The Screen Thief Blog Tour

We are absolutely thrilled to be taking part in this Blog Tour for Swansea-based author and illustrator, Helen and Thomas Docherty. They really are the perfect picturebook pairing and have just published yet another playful, engaging and colourful story that will entertain by the bucketload.

The Snaffle has arrived in the city and she just wants to play – but everyone is distracted by phones, tablets and devices. They don’t seem to have time for each other. So the Snaffle becomes The Screen Thief and embarks on a mission to change the city into a more playful and more caring place. Ultimately, eating screens doesn’t do this for her, and leaves her feeling lonely, but a wonderful friend called Max is kind and caring and together they put things right.

Clearly ‘screen time’ is a huge issue for parents and teachers and striking a balance is important in all our lives, so this book will appeal to everyone looking to provide more than a subtle dose of encouragement to adopt healthier habits.

Helen’s joyous rhyming text is funny and great fun to read aloud. Thomas’ illustrations are so vibrant and full of detail – we’ve been poring over them over several bedtimes, reading the emotions of the characters and looking how they change through the story.

It’s totally apt therefore that Thomas joins us on this blog tour to give an insight into the illustration process.

Creating the Snaffle: Thomas Docherty on illustrating THE SCREEN THIEF

Throughout the story, the Snaffle goes through a whole range of emotions, so above all she had to be expressive. At the same time she gets up to plenty of mischief, so she needed to be dynamic. I also had to make sure that she was loveable. After all, she acts with the innocent impulses of a small child and that vulnerability comes through at the end of the story.

As always, she went through many versions before we decided on the final design. From the start, her general body shape remained more or less the same. The hard part was solving the question of how to resolve her face and head.  In the end I found that the long ears helped to make her very expressive and the trunk was fun and surprising. It was also good for sniffing and tasting the screens!

It mentions in the text that the Snaffle is small and blue. I was going to be painting the illustrations by hand and I wanted the Snaffle to stand out. I found a bottle of blue ink that I particularly liked, renamed it SNAFFLE BLUE and used it only for painting the Snaffle.

I had a lot of fun hiding the Snaffle in the library, the cinema and the TV shop and I hope children will enjoy looking for her in the illustrations. My favourite moment where she eats a screen is when she is walking away with the ice cream sign from outside the cinema.

When I’m creating a book, lots of the ideas never get included. If there was one set of pictures I would have liked to keep, it was of the Snaffle reacting to the different tastes and textures of the screens. In the end there just wasn’t room for everything.

One early idea that I’m glad was taken out was a moment where the Snaffle is arrested by the police for eating everyone’s screens. It’s just too sad!

The city is full of so many other characters. Originally I imagined these as made up creatures but in the end we went for animals, which made the Snaffle stand out more.

I had so much fun drawing them all glued to their screens, oblivious to everything around them.

Of course the Snaffle wants to join in!

Creating The City

One of the fun things about illustrating The Screen Thief was that it is set in a city. I hadn’t drawn a city before in a picture book and I was excited about all the visual opportunities that this presented. It also meant a huge amount of work as I had to plan the city from scratch.

At the beginning, I tried a slightly futuristic city with rounded buildings and bubble cars. However, in the end we decided that it would be more relatable to children if it was set in the present day.

The most complicated image to compose was the first page when the Snaffle arrives in the city. I tried lots of options including a train station and coming out of a subway. In the end I wanted to show all the main locations in the story on this page, so I went for a roof top view of a square. You can see Max’s house, the Library, the cinema and the park.

I even drew myself a map to make sure I knew where all the other places the Snaffle visits made sense.

The city is full of shops selling all sorts of things (I actually walked past a cactus shop just like this recently!). Of course the Snaffle is only interested in the TV shop…

As always, some of my rough ideas didn’t make it into the book. I did some sketches of inside the animal’s homes and some other locations which would have been fun to include.

Although cities are full of life, the Snaffle soon discovers that they can be lonely places too. There is a moment in the story where despite all the screens the Snaffle has gobbled, she still feels empty inside. What’s missing? Nothing that a screen can give her, what the Snaffle needs is a friend. Setting this scene in a deserted ally seemed to fit the Snaffle’s mood.

The park is not mentioned in the text, but it seemed the perfect place to develop the key message of the story. At the beginning, the Snaffle comes across children in the playground. They are so absorbed in their screens that they are not even playing. However, by the end of the story the park has been transformed into a magical space full of activity. Max and the Snaffle have managed to bring everyone together.

Huge thanks to Thomas Docherty for preparing this blog and sharing his insight and these amazing images.

The Screen Thief by Helen Docherty & Thomas Docherty is out now, available from your local independent bookshop, and is published by Alison Green Books. Cover to Cover may still have some signed copies.

This is not the first time that Helen and Thomas have featured on our blog. Check out the interview that we did with them last year.

TNNO2021: Jess Butterworth Interview

The Tir na n-Og Award is an annual award for children’s books with an authentic Welsh context. Sponsored by CILIP in Wales and organised by Books Council Wales, the 2021 shortlist, announced in March, features three brilliant books:

The winner of the award will be announced at the end of May. In the meantime, we are all encouraged to shadow the awards and get to know these books in more detail. At Family Bookworms HQ, we have been privileged to interview the three authors about their shortlisted book.

Jess Butterworth is well-known for her series of adventure books for ‘middle grade’ readers. Jess spent her childhood between the UK and India, and grew up hearing stories about the Himalayas from her Grandmother. As soon as she was old enough, she went on her own adventures in search of story ideas. Jess studied a creative writing masters at Bath Spa University and now lives between the USA and the UK.

Where The Wilderness Lives was Jess’s fourth novel, published in April 2020. Her fifth book, Into The Volcano, has just been released.

Where The Wilderness Lives is a brilliant adventure that weaves folklore, survival, friendship issues and family together to make a fantastically enjoyable read. From a canal boat in the West Country to the deepest wilds of Wales, Cara and her siblings escape a thief as they embark on a heart-stopping adventure to solve the mystery of a locked safe. Soon they’re in the wild forests of the Preseli Hills and are lost. Will they escape the wilderness? It’s thrilling stuff!

We were pleased to catch up with Jess and ask her a few questions.

Cover by Rob Biddulph

Where The Wilderness Lives is packed full of adventure and action but also focuses on themes of courage and friendship. Was there an initial spark of an idea for the book? I’m interested in what came first.

For me, it’s always the setting and a sense of place that comes first with a story. After that I imagine the characters in the setting, what kind of adventures they go on and how they interact with their environment, and then, as I get to know the characters more, I build the themes and emotional threads.

I wrote Where the Wilderness Lives when I was living in the States and very much missing the UK and the places I love here. One part of the story was sparked by my time living on a narrowboat on the canal; I remember a section of canal was drained and all sorts of rusty bits and bobs were found in the empty bottom. Another part of the story was inspired by a visit to stay with family in Wales and the discovery that the forest I loved there was actually a Celtic temperate rainforest.   

The landscapes and wildlife of the Preseli hills are vividly described. What advice do you have for creating such realistic descriptions?

Image from jessbutterworth.com

Thank you! As you can probably tell, I love writing about nature. I always try and use all the senses to describe settings. I find writing about specific details in a setting really brings it alive too; things like naming an old oak tree rather than only stating that there’s a tree. I also like to weave descriptions into movement and action as well. For example; how does the ground feel underneath your feet as you step? Is it mossy, muddy, pebbly?

Which aspect of Welsh wildlife intrigues you the most?

I’m a huge fan of lichen, not just because of the weird and wonderful shapes and colours they are, but also because they’re symbiotic organisms and good indicators of air pollution. Wales actually has the highest diversity of lichen species!

I also love spotting seals off the Welsh coast, seeing bats at dusk, and searching for signs of dormice. Once I saw puffins during their breeding season from the Welsh cliffs, which I thought was amazing.   

You mention in the author’s note at the back of the book that some of your family are from the area – are they far from Coed Ty Canol? How did they help with the research?

Image from Jess’s Website

My cousins grew up and still live in south Ceredigion in the Teifi valley, quite close to Coed Ty Canol. As children, whenever I visited them, we would walk over the Preseli hills together and explore the coast and the ancient forests in the area. Their house always felt like a second home to me. When I mentioned I wanted to set a book in the Celtic rainforest they spent time looking at maps with me, and showing me other places in the area like the Pentre Ifan burial chamber and Nevern church, which ended up sparking lots more story ideas!   

The story features a locked safe with Ogham symbols (an early medieval alphabet). Tell us about how you discovered the Ogham alphabet.

My younger cousin has always been very interested in it and would write secret messages using the Ogham alphabet which is how I first learnt about it. He also showed me a huge stone from the 5th century in Nevern church that has Ogham script carved into it which I found fascinating.

Ogham Inscription on a sill at St. Brynach’s Church, Nevern, Pembrokeshire.

There is a folk tale threaded through the story – are you a fan of Welsh folklore?

I’m a huge fan of Welsh folklore. I’m really looking forward to reading Claire Fayers’ new book of Welsh Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends, and very excited about the publication of The Mab, a collection of retellings of the Mabinogion, edited by Matt Brown and Eloise Williams.

In Where the Wilderness Lives, I took parts from, and reimagined, two of my favourite Welsh folk tales, Gwion and the Witch and The Battle of the Trees. The latter inspired the title of the story too.

Sounds intriguing. Can you tell us more?

I, TTThom, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

‘The Battle of the Trees’ or ‘Cad Goddeu’ is a medieval Welsh poem set during a war. In it, the magician Gwydion uses his staff to transform trees into warriors to help fight. I’ve always loved the imagery of trees coming to life in a human sense, like the Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and after reading a section of the poem as a child, it stayed with me. 

How are your survival skills? Have they ever been tested?

My dad was a trek leader in the Himalayas and as a child I lived partly there in the mountains, so I grew up with the survival skills needed for trekking and being in the mountains, such as finding drinking water, and as an adult, I’ve been trained in first aid.  

