Cracking codes and uncovering secret messages was top Friday afternoon fun, and the culmination of a week-long celebration of reading at Our Lady's Abingdon. Pupils from visiting Dunmore School joined OLA pupils to solve fiendish puzzles from author Helen Dennis, and see if they were able to join the elite group of Secret Breakers.
The Secret Breakers are a series of exciting, code-filled adventure stories, and HL Dennis used some of the codes and cryptic puzzles found in the books to set challenges to the eager young audience.
The books - inspired by the real secret breakers of Bletchley Park - involve a group of school children who attempt to unravel real-life secrets and genuine unbroken codes, often in great danger.
Helen was a junior school teacher, storyteller - and even worked in a bookshop - on her way to becoming a bestselling author. She is also a fabulous speaker (in fact, if you ever have an opportunity to see Helen talk, or come to your school - definitely take it!).
At the heart of her talk is the code-breaking experience, and Helen brought along plenty of real-life cyphers to break. At stake was a place on 'Team Veritas' and a chance to work on codes that have resisted decyphering for generations...
It was a great deal of fun - and extra special given that we had permission from the publisher to have book four at the event (Helen hadn't yet had her copy!).
Huge thanks to Helen for a 'top' secrets event - with her journey from teacher to author (via failed international horse jumper - she kept falling off the horse apparently), we were intrigued to find out what makes HL Dennis tick writing-wise, and asked our usual questions...
Five questions with . . . HL Dennis's writing life
1. What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a new project – top secret I’m afraid, I can't talk about it (we pushed) no, no clues!
2. What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?
A lot of people tell you to ‘write what you know’, but if there is anything you don't know, you can find out about it. This advice helped me to become much less daunted by a subject, and gives me the confidence to write about a subject. If you get stuck into research, learn about a subject, that gives you as much right as anyone else to write about it.
3. What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?
The best thing is that children tell you exactly what they think, they don’t hold back, whereas adults might attenuate what they say. If they like the book, they'll get passionate and enthusiastic, and I love that immediate response. But that's also the worst thing – if a child doesn’t like your book, they won't hold back either!
4. Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?
Not really. I had to get used to write anywhere, because initially I wrote when teaching (well, not at the same time as teaching of course, but you know what I mean - I had to take the opportunity to write wherever). But what I really need is QUIET. Not absolute silence, but quiet. Aside from that, I can write anywhere and on anything – but I do need quiet.
5. What was your biggest breakthrough?
A met another author, Andrew Norris, who was very inspirational. He came to the school to do an event. It wasn't that he said anything revolutionary, but he put it simply and powerfully: "if you want to do it [writing], get on with it". It was the first time I felt it was possible for me to become a writer.