Toppsta - Childrens Books – Reviews

Reader Q&A with Jonathan Stroud


The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne is a swashbuckling, laugh-out-loud story for readers 12+ by Jonathan Stroud, bestselling author of the Lockwood & Co series.

Set in a broken, future England, this is a dystopian Western with gunfights, monsters and plenty of suspense. 

Early Toppsta readers have been loving the book, which you can read an extract of here.

Gemma, aged 14, won the chance to ask Jonathan some questions about the book, his writing and his tips for aspiring authors!

Gemma's review: This book was amazing. The story and the plot-twists, the slow reveal of information. All of it was excellent. Scarlett is one of my favourite characters because she is so strong and witty. I hope the author carries on writing more because I will be reading every single one! 

Reader Q&A with Jonathan Stroud


1. What inspired the story of Scarlett and Albert? 

I wanted to write a story about Britain. In the last few years there’s been a lot of talk about Britishness, and perhaps some changes in the way we view ourselves. I was keen to write something that touched on this notion of change – whether for good or bad – and explored its implications. Being a fantasy writer, I had the idea for doing a ‘British Western’, set in the future, where a terrible event (‘the Cataclysm’) has transformed the land and the creatures in it. The people of the few surviving towns cling to the old ways, while strange beasts stalk the countryside beyond. My two heroes, Scarlett and Albert, are both outcasts from these inward-looking towns. Scarlett is a bank robber and outlaw, and Albert has been rejected because of who he is. Both of them have the bravery to abandon the towns, and face up to the challenges of the dangerous new world.

2. Did you always want to be an author? 

Basically, yes! Or almost so. When I was very tiny, I wanted to be a butcher. Don’t ask me why. Then I wanted to be a Meals on Wheels delivery man, who took hot food to people’s houses. But when I was five, I made a little book out of scraps of wallpaper – and after that I wanted to be an author. I found I had an itch to tell stories. If I read something that I loved, or which excited me, I would instantly have the urge to go off and do something equally exciting, in my own way. Every writer is replying to other writers who have gone before them. It’s pretty much what I’m still doing today.

3. Was it hard to get your first book published? 

The first book is always hard. This is partly because you’re trying to get noticed amid a sea of other writers who are trying for the exact same thing. It’s also partly because you’re trying to figure out what kind of writer you are – you are searching for a voice, and that doesn’t usually come straightaway. I was lucky because I worked in children’s publishing, and my first few books (which were puzzle books, mostly) were published while I was an editor. But when I tried a novel, it was rejected at first. I had to try different publishers, and in the end I had to rewrite it extensively before it made the grade. Essentially, you have to be patient, and send out your material to the right kinds of publishers (or agents), and in the meantime keep writing anyway. If you keep faith in yourself, and keep having fun, in the end you will be noticed. 

4. Why did you decide to base your map on a future map of the UK?

I wanted Scarlett’s Britain to be almost the same as ours, but eerily different. So there’d be familiar places (Cheltenham, Reading), but they’ve become tiny villages surrounded by wilderness. London has vanished under a shallow lagoon. When it came to draw the map, I had fun imagining the vast emptiness, with just a few surviving towns here and there. I also slightly redrew the coastline, to reflect the fact that the sea level has gone up by about 5 metres. Interestingly, this means that the East coast has changed markedly, but the West coast hardly at all. 

Reader Q&A with Jonathan Stroud

5. Which character is your favourite in ‘The Outlaws: Scarlett and Browne’?

Ooh, that’s a tricky question! I have to honestly say that I can’t really choose between Albert and Scarlett, my two main characters. Scarlett is the most important, in a way: it wasn’t until I really figured out who she was, and how I could write about her, that the book began to come together. We follow her from the start (when she wakes up surrounded by four dead men) to the finish, and she’s a feisty, funny and formidable companion for us. But if it was just about her, it would quickly become a bit one-note, so the arrival of Albert, who is gentle, kind and (seemingly) a bit hopeless, brings a vital balance to the narrative. I think he is a very interesting character, and I admire his optimism and kindness. So… it has to be a tie between the two of them!

6. What is your method for coming up with characters? 

Meeting a new character is like meeting a new friend. To begin with, you don’t know anything about them, but there’s something about them that attracts you or interests you. Perhaps (like Scarlett) they’re a girl who wakes up in the wilds, surrounded by four dead men, and who sets off to rob a bank. Perhaps (like Albert) they’re a boy who has just been rescued from a bus crash, in which he is the only survivor. So they’re interesting – but now you have to find out what makes them tick. And the only way to do that is to write. By having them react to things, by having them (above all) talk to each other in different scenes, using different emotions, you slowly figure out who they are. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you can talk in their voices, react as they would react, and so bring their stories to a conclusion.