However … my skills were tested in a completely different climate; in the heat of the Australian desert when a snake fell on my head and bit my thumb as I swatted it away! I know what to do if you come across a bear or a leopard, but in my panic, I couldn’t remember what to do if you are bitten by a snake. Luckily, I was able to get someone’s attention and then I finally remembered that you’re supposed to lie down and stay still to stop any venom being pumped around your body, so I did that and someone bandaged my arm to stop the spread too. Then I was airlifted to the nearest hospital where the anti-venom was kept. It was definitely one of the scariest moments of my life!

I’m very grateful I didn’t have to worry about venomous snakes during my research in Wales! 

The setting feels very authentic. How important is authenticity?

This is lovely to hear – thank you! I’m constantly in awe of the wonderful wild places that exist within our world and seek to represent this in my writing. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between people and places too, which is why I love to look at the mythology, folklore, culture, and history of a landscape, as well as its role as a setting. 

Readers can learn a lot from Cara – she is a model of courage and determination. When her body gives up she recalls her mother’s mantra A camino largo, pass corto. There’s an important message about mindset in the book isn’t there?

Yes, definitely. The mantra means ‘one step at a time’ and it partly made it into the story because before I wrote the book I knew that I wanted to weave different story threads that all met at the end. I often felt overwhelmed with how much there was to do to make the story work, so I wrote this saying on a post-it note and stuck it to my laptop and it helped me write the book, one sentence at a time! With Cara, when she’s faced with the impossible task of trekking through the snow in freezing conditions, it’s this saying that helps her not give up: if she can keep going, one step at a time, then she has a chance of making it through the snow and helping her brother.  

Do you think Cara is changed by her adventure?

Very much so. Being out in nature and overcoming the challenges of the wilderness gives Cara more self belief and confidence to be herself. She also considers the things that are important to her, what matters most, and who she is, and by the end she’s made a new friend and grown even closer with her siblings. 

The book will be read in schools across Wales and beyond as a result of your Tir na n-Og Award shortlisting. What do you hope young readers will get out of the book?

I hope readers will enjoy this fast paced race for survival in the Welsh wilderness as they work out the mystery of the locked safe alongside the characters. I hope readers come away feeling excited about the Celtic rainforest, comforted by Cara’s journey to make friends, and feeling not alone in the world.  

Many of your books have hazardous moments as part of the adventures. Some of them can shock and surprise. Do you temper your words for your audience?

I’ve always had a very wild imagination and one of the wonderful things about books is that readers can go on adventures from the safety of their own homes. Often the journeys my characters take can be dangerous and I try to reflect this with my writing. I do always think about my choice of language carefully, alongside considering the emotional connection between the reader and protagonist.  

Could you recommend some other books that readers of Where The Wilderness Lives might like?

I’d love to! There are so many brilliant adventure stories that I love. A few of my favourites that readers of Where the Wilderness Lives might enjoy are: 

  • Holes by Louis Sachar
  • Wilde by Eloise Williams
  • The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook
  • The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr
  • Storm Hound by Claire Fayers
  • Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce
  • The Last Bear by Hannah Gold

Amazingly, you’ve published a book every year since 2017. Into The Volcano, your fifth novel, has just hit the shops. What can you tell us about it and can we expect this publishing phenomenon to continue? 

I still can’t quite believe that Into the Volcano has made it into the world as it was written during lockdowns which meant a completely new way of writing for me (usually I spend lots of time outside). It’s an adventure set on top of a super volcano, and is a book about coming to terms with grief, letting go of anger at the world and finding hope and joy in the most unexpected of places. The story is told through a dual narrative which was really fun to write. It follows Seb from Colorado, and Vivi from London, whose lives collide after a tragic event and they end up on a journey in search of a rainbow pool in Yellowstone National Park. Along their way they meet wolves and bears, all the while dodging bubbling pools and steaming geysers. 

My next middle grade book won’t be published until 2023 BUT I have a very exciting new illustrated series for readers aged 7 and up launching in July this year. The first book in The Adventure Club series is called Red Panda Rescue. Each story is filled with travelling the world, protecting endangered animals, and adventuring! 

I am really grateful to Jess for her diligence and patience in answering these questions. Diolch Jess.

Buy yourself a copy of Where The Wilderness Lives from your local bookshop. You can follow Jess on Twitter or visit her website. The winner of the English Language Tir na n-Og Award for 2021 will be announced on the BBC Radio Wales Art Show on Friday 21 May.

TNN2021: Elen Caldecott Interview

The Tir na n-Og Award is an annual award for children’s books with an authentic Welsh context. The shortlist, announced in March, features three brilliant books:

The winner of the award will be announced at the end of May. In the meantime, we are all encouraged to shadow the awards and get to know these books in more detail. We are delighted to be bringing you interviews with the shortlisted authors, and our first is with Dr. Elen Caldecott, author of The Short Knife.

Elen was born and raised near Llangollen, where her family still lives. She has published many books for children; her debut novel, How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant, was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Prize and longlisted for the 2010 Carnegie Award. The Short Knife was written as part of her PhD in Creative Writing and was longlisted for the Carnegie. It is a story set in the early middle ages, 454, at a time when Welsh identity was just starting to emerge, when the Romans had left and the Britons and Saxons were battling to take hold of different territories. Young Mai and her sister, Haf, are suspicious of the Saxon soldiers arriving in their village. Proved rightly so by a brutal attack on their family home, the sisters must seek a new place to belong, encountering betrayal, love, and everything in between. This is a celebration of difference and finding your own way, when even speaking your mother tongue can be dangerous. 

What was the seed that began The Short Knife?

I was curious about language, primarily. In an earlier book (Diamonds and Daggers), I had written a Polish character and the copyeditor had asked ‘Isn’t their English really good?’ and the answer was, ‘No, they’re speaking Polish to the other Polish characters.’ But, of course, the words on the page were English. So, I had a creative problem: How can you give the impression of one language when writing in another? It felt like a puzzle. I wanted to try to solve it. As I speak only two languages well enough to be able to write in them – Welsh and English – it was a puzzle I could only try to solve using those languages. Therefore, the voice and style of The Short Knife came first and the plot afterwards. It was great to turn that puzzle into a research question for my PhD as it gave me the time and space I needed to play.

You were an archaeologist – does this have any bearing on the way you approached the story?

Definitely. I studied Roman Britain as an undergraduate, and I’ve always been fascinated by the end of the empire. It would have been a very different experience, depending on where you lived (If you were in modern Turkey, for example, you might not even have noticed). Britain was probably the worst affected province. So, I knew it was a time of tumult, which is always good for a story. In a more practical sense, I was able to read site reports for excavations which had happened in the locations I was using, so I can justify some of the decisions I made – for example, having Gwrtheyrn resettle an Iron Age fort.

Were there any specific sites that provided inspiration or breakthrough moments?

Yes, absolutely. Even though it’s historical fiction, and there’s no 100% accurate way to know what life was like then, I found some approximations which were really inspirational. Leigh Woods in Bristol is woodland with a hill fort within it. I took my laptop and my dog up there a lot. We’d walk for an hour and I’d do my best to notice details of the landscape, then I’d write.

I also visited ‘reconstruction’ sites – St Fagans in Cardiff has a small village of roundhouses, and West Stow, near Peterborough has some Anglo-Saxon halls. It was genuinely amazing to visit these sites and talk to the people who worked there. My pen rushed over my notebook. I felt as though the sounds, smells and sensations were a way to get closer to my characters. I also visited Newport Wetlands and Cadbury Congresbury hill fort for more details about the landscape.

Where is the farm of Mai, Haf and Tad located and would they have considered themselves Welsh, British or something else?

Most readers have assumed that their farm is in modern Wales, but it isn’t. It’s actually nearer to modern Bristol, (though that city hasn’t been established at this time period). There are clues to the location – for example they talk about walking to the Severn and the crossing being dangerous. But I call the river by its Welsh name, the Hafren, and I don’t think most people are familiar with that name. Its funny, really, you’d think that two neighbouring countries would know what the other called the boundary between them, but we don’t. It reflects the enormous power imbalance between the languages, I suspect.

In terms of what Mai and her family would consider themselves, they are British. However, there’s a generational divide between what they mean by that. Tad, who was a boy at the end of empire, might think of himself as a citizen of the Roman Province of Britannia, at least nostalgically. Mai and Haf, on the other hand, have no such nostalgia. They speak Brittonic, a language family that spread from Edinburgh to Exeter at the time. Having said that, daily life was likely so disrupted, I doubt there was any sense of a ‘national people’, the societies were likely much more regional.

Do you see yourself as Welsh, British or something else?

Yes, I absolutely do think of myself as Welsh – that’s what I’d reply if someone asked me where I’m from. I haven’t lived there since I left to go to university, but my family is still there. I visit regularly (or did, you know, before). My PhD was part supervised at Aberystwyth University and I ended up working at Cardiff Uni for nearly two years afterwards. I rarely think of ‘British’ other than as a legal term – like on your passport or when applying for a job. It’s something I am, but it doesn’t hold quite the same resonance, in the way that watching a Lions tour isn’t quite the same as watching the Six Nations…

Whilst the landscape is beyond Wales, the book has Welsh influences and a strong Welsh current. This comes from the language you use.

Yes, absolutely. The language Mai speaks, and thinks in, is inspired by Welsh. I tried to give her a Welsh mindset (as much as one can, given that the book is set in an ancient past). So, the language is important, but there are other ideas about being bilingual, fitting in or standing out, being part of a community that can feel on the edge of things, on the edge of attention. There are also themes of betrayal in the book – about whether or not one should stick with a community one is born into, or whether there are things to be gained by leaving, which are also inspired by my own connection with Wales.

The language is exquisite. I understand you created a database of idioms directly translated from Welsh. How did you hit upon this idea and did you have any favourite phrases?

I’m not sure where the idea came from now. I think I was looking at ways other writers have approached working between languages and I was listening to talks by people like Xiaolu Guo and Nicholas Jose who work between languages. The idea might have come from there. Once I’d had the idea I bought a copy of ‘A Dictionary of Welsh & English Idiomatic Phrases’ by Alun Cowrie and translated it. There are thousands! Some really wonderful ones are ‘to grow small bones’ and ‘to see your apron strings grow short’ for being pregnant. I also really enjoy some of the euphemisms for death, like ‘to go and get your answer’ or to ‘to go and sleep outside’.

