen baker there’s a lot of cake-related magic.”

In addition, Nosy Crow will soon publish Four Friends Forever, a new series about four girls interested in environmental issues, “which sounds terribly worthy, but it’s not written in a crusading way”. Maisie will have her own dedicated website, “which is great,” Webb says, “because it is so important now, children expect there to be an internet presence for almost everything”. But despite all of this activity, be it digital or balancing contracts with several different publishers, Webb remarkably does not have an agent. “Because of working at Scholastic I knew a lot of editors, so I never needed one to make contact, but it’s getting to the stage now where I’m thinking it could be useful to have one just in terms of managing schedules, as at the moment it is a case of juggling a lot of things from quite a scary document on my computer.”

Book data

Publication 06/05/2013
Formats PB/EB
ISBN 9781847153715
Editor Michelle Misra (until March 2013)/Katie Jennings

Personal file

1976 Born London
1994-97 BA Classics, Newnham College, Cambridge
1997-98 MA in Byzantine and Medieval Art History, Courtauld Institute of Art, London
1998-2004 Editorial assistant, desk editor, editor at Scholastic Children’s Books
2004-2005 Freelance editor

Holly Webb's top five

Magic Molly: The Clever Little Kitten: World Book Day 2012
Scholastic, 9781407131764
Molly loves animals and wants to be a vet when she grows up, so she decides to help out Posy the kitten.

Books sold: 103,500 since 2012

Lost in the Snow
Stripes, 9781847150103     
Fluff is the smallest and weakest of the farm kittens, but she surprises everyone with her strength and spirit. A magical Christmas story.

Books sold: 62,600 since 2006

Orchard Books, 9781408304471
In the house of the famous alchemist Mr Fountain, orphan Rose finds out she has magical powers.

Books sold: 49,400 since 2009

Sam the Stolen Puppy
Stripes, 9781847150417
Sam the puppy is Emily’s favourite present, and she is devastated when he is stolen from her garden.

Books sold: 46,700 since 2008

Alfie All Alone
Stripes, 9781859603208
Evie’s puppy Alfie is forgotten following the arrival of her younger brother Sam.

Books sold: 43,800 since 2007