Toppsta - Childrens Books – Reviews

Our Featured Debut this May

Hannah Durkan author of Zeina Starborn

Our Featured Debut this month is the exciting and inventive middle-grade fantasy Zeina Starborn and the Sky Whale by Hannah Durkan.

Zeina Starborn has always dreamed of exploring the skies and visiting the infamous sky whale hotels. But when her dreams become reality, she is pitched into a daring adventure beyond her wildest imagination, which makes her question everything.

This book is bursting with imagination, wondrous creatures, explorers, inventors and adventure, and is recommended for readers 9+.

Read debut author Hannah Durkan's guest blog below to find out more about how she started writing, her inspiration for the book and why she loves to escape into fantasy worlds.

You can also read a free extract of the book here.

Our Featured Debut this May

guest blog from hannah durkan

Author photograph taken by Declan Creffield

There’s something about escaping into a fantasy world which is uniquely comforting. Being completely absorbed in a world that’s very different to our own, gives my head some space from whatever is going on in real life. Sometimes, it gives me a different perspective on my own worries or can even help me find solutions to problems that have previously felt unsolvable.

For children, imagining and creating fantastical worlds comes naturally. I remember spending hours on epic adventures with my brother – a box became a cave to hide from monsters, steps became a mountain on a dangerous quest, a bed became a flying ship in which to make a daring escape. As children grow up, it can sometimes become harder to lose yourself in your imagination in the same way. Life becomes about other things – friendships, exams, relationships, jobs, money – and being creative can get pushed aside. 

Maintaining good mental health is something I have struggled with at different times throughout my life. I was diagnosed with depression as a teenager and bipolar disorder in my twenties. Through talking therapies, medication and support from my friends and family, I now feel pretty good most of the time – and giving myself time to be creative is a big part of this. 

I wrote the first draft of Zeina Starborn and the Sky Whale during one of those difficult times; I was finding things really tough after the birth of my daughter. As part of my treatment, I was enrolled in a creative writing group for mums, and it changed my life. During my school years, writing had become focused on rules, but suddenly it was all about expressing yourself and being creative again. I remembered how exciting it had felt writing stories as a young child. The group gave me the confidence to write the first draft of an idea I had been playing with in my mind for many years and writing about Zeina and Jackson, absorbing myself entirely in their world, gave me the space to get back to feeling myself again.

When I wrote that first draft, it was originally just for me and my family. I wanted to write a story that I knew I would have enjoyed as a child and that my daughter might enjoy when she grew up, with a main character who would be a good role model for her. Zeina isn’t perfect, but she’s curious and brave. She cares about others, but also isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. The fact that writing that draft led to Zeina Starborn and the Sky Whale ultimately becoming a real-life published book is something that still makes me feel like I need to pinch myself! 

With a bit of persuasion from my husband, I submitted my story to a few competitions for unpublished writers. Some I never heard back from, but I made the longlist in others and received some helpful feedback on how to improve. A few drafts later, I submitted to the Hachette Children’s Novel Award, part of the Northern Writers’ Awards by New Writing North, and was completely blown away when I received the email saying I had won! Since then, it has been a pretty steep learning curve, but I have been so well supported by my lovely agent Chloe Seager and everyone I’ve worked with at Hachette.

So, what started out as something I needed to do for my own wellbeing has now sort of become my job! Although writing now comes with feedback and deadlines, it is something I enjoy doing every day and feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do. And I often still write things that are just for me – or, at least, they start out that way. 

My inspiration usually begins with a ‘What if?’ The ‘What if?’ might be an exaggeration of something from the real world (What if humans had to build enormous towers to escape the pollution in our cities?) or could be something completely fantastical (What if there were giant flying sky whales?) but they always provide a foundation for me to build an imaginary world around. Then, I can think about characters. How they would react to the world and what kind of journey they might go on. If that idea turns into something I want to write more about then great, but my notebooks are full of (often, slightly bonkers) ideas that end up being just that. Ideas! I always feel better after having time to write, even if that writing is just for me. 

I hope that readers of Zeina Starborn and the Sky Whale enjoy being transported into an adventure filled with explorers, inventors, aerocycles and sky whales. And that, maybe, Zeina and Jackson’s journey to discover their world might lead some to create fantastical worlds of their own. 

Our Featured Debut this May
Book pages Placeholder Book

Zeina Starborn and the Sky Whale

*Winner of the Northern Writers' Award 2020*

'A thrilling tale of intrigue and adventure in the clouds, full of wonderful creatures, mind-boggling gadgets, bravery, kindness and hope' Thomas Taylor, author of Malamander

When Zeina Starborn's dream of exploring the skies becomes a reality, she finds herself in a daring adventure beyond her wildest imagination. Meet explorers, inventors, and mighty sky whales in this richly inventive fantasy, perfect for 9+ fans of BRIGHTSTORM and ORPHANS OF THE TIDE.

Zeina Starborn spends her days dreaming of adventure in the sky and escaping the smog-filled city of Ravenport.

So, when she wins the chance to visit the famous Willoughby Whale Hotel - a ginormous structure built on the back of a flying whale - Zeina grabs it. Even clashing with Jackson, spoiled heir to the Willoughby fortune, can't dampen her excitement.

But a series of clues makes her question what she's been told about this dazzling world of inventors, explorers and mighty sky whales. Zeina and Jackson must put aside their differences to uncover the secret plot around them as they embark on the journey of a lifetime.


30th April 2022

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