How did you find Mai’s voice (and Welsh mindset)?

The technical limitations I set myself dictated her voice a lot – the idioms, for example, tend to be quite ‘earthy’ so she had to be someone close to the land. It was tricky to imagine what a teenager might have sounded like back then. I made her dad a storyteller, so that she could legitimately have more wider frames of reference (like history, religion etc) than an illiterate farmgirl might otherwise have had. After that, there are elements of the plot which I think push her closer to a ‘Welsh mindset’, so things like being bilingual, living close to more powerful communities, and worrying about betraying the community she came from by adapting to her new circumstance.

The problem of the power imbalance between English and Welsh is an interesting one, does the answer lie in education? Did a welsh-medium education give you a perspective on this?

There is definitely a power imbalance between the languages. One is a World Language, the lingua franca of half the world. The other is one of the oldest spoken languages, still clinging on at the edge of Europe.

There are a few things I’d like to see happen. The first is that people stop trying to see them as equivalents. So often people say, ‘What’s the point of learning Welsh? Why not learn a useful language like Spanish?’ But, *if you already speak one World Language* then all bets are off. English will serve you well anywhere you go; you’ve got your useful language. So, your second (or third, etc) language should be anything that gives you pleasure, be that Welsh or Klingon (or Spanish, sure!). And, connecting with a language that stretches back thousands of years has got to be pretty pleasurable. It’s like visiting a National Park, or a gallery or theatre, it can just be a thing you do because you think it’s cool.

The second thing I’d like to see is for everyone to worry less about ‘fluency’ (including myself!). The ability to speak a language is a spectrum; no-one knows all the words of a language. So, if all you know is ‘diolch’ and ‘bore da’, then use those and feel fine about saying ‘I’m a beginner’. Or, if you get tangled up with mutations, power through, knowing you’ll be understood just fine. Perfection is the enemy of done, after all.

I don’t think I thought very much about these things when I was at school. A Welsh medium education was just, you know, my life. It was only when I was older that I realised that my parents had made something of a political choice with the school they chose.

How important is authenticity and how far should a writer go to achieve this?

It’s important that your reader believes in the world you’ve created. It’s actually half the battle – if a reader 100% believes the setting, then they will suspend their disbelief for the rest of the story/characters. The easiest way to write a believable setting is to do good research and simply describe whatever it is you’ve found out. If there are obvious anachronisms, then the reader might notice it’s *all* made up. Having said that, it can be really interesting to deliberately use anachronisms in historical fiction – I’m thinking of something like Alex Wheatle’s ‘Cane Warriors’ which uses current London vernacular in an 18th century West Indies setting; it does this – I think – to highlight that we just don’t know what the ‘authentic’ voices would have sounded like; they have been erased. So the ‘inauthenticity’ points to the violence that was done. At the end of the day, the duty of the writer is to the needs of the book they are writing, not to historical accuracy.

The split narrative creates real mystery and intrigue. Were there any difficulties in composing a non-chronological narrative and what spurred you to write it in this way?

It was actually just a really practical solution to a writing problem. The finale of the story is based on a traditional legend called ‘The Treachery of the Long Knives’. The legend is a very male story. If I’d ended the book with that legend, it would have taken the spotlight off Mai, which I didn’t want at all. BUT, it’s such a dramatic story, it would have been weird to put it in the middle of the book. My solution was to write a really long epilogue and spread it out through the book. The reader moves between before-the-treachery and after-the-treachery with the actual moment of treachery where you would expect it to be, at the end. I don’t know if I’ve explained it well, but it wasn’t that I set out to compose a non-chronological narrative per se. The narrative was actually a solution to a different problem I had.

By Noel Sylvestre (1847-1915)

Is the legend of Gwrtheyrn something you were aware of from school?

To be honest, I couldn’t tell you when I first heard about it. We definitely read all kinds of Welsh legends while I was in school. I learned to read using a reading scheme called ‘stori a chwedl’ which was jam-packed with quite gory stuff (the horse’s eyelids story from Branwen was particularly disturbing when I was in primary school). I was reminded of it in conversation with Cathy Butler, a children’s writer who is also a lecturer in Cardiff. She reminded me of the story when we were talking about the lack of female characters in early medieval literature – though Gwrtheyrn is called Vortigern in the version she knew. My version of him evolved to fit the story. He’s the person I needed him to be, rather than me trying to capture a ‘real’ version.

So many brilliant books from Wales use a folk tale as a seed or even framework for their stories. The Snow Spider, The Owl Service, Cantre’r Gwaelod. Many people see folk tales as holding a mirror up to society so that our values and principles can be taught/preserved. Does The Short Knife hold a mirror up to Wales (and England) / Britain?

Oh and don’t forget The Grey King, I love that book! I really hope The Short Knife holds up a mirror, for sure. I want us to remember how much the kingdom has evolved over the centuries, and how much of what we consider as ‘English’ or ‘British’ are actually imported ideas. We are an island nation formed by the movement of people.

The book has many parallels to today – were these deliberately planned from the outset?

I’d say yes, and no. They weren’t planned right from the outset, but early on during the writing, the Brexit vote happened, and all the aftermath of that like the rise in reports of racists attacks. I couldn’t help but think about the island’s relationship with the continent – how we often think of ourselves as separate, but actually have a rich and complex shared history. I also wanted to hold a mirror up to all the people I heard saying rubbish like, ‘England for the English’ and remind people that the English were once ‘invaders’ too (and I use that word very advisedly!).

It seems that you approached The Short Knife very differently to previous books. Has The Short Knife changed you as a writer?

I think so, yes. I’m working on a book just now, and I’m much more willing to write about Wales than I was. I’m also much more aware of language and playfulness of style, whereas I think in the past I thought plot was the most important thing. I’m more interested in seeing where exploration takes me, without worrying right from the beginning whether something is a good idea or not.

The book seems suited to a YA audience – was this audience in mind when you were writing and what do you hope young readers get out of it?

Yes, the themes of identity and community – as well as betrayal, which is quite a big part of it – were just a bit too mature for Middle Grade readers. Also, there’s a fair chance that the language would alienate young readers. So, it was always intended as YA. Having said that, a lot of adults have enjoyed it too. I’m certain that what we bring to a piece of art (be it books, films, music etc) has a huge impact on what we get out of it. So, I think that, for example, a young person who speaks one language at home and a different one outside will get something from the book which is quite different to what a monolingual speaker would get. But I hope that there are ideas about not reaching for easy answers to complex problems in there. I also hope that the wide range of female characters model female power in lots of different ways – there isn’t just one way to use your voice. I hope young readers see those ideas there, at least!

And what do you think your readers will learn from Mai?

For me, I think she comes to understand that the world is more complex than she thought at the beginning. Initially, everything is so black and white. But, over time, she sees that everyone can make stupid or thoughtless decisions; that even ‘villains’ can be loved by their families. That’s what I see in Mai’s development, and that’s what I’d like young people to take away from the book, really. Mai does come out of the trauma with a stronger sense of self, but she also has a better understanding of other people’s minds too.

The Short Knife was longlisted for the Carnegie and is now shortlisted for the Tir na n-Og. What is the significance of awards for you?

A writer friend of mine often plays a game: ‘Would you prefer tonnes of sales or good reviews – you can’t have both?’ It’s a brutal, but fun game. With some books I’d choose sales, with others reviews, it depends on what I was trying to do when I wrote the book. Good reviews, and, being nominated for awards like the Tir na n-Og, mean that people have read and reflected on your work – on whether it’s been bold and pushed at the boundaries of the field. I guess award nominations can validate risk taking.

So do you feel validated? And what was the biggest risk for you?

It’s a huge accolade for me, for sure. I grew up seeing books with ‘Tir na n-Og Winner’ stickers on their cover, so it feels really close to home. I’m thrilled about it. In terms of risk, there are lots of ways that The Short Knife was a risk. Two of the biggest are the language and the period. The rules I made for myself risk alienating a reader (and I know some readers have been alienated, I get that), it might simply be *too weird*. And the period is not one we study much. If you’re writing historical fiction, people are much more comfortable with the Tudors, or the second World War, and so on. the periods that are on the school curriculum. The 5th century was way leftfield, but *shrugs* it’s a time I’m really curious about.

Along with RS Thomas and Islwyn Ffowc Elis, you must be among the most renowned literary exports from North East Wales. Is your writing, and in particular The Short Knife, influenced by any Welsh writers?

Aw, my mum loves RS, so she’d be chuffed to hear you say that. There were three writers that were actually very influential. As I did this as a PhD I ended up writing a lot about them! Two are uncontroversial (and brilliant), G R Gemin and Catherine Johnson – I love the exploration of transnational identities in their own work. The third is much more controversial – Caradoc Evans. He wrote ‘My People’ in the early 20th century, which is a collection of short stories that do not reflect well on the Welsh. He was pretty much shunned thereafter, for airing Wales’ dirty laundry before an English public. For someone wanting to write in the space between Wales and England he was a guide – and a warning!

Tell me about the title. Was it always thus?

I *think* so. I can’t remember it ever having a different title. I think as soon as I knew the Treachery of the Long Knives was going to be a major component, I liked the idea of Mai being a ‘short knife’ in contrast to the men. Back then everyone would have had their own knife, worn on their belt, for all kinds of simple domestic tasks. I liked the idea of something innocuous coming to be significant.

I wonder if you could recommend other books. A kind of “If you enjoyed The Short Knife then you will love…”

Ooh, yes please! There are some amazing YA historical fiction writers working just now. The voice in ‘Cane Warriors’ by Alex Wheatle is just amazing. Everything Tanya Landman has ever written is fire. I also love Catherine Johnson’s work, especially ‘The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo’.

What’s next for Elen Caldecott?

I’m working on a novel for middle grade readers just now. It’s set in North Wales, but has a big dollop of fantasy in it, as well as the village life I saw as I grew up. I’m really enjoying bringing in more Wales into my writing than I ever have before.

This interview took place between Elen Caldecott and Simon Fisher over a number of months. I am really grateful to Elen for her patience (not least with my questions) and for her generous and thoughtful answers. Diolch Elen.