7. What advice could you give to an aspiring author? 

Have fun and enjoy what you are doing. That’s the essential point. You have to remain true to your own instincts and vision. Always create something that gives you joy: if you manage that, the chances are that others will share the reaction.

Other than that, it’s really about the long haul. Getting recognition is often a slow process, so you have to be happy to keep plugging away, enjoying the act of creativity for its own sake, and being aware that you’re honing your skills every day. Finally, if you can, find someone you trust to read or comment on your work – someone who will be critical as well as encouraging. It’s a solitary business, and having someone in your team to share the successes and knock-backs with you is a good idea. In short: persevere and have fun.

8. Who was your favourite author as a teen and why? 

That’s a great question, but also difficult, because books and authors swim into and out of your life as you read and change. Perhaps the most important books are the ones for which you remember exactly where you were when you first read them, where they attain the status of an event in your life. I could probably pick a dozen writers that had this effect during my teenage years. One in particular was an American writer of fantasy and science fiction called Jack Vance. As a young teen I’d read lots of fantasy, so much so that a lot of it was beginning to get a bit stale. But then, when I was about 15, I discovered Vance’s Lyonesse, an epic story about princes, magicians, fairies, trolls and mountebanks, all set on an imaginary island in the Atlantic. I was ill in bed with some kind of chest infection, as regularly happened in those days. I had bought the book speculatively, and it was a revelation: earthy, ironic, humorous – in many ways the antithesis of serious (even po-faced) fantasy writers who were following Tolkien’s model. It did me far more good than the Lucozade at my elbow. It was a book which acted as a kind of early signpost to the kind of writer I’d one day become.

9. What is your favourite book that you have written? 

Another difficult – even impossible – question! I’m proud of all of them. The book which changed my life was The Amulet of Samarkand, the first novel about the djinni Bartimaeus, because it was here that I really discovered my voice as a writer. I’m very proud, collectively, of my five Lockwood & Co. books too. And, right now, The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne is one of my favourites. I think it’s one of my best books, and I do love my central characters. 

10. Do you find it easier to write stand alone books or series? 

All books are difficult, and each has its own challenges. It doesn’t matter if it’s stand-alone or part of a series. It’s true that, if you write a series, you get the slight advantage that your world and your characters continue from one book to the next, meaning you don’t have to start from scratch each time. But actually that raises another problem: how do you make the next book sufficiently different to make it worth reading in its own right? It has to function (I think) as a separate story, with its own narrative arc, while at the same time linking to whatever went before. That isn’t always the easiest thing – as I’m discovering now, as I work on the sequel to Scarlett and Browne!

11. What is one thing you would tell your younger self if you could?

Don’t worry so much. Relax and have fun. Follow your creative instincts and just enjoy telling stories!

Reader Q&A with Jonathan Stroud

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The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne

Set in a broken, future England, where gunfights and monsters collide, this is the exciting first title in a phenomenal fantasy teen series by the bestselling children's novelist.

"You won't be able to put this down. A classic in the making." - Eoin Colfer

"Perfectly paced, beautifully written and bursting with black humour and bold ideas." - Philip Reeve

""Imaginative, original, taut and with multi-layered protagonists... A wild ride." - Jo Cotterill

" Scarlett and Browne is phenomenal, unputdownable storytelling of the highest order." - Piers Torday

England has been radically changed by a series of catastrophes - large cities have disappeared and London has been replaced by a lagoon. The surviving population exists in fortified towns where they cling to traditional ways, while strangely evolved beasts prowl the wilderness beyond. Conformity is rigidly enforced and those who fall foul of the rules are persecuted: some are killed, others are driven out into the wilds. Only a few fight back - and two of these outlaws, Scarlett McCain and Albert Browne, display an audacity and talent that makes them legends.

"Brilliant from start to finish." - SFX

"Stroud's writing is a treat; brilliantly crafted world building, taut action scenes, fabulous villains and witty dialogue. A wild ride indeed, and the first in a series." - The Observer

"Another triumph. This adventure - starring a pair of charismatic anti-heroes, intensely cinematic action laced with characteristically dry wit, and a mash-up genres - crammed with gun fights, monsters and shadowy government operatives. Pitched for younger teens, but I expect discerning readers of 10 and up to devour it." - The Bookseller

"A unique blend of Wild West-inspired action and fantasy, this is a brilliant new tale from the author of Lockwood & Co. It's bold, funny and original, and older, more adventurous readers will love it from start to finish." - The Week Junior


23rd June 2021

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