Do get yourself a copy of The Short Knife from your local bookshop. You can follow Elen on Twitter or visit her website. If you enjoyed this interview, I can strongly recommend the Just Imagine podcast that features Elen talking in more detail about this extraordinary book.

Tir na n-Og 2021 Award Shortlist Announced

Three books have made it to the shortlist of the English-language Tir na n-Og Award; the annual awards celebrate the best books for children and young adults published in 2020.

Organised by the Books Council of Wales and sponsored by CILIP Cymru Wales, the English-language shortlist honours books with an authentic Welsh background for children and young people. There are also two other prizes for Welsh language books for primary and secondary ages.

The shortlist:
The Quilt, Valeriane Leblond (Y Lolfa)
The Short Knife, Elen Caldecott (Andersen Press)
Where The Wilderness Lives, Jess Butterworth (Orion Books)

The Quilt by Valériane Leblond (Y Lolfa, 2020) for ages 5+ is a beautiful, lyrical story about a little girl who lives with her parents on a farm near the coast in rural Wales, around the turn of the twentieth century. Life is hard and the family decide to emigrate to America. To pay for the cost of their journey they sell their possessions but keep a black and red quilt hand-made by the mother from pieces of fabric left over from clothes she has made for the family. Leaving everything familiar behind brings homesickness and a longing – hiraeth – for the little girl, and it is the memories and love contained in the quilt that help her overcome these feelings and adapt to her new life.

I’m feeling very happy and very proud. I’ve been an artist and illustrator for a while now, but being a published author is a completely new experience, and I’m quite humbled by the reception The Quilt has had. I’ve really enjoyed the process of creating the book, writing the text and making the pictures and I’m taking the shortlisting as an encouragement for my next projects.

Valeriane Leblond, author and illustrator of The Quilt

The Short Knife by Elen Caldecott (Andersen Press, 2020) for ages 12+ is a story set many centuries ago, in the early Middle Ages, 454, at a time when a new Welsh identity was just starting to emerge, when the Romans had left and the Britons and Saxons were battling to take hold of different territories. It is narrated through the voice of the main character, Mai, a young girl, who up until now, along with her sister Haf, has been kept safe by her father. The story starts with the arrival of Saxon warriors at their farm, forcing the family to flee to the hills where British warlords lie in wait. From here we see Mai surviving in a dangerous world where just speaking her mother tongue could lead to her death, and where she comes to mistrust even the people she loves the most.

I’m utterly delighted! It was nerve wracking to write something that engaged so directly with a living, vibrant culture. So this shortlisting means the world. To have the book well received within Wales is brilliant.

Elen Caldecott, author of The Short Knife

Where the Wilderness Lives by Jess Butterworth (Orion, 2020) for ages 9+ centres around the character of Cara who lives on a houseboat with her mum, siblings and a dog called Willow. Her dad used to live with them but now lives in a remote part of Wales. The adventure starts when Cara and her siblings find a locked safe one day when they are helping with a clean-up of the canal where they live. A fire destroys their houseboat one night, and while her mum is in hospital and Cara is looking after her siblings, a thief comes to steal the safe. The children leave the house they are temporarily living in to travel in their houseboat with the safe to go to their dad, and then on foot on a journey of survival across Welsh mountains in the snow.

I’m absolutely over the moon to be shortlisted for the Tir na n-Og Award! I feel very honoured; one of my favourite authors, Claire Fayers, actually won the 2020 award and I’m completely thrilled Where the Wilderness Lives is part of such a brilliant shortlist this year!

Jess Butterworth, author of Where The Wilderness Lives

There will be lots of talk on our Twitter channel and on this blog about #TNNO2021 in the coming months, in the lead up to the announcement of the winner on Friday 21st May. We have interviews with the authors and more exclusive content to entertain and educate.

Jo Bowers, Chair of the English-language judging panel, said: “All three books had their stories set against a rich authentic Welsh background, which is a central criteria for this award, and each one did this in a very different way to the others. Each book stood out for many reasons: the sense of place and time in Wales and Welsh history; the overall design, and each surprised and engaged in both the style and content of the story. We felt that each one brought new aspects about Wales in children’s literature.”

Chief Executive of the Books Council of Wales, Helgard Krause, said: “My warmest congratulations to all those involved in bringing these three shortlisted titles to readers. It is so important to ensure that young readers in Wales have a choice of high-quality books which reflect the country and culture in which they live.”

Previous winners of this award include Claire Fayers, Jenny Nimmo, Catherine Fisher and Susan Cooper.

Schools and teachers can get involved by shadowing the awards in the run up to the winner’s announcement. For more information on the award, visit the special pages on the Books Council of Wales website.

Cymru As You Are

Books to develop insight into the culture, people and history of Wales

This St. David’s Day, we’ve decided to take a look at some brilliant stories with a Welsh context. These are books that will fire the imagination and connect children to the landscape and the communities of Wales, both now and in the past. We hope that our suggested reading list is fuel for teachers, parents and reading enthusiasts from Holyhead to Haverfordwest and Highmoor Hill to Hawarden. We also have some suggestions for activities that will help to get to know these books better.

Reception (Age 5)

Tad-cu’s Bobble Hat was Malachy Doyle’s 100th book and was recently included in the Iechyd Da wellbeing pack from the Welsh Books Council delivered to all Welsh primaries. Set in the Cambrian Mountains not far from Machynlleth, the story features a boy and his tadcu (grandfather) on walks through the hills. On one particular trip the snow falls and tadcu lends his bobble hat which is then lost. The book, illustrated by Dorry Spikes, deals with the loss of a grandparent in a very gentle way and the symbolism of the changing seasons can be explored whilst connecting with the intergenerational theme and the welsh landscapes. ‘A touching story that conveys the warmth and joy between two generations, and handles the universal themes of love, loss and renewal with gentleness. On one walk, as Tadcu gets older, his special bobble hat is lost. Winter sets in and with it, life dies. When the thaw of spring arrives, the boy returns to the hillside walk to look for the hat. Its discovery brings comfort and a renewed sense of love and positive memories.’

Year 1 (Age 6)

The Quilt by Valeriane Leblond is a wonderful picturebook that can be read and enjoyed by any age. Children and adults will be captivated by the gorgeous illustrations that take us from rural Wales at the turn of the 20th century to the New World via Liverpool. This book connects us to our past but could also open up conversations about migration, homes, family, travel as well as Wales’ unique landscapes. ‘A beautifully illustrated story about emigration and homesickness. A little girl lives with her parents on a farm near the coast, around the turn of the twentieth century. Times are hard and the family decides to emigrate to the USA, raising the fare by selling all of their possessions except for a black and red quilt lovingly hand-made by the mother. The little girl feels homesick and sad at times, but the memories and love contained in the quilt help her overcome this and adapt to her new life. The book offers a message of hope which is sure to strike a chord with many adult readers: when things look bleak, remember that happy times will return.’

Little Honey Bee also has illustrations by Valeriane Leblond and is written by Caryl Lewis. The Welsh landscapes are evident throughout the story which will connect readers to the rich plantlife of their locality through a sensitive story about a bee-keeping grandma. ‘One wintry night, Elsi is left on her grandmother’s doorstep. Elsi is as silent as snow until Grandma shows her a secret at the bottom of the garden…’

Year 2 (Age 7)

Owen and the Mountain by Malachy Doyle and Giles Greenfield has echoes of Tadcu’s Bobble Hat in that it highlights a warm and loving relationship between a boy and his grandfather. Climbing the remote Welsh mountain can be seen as a metaphor that is difficult for both grandfather and grandson. Ultimately this is a story about love, achieving your heart’s desire and the glory of nature. ‘Owen is visiting his grandad and he wants to climb the mountain. But his grandad is not sure. The journey is long and tiring and when they succeed they are not only happy to have completed a difficult task but have also learnt a bit more about each other.’

The Seal Children by Jackie Morris is a story built on the celtic myth of half-woman half-seal selkies, and is set just above St. David’s Head. ‘When a fisherman falls in love with a selkie she gives him her sealskin as a sign of her love, and bears him two children, Ffion and Morlo, before returning to her own people. When a stranger comes to the village, telling of a land far away, the children remember their mother’s stories of the cities of gold and pearls beneath the waves…’ The Hamilton Trust have written teaching notes for The Seal Children aimed at Year 4, and you can hear Jackie read the book below.

Cities in the Sea

While considering books for this list, it became clear that there are many excellent quality stories about the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod – the prosperous land accidently flooded when the gates to the low-lying kingdom were left open. These three versions are suitable to read together (and work great as a read-aloud) to bridge the journey between Year 2 and Year 3.

Year 3 (Age 8)

Wendy White has some really brilliant stories all about Welsh communities. Short manageable chapters make these great books for newly independent readers to try for themselves. But there’s great humour to be had in reading aloud – especially the Welsh caricatures in the seasonally apt St. David’s Day Is Cancelled.

The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo is a classic story that has to be included in this list. About to mark its 35th birthday following the recent TV adaptation by Owen Sheers, The Snow Spider is another story that features the Welsh landscape almost as an additional character. It’s also great for empathy as readers have to come to terms with the reactions of different family members to the disappearance of Gwyn’s sister. More mature readers could be encouraged to investigate the links to the Mabinogion. ‘Gwyn’s grandmother leaves him five gifts: a brooch, a piece of dried seaweed, a tin whistle, a scarf, and a broken toy horse. She tells him they will help make him a magician – but can Gwyn use them to bring his missing sister, Bethan, home?’

Year 4 (Age 9)

Two books that have dual Italian-Welsh heritage are Sweet Pizza and King of the Sky. Both of these books provide opportunities for children to discover an important part of Welsh history – Italian cafes or ice-cream parlours were commonplace at one time. Sweet Pizza by G.R. Gemin, is about a South Wales valley café under threat; Joe, has an entrepreneurial spirit like his immigrant ancestors; he is unwilling to accept that the café is a lost cause and has ideas to breathe new life into it and make it the centre of the community once more. The pride that Joe feels for his own heritage, his ancestors and the valley in which he lives is obvious and infectious in this heart-warming book. ‘Joe loves his Italian heritage: the language, the opera, the lasagne! But it’s hard to celebrate his Italian roots in Bryn Mawr, South Wales, where his mam is sick of running the family’s tatty café. Just like his great-grandfather, who opened the café in 1929, Joe is an entrepreneur. He vows to save the family business, and to spice up the tired High Street with a little Italian flavour!’

King of the Sky, meanwhile, features an Italian boy who is finding it hard to call Wales home. Only when he meets the pigeon-racing Mr Evans does he begin to connect and start to belong. Nicola Davies’ perfectly pitched prose and Laura Carlin’s earthy illustrations make this a delightfully evocative book about Wales’ recent past. The book is one of many on this list that would work with all ages, and there are lots of teacher notes available to download. We particularly like the ones from Walker and Amnesty. We made a video about King of the Sky when it was shortlisted for the Tir na n-Og Award in 2018. It made me smile to go back, so here it is again…

The most recent winner of the Tir na n-Og Award (an award for children’s books that have an authentic Welsh context), is Storm Hound by Claire Fayers. I have recently used Storm Hound as a Whole Class Read in my Year 4 class so can vouch that it totally engaged and enthused the children. Based on both Norse and Welsh mythology the story centres on a family new to Abergavenny who adopt a puppy from the Dog Centre; he just happens to be one of the Hounds of Odin’s Wild Hunt! Funny, fast-paced and hugely satisfying with lots of layers to unpeel. ‘Storm of Odin is the youngest stormhound of the Wild Hunt that haunts lightning-filled skies. He has longed for the time when he will be able to join his brothers and sisters but on his very first hunt he finds he can’t keep up and falls to earth, landing on the A40 just outside Abergavenny. Enter twelve-year-old Jessica Price, who finds and adopts a cute puppy from an animal rescue centre. And suddenly, a number of strange people seem very interested in her and her new pet, Storm. People who seem to know a lot about magic . . . Jessica starts to see that there’s something different about her beloved dog and will need to work out which of her new friends she can trust.’

Year 5

The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr was only published at the start of 2021 but it already feels like it belongs in this list. In fact, it feels like a classic as you read it and I’m sure many schools will be adopting it for their teaching as the word begins to spread. It’s a brilliant World War II evacuee story that we described as “a moving love song to the valleys”.

When Jimmy is evacuated to a small village in Wales, it couldn’t be more different from London. Green, quiet and full of strangers, he instantly feels out of place. But then he finds a skull hidden in a tree, and suddenly the valley is more frightening than the war. Who can Jimmy trust? His brother is too little; his best friend has changed. Finding an ally in someone he never expects, they set out together to uncover the secrets that lie with the skull. What they discover will change Jimmy – and the village – forever.

The Clockwork Crow is a world-class fantasy for children by Catherine Fisher, set at the end of the Victorian era. Taking the myth of the Tylwyth Teg and using it to inspire a trilogy of stories located in a Mid-Wales manor house, provides a treasure trove of interesting links. The eponymous Crow has a mystery of his own, but the talking corvid is not the central character. Seren is an orphan who seeks to belong and is determined to solve the central mystery of a missing child. ‘A magical story of snow and stars; a mysterious gothic Christmas tale set in a frost-bound Victorian country mansion. When orphaned Seren Rees is given a mysterious package by a strange and frightened man on her way to her new home, she reluctantly takes it with her. But what is in the parcel? Who are the Family who must not be spoken of, and can the Crow help Seren find Tomos, before the owner of the parcel finds her?’

Year 6

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day is an extraordinary book. A witty, gritty, profound adventure set in the heart of Snowdonia. It’s got sibling rivalry, dragons and mountains. It’s fresh, it’s real, it’ll make you cry. One reviewer described it as “Jacqueline Wilson meets Alan Garner” and there’s no doubt that this is a raw coming-of-age adventure. ‘Max wants to be just like his dad – fun, loud and strong. Instead, he always seems to be accidentally getting into fights and breaking things. But when his dad starts bringing home mysterious boxes, even more mysterious wads of cash starts turning up. Then Dad disappears. And it’s up to Max to look after his sisters until he comes home.

When they run away to a remote village in Wales, he’s convinced that no one will find them. He’s Max Kowalski. Of course he can look after three kids with no grownups around! Although, he can’t stop thinking about where Dad really went. And the whispers of a golden dragon, asleep under the Welsh mountains…’

Gaslight is a highly atmospheric and very dramatic historical fiction set in Victorian Cardiff. Wales’ Children’s Laureate, Eloise Williams has crafted a rich and vividly descriptive novel that will have you on the edge of your seat. Nansi is the central character, trying to solve the disappearance of her mother, whilst scraping a living between bit parts on the Empire Theatre stage and thieving from rich households. Nansi dreams of finding her own identity and freeing herself from the perilous life she leads. In parts bleak and brutal, this is a gripping tale that will fire many imaginations. ‘All Nansi knows is that her mother disappeared on the day she was fished out of Cardiff docks. Now, in 1899, she can’t remember anything else. With no other family to turn to, she works for Sid at the Empire Theatre, sometimes legally, sometimes thieving to order, trying to earn enough money to hire a detective to find her mother. Everything changes when Constance and Violet join the theatre, both with their own dark secrets. Nansi is forced to be part of Violet’s crooked psychic act. But it’s when Constance recognises her, and realises who her mother must be, that Nansi’s world is turned upside down forever. She is soon on the run for her life and she will have to risk everything if she’s going to find the truth.’

Year 7+ (Age 12 and up)

Traditionally our blog has focussed on the primary years, but as our children grow up (two of them are now over 12) we are learning more about books for more mature children and young adults. We are therefore delighted to recommend these titles for secondary age children.

Non-Fiction for all ages

The book Wales on the Map was published a couple of years ago, and is an indispensable guide to Wales, it’s regions, landscapes, culture and history. It really is essential reading for all and is presented with gorgeous double page spread illustrations in a large format book. Elin Meek has done the research and written the little facts in readable bitesize nuggets while illustrations are by the ridiculously talented Valeriane Leblond, who has several books on this page.

For those looking to explore specific periods of history in Wales, then the Wicked Wales series published by Gomer presents the information in a similar manner to the Horrible Histories books.

Folk Tales and Legends

We’d also like to recommend some folk tales and legends to spark your imagination – there are a number of really fantastic versions available. A special mention for the newly published Welsh Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends by Claire Fayers which is a cracking compilation of short stories – some familiar, some not so familiar, but all told with Claire’s friendly fireside storytelling voice – there’s a real focus on building each story and telling it well. It’s going down a storm in our house with all ages from 8 to 46 (am sure it appeals to older and younger too!).

Claire is also contributing towards a new collection of stories from The Mabinogion. The Mab has now received full funding for publication and will feature stories from some of our best-loved authors, put together by Eloise Williams and Matt Brown. You can pre-order your copy here.

Here’s a gallery of other folk tales and legends that have captivated us:

5 Activities to encourage Reading for Pleasure with books from Wales

Many of these ideas are credited to research carried out by the Open University Reading for Pleasure groups, in association with the UKLA (UK Literacy Association). I have provided links to the examples of practice on their website, where relevant. These are all tried and tested methods in my own classroom and can be easily transferred to the home setting. This is not about comprehension tasks or analysis of writing – it’s about firing a spark and reading for pleasure!

1. Book Blanket

A book blanket of Welsh authors

A Book Blanket is essentially where you lay out books and encourage readers to look, read the blurbs, dip in, see what appeals and then, importantly, talk about it. If you’re in school you can do this with a whole class and have a little crib sheet that they fill in, or tick the ones they like the look of and want to read later. At home, you can engage in more detailed conversations about why books appeal; what do we think they will be about; have we read anything similar? Book blankets are normally carried out on a ‘theme’ so collecting together books about Wales is an ideal opportunity. If you don’t have many books about Wales, you could widen it to books by Welsh authors.

Example of Practice by Benjamin Harris: Book Blankets – Reading for Pleasure (ourfp.org)

2. Book Tasting

Similar to the Book Blanket, Book Tasting is a means to show children that there are more genres, more authors, more stories to be found. It is about widening their reading repertoires and showing them new stories in a fun and interesting way. Provide a selection of books for children to look at. Make it fun by turning the classroom into a cafe – tablecloths, menus, flowers… that kind of thing. You could put on an apron and be the waiter/waitress attending to the cafe customers. Children can write down the menu of books they have chosen and discuss with friends which ‘flavours’ they enjoyed most and would like more of. Again, it’s important to encourage ‘book talk’ – find out why particular books are chosen. A special Welsh cafe for St. David’s Day would be rather wonderful wouldn’t it?

Example of Practice by Sadie Phillips: Expanding Reading Repertoires – Book Tastings – Reading for Pleasure (ourfp.org)

3. Map the Bookish Community

Here’s one for the grown-ups. The research by Open University shows that a teacher who has good knowledge of the available books is much better placed to give a suitable recommendation and foster reading for pleasure in the classroom or home. If you want a vibrant and diverse collection of books for children to explore, which should include books from Wales, then you have to develop your knowledge of these texts.

Much has been written about the reliance on celebrity authors and also the reliance on the authors of our childhoods like Dahl and Blyton, but for many teachers it’s seen as a professional responsibility to increase their own knowledge of available books.

So how about this: get out a map of Wales and place the books in their geographical locations. Are there gaps on the map? Do you have books that children in your community can relate to? Are there some places in Wales that inspire more stories than others? Do the characters reflect the realities of the children you teach/parent? You may want to explore the Tir na n-Og shortlists of the past in conjunction with our blog post.

Example of Practice by Jo Bowers and Simon Fisher: EOP_Land_of_Our_Authors_-_Simon_Fisher_Jo_Bowers_May_2020_final-1.pdf (ourfp.org)

4. Adopt an Author

Adopt an author is an idea to engage with one author and find out more about their work. In the context of Books from Wales, you could choose any of the authors, although it would work particularly well with Claire Fayers, Eloise Williams, Jenny Nimmo, Valeriane Leblond, Catherine Fisher, Jenny Sullivan, Sian Lewis, Jackie Morris as these names have more than 1 book set in Wales. You could widen it to include authors from Wales – in which case this graphic will be useful…

Children could be encouraged to become an expert in that author and produce a presentation; make promotional posters; record readings (try to keep the focus on the book, themes and connections – this isn’t a biography.)

5. Write a Letter

This is a bit old school, but authors love to hear when children have enjoyed their books. Writing a letter helps to connect the child to the book and to the author. Why not get children to write to the author of their favourite book set in Wales, explaining why they like the book so much? P.G. Bell, Welsh author of The Train to Impossible Places, is a big fan of letter writing and has produced some supportive resources.

Composing a tweet is a similar idea – and sometimes more challenging for a child to express themselves in a limited number of words.

The Shark Caller

Blog Tour

Zillah Bethell’s stunning new novel is finally here and we are thrilled and delighted to be able to post a special blog on publication day.

We have a review of the book, plus some special musical content to mark the occasion.

Inspired by Bethell’s childhood, The Shark Caller is set against the backdrop of the islands of the South Pacific, and their traditional practice of shark-calling. Zillah was born in the shadow of the volcano Mount Lamington in Papua New Guinea. It’s a jaw-dropping story of friendship, forgiveness and bravery which is harvesting some remarkable reviews.

Reviews, as they say, have been ‘rave’. And before we get to ours, just take a look at what others are saying…

“Magnificent and beautiful.” Sophie Anderson @sophieinspace

“A master storyteller with an adventure that will catapult children into wildness & wonder.” Abi Elphinstone @moontrug

“Outstanding storytelling that is at once moving, heart-stirring and life-affirming.” Alison, Booksfortopics

“Beautiful and lyrical storytelling.” Shapes @shapes4schools

“Stunning and powerful. One of the best books I’ve ever read!” Mary Rees @marysimms72

“A beautifully written book” Emily Weston @primaryteachew

“Feels like it should be a classic.” Andrew Rough @teacher_mr_r

“Vividly depicted… cleverly told.” Rachael @BellisDoesBooks

Believe the hype!” Dean Boddington @Misterbodd

An elegiac and very beautiful book. An absolute winner!” Ben Harris @onetoread

The Shark Caller really is a remarkable book that will leave you completely stunned and totally in awe of the wonderful storytelling.


Blue Wing lives with her guardian Siringen, a shark-caller, on the outskirts of her village. She’s desperate to become a shark-caller herself to avenge the death of her parents, who were killed by notorious shark, Xok. But it’s against tradition for a girl to become one, and Siringen believes Blue Wing still harbours too much anger in her heart.

When two Americans arrive on the island – Professor Atlas Hamelin and his daughter Maple – Blue Wing is charged with looking after the prickly and infuriating Maple. But, slowly, Blue Wing finds that Maple might be the one person who can understand what she’s going through, having recently lost her own mother. And when they discover that Professor Hamelin is secretly searching for an ancient treasure, they find themselves on a journey to the depths of the ocean, where Xok lies waiting…


The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell, with cover art by Saara Katariina Söderlund

Review

The Shark Caller is really something! My first impression after reading the book was to sit in stunned silence. The book touches the heart, and speaks to the soul.

Let me lay my cards on the table. I am a big Zillah Bethell fan. The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare, her last book, is one of my absolute favourite novels of all time. I am a sucker for good storytelling, the best of which, for my money comes from Katherine Rundell, Gill Lewis, Kiran Millwood-Hargrave, Catherine Johnson, SF Said and Sophie Anderson. I’d put Zillah in this list. These are authors who have a magical ability to craft their stories, weaving the universal human condition with their enchanting threads.

The story is set in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea where Blue Wing and her guardian Siringen are charged with caring for a visiting professor and his daughter. The girls take an instant dislike to each other, but slowly realise they have things in common and a voyage of both self-discovery and learning the ways of friendship begins.

The landscape is beautifully portrayed and we are given a real sense of the geography of the country. A vista of small towns and mines is painted alongside the mountains, forests and shimmering Pacific seas. The flora and fauna of the island is an integral part of the book, not least the sharks, whales and dolphins that swim alongside Blue Wing and The Shark Caller.

The novel is a technicolour, cinematic delight. There are highly vivid, intense scenes; wide-screen viewing in 4D could not be more impactful. Yet this is the joy of reading and particularly the joy of Zillah’s writing – she somehow makes us feel the expansiveness of the landscapes alongside the intimate thoughts and deep emotions of the characters close-up.

There is a juxtaposition between the traditional island ways and the Westernisation of the culture. The ‘Bigman’ (village chief) is a symbol of this: swigging Coca Cola, disowning his heritage and admonishing those who take the remedies of the village witch doctor. His incompatibility and ineptitude with the old ways is often depicted with humour particularly in the awkwardness with which he wears his ceremonial dress.

Bethell’s narration inhabits the character Blue Wing, bringing life and love to her thoughts, actions and talk. Throughout, there is huge wisdom. I particularly like this:

People are like rocks on the shore. The sea will slam into the rocks day after day after day. Hour after hour after hour. Oltaim. But the rocks still look like rocks, they do not become something else. There might be a few scars and parts of the rock might crumble like dust into the sea.But they are still almost the way they were when they were created by Moroa.

The same is with people. There is nothing that can happen on this world that will stop a person being who they are. We are all born a certain way, and we all die a certain way.

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This is an astonishing book. An exceptional story from an incredibly talented writer. Read it open-mouthed in wonder at the storytelling, revel in the wisdom, the sage and salient thoughts of Blue Wing, the remarkable sensitivity and deftness of touch on essential human themes of life, death, love, family and friendship. More than anything, just read it.


Usborne have produced a great video in which Zillah talks about The Shark Caller – we thought it worth posting here.

In the review, we mention that the book is a vivid cinematic delight, told in technicolour and with Dolby Surround Sound. Quite often when I’m reading I hear a soundtrack in my head – accompanying music to suit the mood or reflect the emotions of the book. This was particularly true for The Shark Caller so I spoke to Zillah about her love of music and her Shark Caller Playlist.

“When I’m writing, I work in my head, so I need silence for that. Otherwise, especially when driving, I like music. Schubert’s Impromtu in G Flat No. 3 played by Horowitz and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, 2nd movement played by Zimmerman are my favourite classical pieces but I love all genres – particularly club and disco for dancing.

“My favourite song is Thieves Like Us by New Order, and I love Neil Young, Paul Simon, Morrisey and Marr, Kirsty MacColl, New Order, Manic Street Preachers, Neil Finn, Bill Withers, Blondie, John Legend, Kate Bush, Sia, Taylor Swift, I could go on…”

Below is The Shark Caller playlist as suggested by Zillah, featuring some of her favourite artists. We love the opening Bowie track and will be test-driving the whole playlist in car journeys.

As the final credits roll on The Shark Caller blog post, we need some accompanying music, so here is a new piece entitled ‘Blue Wing’. This is for Zillah and I hope she likes it! I hope she hears it full of contradictions and feels it as a physical and emotive reaction to the book.

The Shark Caller is available to buy now from your local bookshop. Thank you to Usborne, Zillah Bethell and Fritha Lindqvist for everything! Follow Zillah and Usborne on Twitter and seek out Saara Katariina Söderlund, the cover artist, on instagram. Also – go and check out the other blog posts in the tour – there are some brilliant pieces of new writing from Zillah to be found. Our review was originally published last year when we were sent a proof copy by Usborne.

Grace-Ella 3 Cover Reveal

Grace-Ella 3 Cover Reveal

We are absolutely delighted to be able to reveal the cover to the 3rd installment of Grace-Ella’s adventures, written by Sharon Marie-Jones with illustrations by Adriana J Puglisi.

Grace-Ella: Pixie Pandemonium promises yet more fun, adventure and magic with everyone’s favourite young spell-maker and her cat, Mr Whiskins. Publishing with Firefly Press in June 2021, Pixie Pandemonium continues the school-based series, promising naughty pixies and an environmental theme.

So here’s what you’ve been waiting for…

The cover is designed by Claire Brisley with illustration by Adriana J Puglisi. We love how the three covers in the series compliment each other so well…

Here is a summary of Pixie Pandemonium:

When Buddy the pixie smuggles himself into her backpack after Witch Camp, Grace-Ella lets him stay, even though Mr Whiskins tells her pixies are trouble. She takes him to school – but he soon escapes and causes all kinds of mischief.

It’s all fun, until searching for Buddy, Grace-Ella sees someone stealing the school’s charity fund. Will anyone believe her? With her best friends, a naughty pixie and of course Mr Whiskins by her side, can Grace-Ella save the School Fair?

We have a huge Grace-Ella fan here at Bookworms Wales HQ and she cannot wait to read this new installment. Grace-Ella: Spells for Beginners is “super-amazing and very imaginative“, whilst Witch Camp is “an awesome read!” Looking forward to adding a third picture and review here very soon…

Grace-Ella: Pixie Pandemonium is published on 17 June 2021 by Firefly Press. You can pre-order at the Firefly website (or buy the first two books at January sale prices) and follow Sharon on Twitter for more updates.

Huge thanks to Meg, Janet and Simone at Firefly for inviting us to do the reveal. They’ve got big things planned for this year, so keep an eye out on their social media channels too.

A House for Christmas Mouse

Rebecca Harry

Published by Nosy Crow

This delightfully shimmery new Christmas picture book comes from Cardiff author and illustrator, Rebecca Harry. Rebecca has published a number of well-loved stories with Nosy Crow and this tale featuring Christmas Mouse is a fantastic addition to the set.

Mouse is very excited for Christmas, but first she needs to find a home! On her way through the forest, she meets Fox, Bunny and Bear, all in need of a little help – which she gladly offers. Things don’t look good for Mouse though, the light is fading and it looks like she won’t have a cosy home for Christmas. Luckily, her new friends are about to reward her generosity with a very big surprise…

This is a wonderfully gentle and warm story perfect for 2 to 5 year olds – they will love the character of Mouse who shows great kindness to others and demonstrates how a community is built on caring, hospitality and friendship.

The story leaves you with a glow and the illustrations are equally soft and tender. Rebecca’s smouldering winterscapes set the Christmas scene, making the animal house interiors seem even more warm and inviting with cosy fires and hot chocolate. The added foils on every page bring a seasonal glint to this festive tale.

Grab a Christmassy drink, curl up with your little ones, get cosy and enjoy A House for Christmas Mouse, in which animals teach us all about humanity.

With thanks to Nosy Crow for this gifted copy of A House for Christmas Mouse which is available at your local independent bookshop – or direct from Nosy Crow. Why not follow Rebecca Harry on Twitter or visit her website.

Q and A: Cathy Fisher

Cathy Fisher is the illustrator of the visually stunning collaboration with Nicola Davies, The New Girl. A tender and emotive artist, this is the third such collaboration published by Graffeg, following on from The Pond and Perfect.

Cathy has also illustrated Nicola’s Country Tales series, bringing their total output to 8 books, with more to come.

The New Girl addresses bullying, acceptance and inclusion through a simple yet powerful story of a young girl moving schools. The gorgeously sympathetic and thought-provoking compositions add to the narrative; the child who looks different is singled out, but the girl remains faceless and nameless, as do the bullies lurking in the shadows.

An act of kindness crosses a cultural divide, causes intrigue and invokes fascination and interest – the children watch and listen. Then kindness is given a face and a name. The beauty unfurls as the pages are turned – Cathy turns shadows to light, colours brighten and hard edges soften as Kiku warms cold hearts and opens closed minds; the transformation is evident through the change in palette and tones. The New Girl is a truly stunning picturebook.

You can see images from the book and hear Nicola Davies read an extract in this film made by publisher Graffeg.

We are thrilled to welcome Cathy Fisher to the bookworms’ blog today and have the opportunity to celebrate this superb book.

Hello Cathy, What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just read When The Whales Leave, by Yuri Rytkheu, (translated by Ilona Yazhbin,) published by Milkweed Editions – and I am half way through This is Happiness, by Niall Williams, published by Bloomsbury

Can you tell us a bit about how you started in illustration?

I trained in fashion and textile design (a very long time ago) and soon after was lucky to be teaching foundation art and design, a course to prepare students for an art degree. During this time I got my first commission to illustrate a series of book covers for stories for teens.

I left the UK to teach in an art school in the Seychelles and 4 years later moved to Australia, where I became a busy mum, while working as an artist. It wasn’t until my kids were older and we had moved back to the UK that I started illustrating again. I worked for a graphics company, illustrating small pictures for school books and educational resources.

I have always drawn and painted, but I have never been much good at selling my work. One day though, about 6 years ago, I met the lovely Nicola Davies. She had seen one of my pictures on my friend’s wall and had asked my friend for my details. The first time I met her I knew I had a lifelong friend and collaborator… she is amazing! Nicola introduced me to Graffeg Publishing and a year later Perfect was published – my first proper children’s picture book! Then the next year The Pond followed and so we continue to work together!

How do you describe your illustration process?

First I read the story over and over again and do a lot of thinking and research. I spend as much time thinking about the pictures as I do painting them. I try to imagine I am each of the characters, including the wildlife, and how that feels.

I draw lots of sketches, work out the page spreads in a roughly drawn storyboard, think about the space for the words and space for thought. I then send roughs to publishers.

For the final illustrations I prefer large sheets of heavyweight watercolour paper. I draw and paint with pencil, charcoal, watercolour paints, inks and crayons. I paint in layers of tone and colour with the different media, and sometimes make quite a mess. It is not always easy and I often have to struggle through a pain barrier, but, if I’m lucky, a picture will eventually start to sing. I sometimes find it difficult to know when to stop!

You’ve had a very successful picturebook partnership with the amazing Nicola Davies – what’s it like working with her?

It is always brilliant working with Nicola. She is a genius! She is a scientist as well as writer and artist. She knows so much! Her writing is so skilled. She can say so much, with so few words, with such perception and imagination. When thinking about pictures we are often on the same wave length, which makes working with her very easy as she trusts my illustrative response to her writing. She is a brilliant artist herself so won’t always need me, but I hope we will continue to collaborate together for a long time. We are currently very close to each other in Pembrokeshire, so I am very lucky to be able to see her frequently.

How did the latest book, The New Girl, come to fruition?

Nicola read me the story of The New Girl and asked if I’d like to illustrate it – of course I did! I was in Australia when I received the contract from Graffeg, so I starting thinking about the story then. I came to Pembrokeshire early this year and was staying with Jackie Morris when UK first went into lock-down. Jackie was wonderful and very kindly gave me the space and time to work in her home, while I worked on the New Girl every day. I would talk to Nicola and send her photos from my phone of the pictures as I did them. I finished the illustrations just as the first lockdown ended.

The book deals with unkindness and ostracisation at school. You become aware of this through the empathy-filled illustrations as well as the text. What techniques do you use to portray these strong emotions?

I purposely gave each double-page spread a lot of space, exaggerating the school walls and stairs, to illustrate the isolation Kiku, the new girl, might feel coming from another country to a strange new school. I thought about her posture and body language. I conveyed the unkindness of the other children with long shadows. I purposely kept the colours in the early spreads fairly minimal, then slowly added more colour and detail, as the new girl began to warm the hearts of the other children. I also used symbols, like the broken vase, which on the last page has been put back together again, (in Japanese it is called Kintsugi,) as a metaphor that something broken can be mended and made beautiful.

Growing up with 8 brothers and sisters you must have some good tips for dealing with conflict?

I was in the middle of my siblings, as the fourth child of nine, and learnt I could make myself almost invisible. This was sometimes a very useful trick, as it kept me out of trouble. But now, being invisible is no longer helpful to me, so perhaps it is not a good tip! I grew up in a fairly chaotic, noisy environment – but we lived by fields and woods and ran wild amongst nature. Although it could be difficult at home sometimes, there was escape and freedom in our surroundings and always a place outside to find peace. It is where I found my love of nature, which has always helped me when I feel troubled.

Previous picture-books The Pond and Perfect have also dealt with serious and important issues; the death of a parent and sibling disability. What is the place of picturebooks in tackling such themes?

I am quite old now with quite a lot of experience. The most important thing we adults can do is to truly celebrate our children. To gently nurture them with love and kindness and share a joy for life and the natural world, teaching them all beings are equal and need looking after.

But we also have a duty to help them understand that life is not always fun and easy. I do not believe we are protecting our children by shielding them from the truth of serious and important issues – we need to be honest. Reading stories, sharing with them a love of words and pictures, and giving children the time to read, listen and talk, is one of the best gifts we can give our children. Picture books are incredibly important as they can teach empathy at an early age and help children understand difficult emotions. A good picture book can help children feel something that isn’t easy to say in words. Talking about death, grief, differences in each other, things we might feel bad about, painful emotions, is very important and needs to be approached with kindness and sensitivity… this is where good stories and pictures help.

There are a lot of hands in the book which are notoriously difficult to draw. Any tips?

I love children’s drawings. I love watching them draw. Hands are so expressive, that is why I drew a lot of them! I wanted to express joy, in the shape of a flower, with all the children’s hands in Kiku’s class. There are stories in the hands!

The only tip I can give is not to be scared of drawing!.. and do not care what other people think about your drawing! If I am finding something difficult to draw I try to forget the object or subject I am drawing and think of it more abstractly, looking at the negative shapes around it and thinking of it as patterns and tones and colours. If you like drawing keep drawing! I believe everyone can draw, they just think they can’t. Drawing doesn’t always have to look like something, it can be patterns or about feeling.

Handwriting is drawing. We all learn to write and each person’s handwriting is unique. The only difference between drawing and handwriting is you are taking handwriting on an adventure…into other shapes and places, all over the paper and sometimes filling it with colour…. Joy!

You’ve also worked with Nicola on the Country Tales series. Which has been your favourite to illustrate?

Hmm. That’s a hard question. I enjoyed doing all the covers. I illustrated the series while I was in Australia. There is still one more book to do. I think my favourite to illustrate was probably Pretend Cows. The cover is my friend’s daughter and she’s in a gum tree, not an apple tree… but don’t tell anyone!

You normally spend your time between Australia and the UK, but we understand you’ve been locked down in Pembrokeshire. Has this been a blessing or a curse?

I really appreciate that lockdown is an extremely difficult time for so many people. But I count myself as one of the very lucky ones. I am lucky to be in a beautiful place in Pembrokeshire, which is such a blessing. I have since become a bit of a hermit and am very happy to be working in the studio all day long and not go anywhere, except for walks. The sad thing for me is that the pandemic has separated me from my husband, he’s on the other side of the world in Western Australia, so we haven’t seen each other since February but we do talk every day and will eventually be reunited! The happy thing is I see Jackie Morris every day and Nicola Davies quite a lot.

Could you recommend any favourite picturebooks?

Oh my goodness, that is such a difficult question! There are so many beautiful picture books. If I start listing them I am bound to miss a favourite out! This year alone has produced some beautiful books. When I’m painting pictures and start to feel stuck, I often look at John Burningham’s books or Brian Wildsmith’s pictures. I love the whimsy, freedom and textures in their art.

But my recent favourites, in no particular order are:

  • Dog, Shaun Tan
  • The Promise, Nicola Davies and Laura Carling
  • I Talk Like a River, Jordon Scott and Sydney Smith
  • The House by The Lake, Thomas Harding and Britta Teckentrp
  • Lost Spells, Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane (all of her books and collaborations with other illustrators)
  • Mrs Noah’s Garden, Jackie Morris and James Mayhew
  • Last, Nicola Davies, (all of her books and collaborations with other illustrators!)
  • The Best Place in the World, by Petr Horacek (all of his books)
  • The Girl Who became Tree, by Joseph Coelho and Kate Milner

Images from your Twitter account show pandas and cockatoos – are these clues to future books?

They are! The panda pictures are for a story called The Panda Child, which Jackie Morris has written. It is very beautiful timeless story, but it is a bit daunting to illustrate a book with Jackie  as she has such an amazing reputation as an author and illustrator, she is an absolutely brilliant artist. I am very fortunate to be collaborating with her. Her agent is currently finding the right publisher for the book.

The same goes for the pictures with a sulphur-crested cockatoo, (my best friends in Australia.) These are early illustrations for a picture book written by Nicola Davies, called Mr Horstman’s Parrot. Nicola has left a lot of space in the story for me to elaborate visually which I’m looking forward to doing. It is another of her beautiful, powerful stories.

Anything else to declare?

Hmmm?… Occasionally I have times of great doubt, and I wonder why the work of making pictures feels so important to me? Unless you are very famous, an illustrator doesn’t earn very much money. But, when I push passed my doubt and insecurity, I always come back to remembering the influence that picture books had on me in my young life. How they were a place to escape, made me feel so much part of the picture, and how much they taught me.  So I feel such joy when I hear a parent, teacher or child say that a book with my pictures has opened up conversation they have never had before, or have made them feel emotions that open a new door, or simply that they just love the pictures.

The only other thing to declare is that I intend to keep making pictures.

Thank you so very much to Cathy for taking the time to answer our questions with such care and attention. The New Girl is published by Graffeg and is available from your local independent bookshop.

Follow Cathy on Twitter to see beautiful examples of her work (and sneak previews of future books).

Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell

A review and Q&A with Helen Docherty and Thomas Docherty.

Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell is the latest collaboration between husband and wife team Helen and Thomas Docherty. The pair have separate successful careers but have often worked together with amazing results.

Helen has always loved stories and as a child would make her own books (you can see some fine examples on her website). Her early career was as a languages teacher both in the UK and in South America. In 2010, encouraged by Thomas, she began writing again and they published ‘Ruby Nettleship and the Ice Lolly’ together. This was followed in 2013 by her first rhyming text, The Snatchabook, since translated into 22 languages, nominated for many awards and considered a classic by everyone from Booktrust to CBeebies.

Since he was very young, Thomas has always enjoyed drawing and keeping sketchbooks. He was a big Asterix fan. His first book, Little Boat was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2009. He has since written and illustrated 4 more solo works, 5 books with Helen and 5 books with other authors.

They live in Swansea with their two children and, through Storyopolis, enjoy helping children and young people to write their own Book in a Day.

Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell (Sourcebooks) is a charming and colourful rhyming story about independent Nell. Beautifully detailed illustrations capture the tumbling waves, sea monsters and idiosyncratic shipmates. Our eponymous heroine, the newest member of the pirate crew, relies on knowledge, learning and books to chart the seas and live the pirate life. Captain Gnash is too proud, dismissive and closed to new ideas, and he certainly doesn’t approve of books being on board! Cue Nell showing him the error of his ways, the joy of books and reading, and finding life’s real treasure.

We are delighted that Helen and Thomas have answered some of our questions. Huge thanks to them both.

What are you reading at the moment?

Helen: I’ve just finished Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, and I’m sorry it’s come to an end; it was a brilliant and absorbing read.

I still read to our girls (age 10 and 12) every night, though they’re both avid readers themselves. Over half term we enjoyed Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh – a Halloween gem from my own childhood. We’ve just started The Castle of Tangled Magic by Sophie Anderson and next up is Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day.

Thomas: In an attempt to keep my Welsh up over lockdown (we’ve been learning for a number of years) I’ve got through most of my daughter’s Welsh teen novels, most recently the Yma trilogy by Lleucu Roberts, but also her brilliant adult novel Saith Oes Efa (challenging Welsh but very rewarding). Before that I read two books by Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines and Among Muslims, both beautifully observed and poetic real journeys in words.

As a husband and wife picturebook team you must have more opportunity to discuss your ideas together?

Helen: Yes, we’re very lucky in that we can brainstorm ideas for stories, give each other feedback on story drafts and develop characters or plots together. The first book we collaborated on, Ruby Nettleship and the Ice Lolly Adventure, was very much a joint effort. Having said that, when Tom is working flat out illustrating a book, he doesn’t have a lot of free time (or headspace) to discuss new ideas – it’s such a time-consuming job!

Do your own children input into your ideas?

Helen: A few years ago, a conversation with our youngest daughter directly inspired me to write a picture book text. She asked me whether it’s possible for a parent to love a new baby as much as their other children, and I reassured her that we’re not born with a limited amount of love to give, and that You Can Never Run Out of Love. As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I was onto something, and I started working on the text that very night.

Similarly, our eldest daughter was feeling anxious at the beginning of lockdown this spring – as so many of us were – and missing her friends and grandparents. I wrote a new picture book text, All the Things We Carry, partly in response to this. The central message is that we don’t have to bear our worries alone; we carry one another, even when we are apart.

Thomas: I love our daughters’ pictures (all children’s pictures) and I sometimes wish my own illustrations could be as free and spontaneous as theirs. I’m still waiting for them to hand me a best seller on a plate though!

Helen, when you start to write a picturebook text, what are you hoping to achieve? (Do you have a set of overarching aims?)

Helen: Picture books are a child’s first encounter with books and stories. They can help to frame children’s understanding of the world, and they introduce them to new concepts and ideas. They can also be a vehicle for exploring different emotions and how we deal with them. That’s why writing picture books feels like such a privilege to me – and also a responsibility. I want each book I write to carry a positive message – not just for children, but for the adults reading it, too. I want children to care about the characters in each story. And, of course, I want to entertain my audience.

What, do you think, makes a successful picturebook?

Helen: There are so many different ways in which a picture book can be successful. I guess the ultimate litmus test is, do you want to read it – or have it read to you – again (and again)? The best picture books endure multiple readings, and become more loved over time.

Thomas, the endpapers are often a place of innovation, humour and thought-provocation. What is their importance?

Thomas: When creating the endpapers you are freed from the constraints of the story, but at the same time you have the chance to add something new or unexpected. It’s a chance to take the reader further into the visual world you have created, maybe in a different direction. I sometimes like the end papers more than the illustrations inside the book, possibly because they stand alone and speak for themselves.

Pirate Nell celebrates the power of reading. Sharing stories is also a central theme of The Knight Who Wouldn’t Fight and The Snatchabook. Are you on a mission?

Helen: Apparently so! Believe it or not, it’s never been intentional, in that I didn’t set out to write a series of ‘books about books.’ However, I’ve always been a bookworm and I strongly believe in the power of stories to bring people together and nurture empathy, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s become a recurring theme.

Captain Gnash is the ‘top dog’, yet he doesn’t listen and is quite arrogant. Is it too much to read a political message into the story?

Helen: What could a greedy, power-obsessed pirate captain with an over-inflated ego, a disdain for books and very few actual skills possibly have in common with any of the great political leaders of our time?

I hope our young readers will be more inspired by Pirate Nell’s example; she is brave, compassionate and eager to share and to help others.

Note: The character of Captain Gnash was first conceived in an earlier version of the story, Captain Gnash and the Wrong Treasure, which I started working on at the very end of 2016. Here are the opening verses:

Just two things mattered to Captain Gnash:

Making his fortune; and fame.

He was desperate to find some treasure,

And for all to know his name.

He worked very hard on his image

(He took selfies every day).

But woe betide any pirate

Who dared to get in his way.

His temper tantrums were famous;

You could hear them for miles around.

The other pirates did their best

To block out the terrible sound.

The book features some glorious seascapes and coastal illustrations. Are you inspired by your local Swansea shores?

Thomas: If I wasn’t a children’s book illustrator I would like to draw landscapes. In fact, I often sketch when we go out walking – so I’m definitely inspired by the Swansea shores. The Knight who Wouldn’t Fight is full of Brecon Beacons inspired hills, a nod to Castell Carreg Cennen and a twisty tree you can find half way up Skirrid Fawr.

Helen: Absolutely! I grew up by the sea (in Weymouth, Dorset) and I’m so happy that we live by the sea on the beautiful Gower peninsula now. Knowing how much Tom loves to draw the sea, I wrote Pirate Nell’s Tale To Tell  for him to illustrate.

You’re both learning Welsh. Sut mae’n mynd?

Thomas: Da iawn diolch!

Helen: It’s been a real effort over many years, but we’re both so happy that we can now speak (and understand) Welsh – as can our daughters, who both attend Welsh medium schools. Cymraeg was my Granny’s first language, and she would be so proud – and pretty amazed – to see us all now. O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau!

Could you recommend any favourite picturebooks?

Thomas: Don’t Cross The Line! By Isabel Minhos Martins and Bernardo P. Carvalho

Anything illustrated by Christian Robinson

Helen: We have so many favourites in our house – too many to mention! Anything by Shirley Hughes. I would second Christian Robinson’s books – he’s a genius. When Tom and I first met, we found we had a favourite picture book from our respective childhoods in common: How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban and Quentin Blake. One of the books which has most inspired me over time is The Sneetches by the great Dr Seuss. And a book I always return to is Leon and Bob by Simon James. So understated, so much heart – and the best last line in any picture book I’ve ever read. Gets me every time.

The Screen Thief is coming in 2021. What can you tell us about it? Is it a follow-up to The Snatchabook?

Helen: The Screen Thief is about a little creature called the Snaffle who arrives in the city hoping to make friends to play with. Unfortunately, everyone is too busy looking at their screens. When the Snaffle eats a stray mobile phone out of curiosity, she develops a taste for screens… But will they ever really satisfy her hunger? This story was so much fun to write, and I love the world that Thomas has created with his illustrations. It wasn’t intended as a follow-up to The Snatchabook, but there are obvious similarities. And Snatchabook fans might enjoy spotting Eliza and her friend on a couple of pages in The Screen Thief.

Do you have any other projects on the horizon?

Thomas: I’ve got a new book of my own out with Egmont in April called The Horse That Jumped – it’s full of landscapes! Helen and I are also working on a new book together for Sourcebooks in the US called Orange Moon, Blue Baboon and I’m just starting the illustrations for that now.

Helen: I have three other picture books commissioned by different publishers, all soon to be illustrated (by different illustrators, not Thomas): All the Things We Carry, The Bee Who Loved Words and Someone Just Like You. And of course, I’m always working on new story ideas… Watch this space!

Thanks again to Helen and Thomas for taking the time to answer our questions. Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell is published by Sourcebooks and is available from your local independent bookshop.

Thomas’ new book, The Horse That Jumped is published in April 2021 by Egmont. The Screen Thief publishes with Alison Green Books in May 2021.

Follow Thomas on Twitter and visit his website. Follow Helen and click here for her website.