Welsh Legend in Susan Cooper’s The Grey King and Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider

A Guest Blog by Dr Dimitra Fimi

In my recent book, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) I explored children’s and young adult fantasies ranging from the 1960s to today, discussing their inspirations in “Celtic” myth, both Irish and Welsh. Among my chosen texts are two much-loved Tir na n-Og Award winners: Susan Cooper’s The Grey King (1976) and Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider (1987). In this post, I’d like to share some examples of Welsh legend and folklore that inspired central elements in both novels.

Susan Cooper’s The Grey King

Susan Cooper’s The Grey King (and, later, Silver on the Tree), offers us a vision of “the Arthur of the Welsh”. One of the texts I consider central for Cooper’s re-imagining of Arthur is the Latin Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) of c. 800, often attributed to Nennius. The “mirabilia,” a list of “wonders” of Britain appended to the main text of the Historia, give us a sense of the traditions of Arthur in medieval Welsh folklore. There are two main Arthurian references in the “mirabilia”: Arthur’s dog, Cafall, and Arthur’s son. Both became central ideas in The Grey King.

In the “mirabilia”, Arthur’s son’s name is Amr, while in another medieval text, the Welsh Triads, his name is Lachau or Lacheu. Not much is known about this shadowy figure, but Bromwich (whose book on the Triads Susan Cooper read) hypothesises that “Lacheu appears to have belonged to an early stratum of Arthurian tradition in Wales.” In making Bran Davies the son of Arthur, therefore, Cooper is not quite inventing a new tradition, as breathing new life into a very old one. 

Cafall is the name of Arthur’s dog not only in the “mirabilia” section of the Historia Brittonum, but also in the tale of “Culhwch and Olwen” found in the Mabinogion. In both texts, Cafall takes part in the hunting of the legendary boar Troyt/Twrch Trwyth by Arthur and his men. Inside Craig yr Aderyn, when Will, Bran and Cafall stand before the Three Lords, the true identity of one of the Lords is revealed because he exclaims his recognition of the dog:

The lord in the sea-blue robe leaned forward a little from his throne; they glimpsed a keen, strong face and a pointed grey beard. He said, astonishingly, ‘Cafall?’
At Bran’s side the white dog stood erect and quivering. He did not move an inch forward, as if obeying some inner instruction that told him his place, but his tail waved furiously from side to side as it never waved for anyone but Bran. He gave a soft, small whine.
White teeth glinted in the hooded face. ‘He is well named. Well named.

Whether Cafall is Arthur’s own dog reborn, or he just senses the presence of his modern master’s father, is left deliberately ambiguous in this extract. Nevertheless, Bran’s persona here as a modern incarnation of Arthur, the hero who will defend Britain against the Dark once more, is strengthened by the presence of Cafall.

Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider

In Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider young Gwyn discovers he is a magician. As Gwyn turns nine, his Nain reveals a secret ancestry and points to a new destiny for him:

‘Time to find out if you are a magician, Gwydion Gwyn!’ said Nain… ‘Time to remember your ancestors: Math, Lord of Gwynedd, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy!’

Nain’s words usher characters from Mabinogion into the text. Math is the King of Gwynedd in one of the earliest tales, the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, while Gwydion and Gilfaethwy are his nephews. Nimmo’s portrayal of Gwydion erases the most disturbing elements of his mythical character, thus turning him into a benign supernatural ancestor-figure. Indeed, Gwyn soon finds out that his real name is Gwydion, and that Gwyn serves as a sort of diminutive. 

Nain enables the first flowering of Gwyn’s magical powers by offering him five unusual gifts for his birthday, which he is encouraged to “give to the wind” and get a magical response, for good or ill. Three of these gifts, a tin whistle, a piece of seaweed, and a broken horse, provide direct links with the Mabinogion. 

When Gwyn offers the tin whistle to the wind, he receives a silver pipe. When Arianwen, the eponymous snow spider, spins a cobweb image of a snow-covered city, inhabited by pale-faced children, Gwyn realises that he can hear the bells of the city and the voices of the children through the pipe. Nain exclaims: “Even when men whispered, Math could hear them; he could hear voices beyond any mortal ear! The pipe is from him!” Indeed, in the Mabinogion Math has a “special attribute,” “whatever whispering goes on between people – no matter how quiet – once the wind catches hold of it then Math will know about it.”

The next gift, and the vision Gwyn receives in return, also come directly from the Fourth Branch. Just like Gwydion fashions a ship out of seaweed, Gwyn’s piece of seaweed brings an enormous silver ship, engraved with strange shapes and floating in the sky. 

Nain’s fifth gift to Gwyn, the broken horse, introduces the tragic tale of Branwen from the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, which later becomes the central structure of the third book in the series, The Chestnut Soldier. The broken horse is described as having no ears and tail, and bearing a tiny label around its neck that reads “Dim hon!” (“Not this!”). Despite Nain’s warning, Gwyn carelessly lets the horse be taken by the wind and a terrible power of chaos is let loose. Gwyn eventually realises that the horse has released a “demon” from the same Mabinogion tale: he turns out to be Efnisien, Branwen’s half-brother, whose outrageous act of maiming Matholwch’s horses is reflected in the state of the toy horse: “Then he went for the horses, and cut their lips to the teeth, and their ears down to their heads, and their tails to their backs; and where he could get a grip on the eyelids, he cut them to the bone.” In a way, this is the moment of “recognition” in this fantasy novel. Gwyn now knows that he needs to capture Efnisien’s demonic spirit and imprison him again, safely in the toy horse, before any further damage is done. He succeeds in taming the legendary past, and at the same time in controlling his own power and in maturing as a young boy and a magician.

Worthy Tir na n-Og Winners

Both Susan Cooper and Jenny Nimmo engage with Welsh traditions and folklore. They don’t just “borrow”, they re-invent, re-shape, and adapt. They make medieval Welsh legend relevant and enchanting for new generations of children, and – in the process – succeed in creating that all-important “authentic Welsh background” that has made them worthy winners of the Tir na n-Og Award. 

We’d like to say a big thank you to Dr Dimitra Fimi for taking the time to contribute this guest blog. We are in awe.

Dr Dimitra Fimi is a Senior Lecturer in English at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Her first monograph, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies. She co-edited the first critical edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “A Secret Vice”, in which Tolkien theorizes his language invention (A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages, HarperCollins, 2016). The book won the Tolkien Society Award for Best Book. Her latest monograph, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), was runner up for the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award. She has published widely in journals and edited collections. She lectures on fantasy literature, science fiction, children’s literature, and medievalism. She contributes regularly to radio and TV programmes (BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio Wales, History Channel, BBC4). You can find out more on her website.

Readers of this blog may also be interested to note that Dr Fimi will be tutoring a course at Ty Newydd with Catherine Fisher entitled ‘(Re)telling traditional narratives:myth, legend, fairy tale’ on the weekend of Friday 20 July.

Frances Thomas

Frances’ most recent winner, Finding Minerva

As part of our Tir na n-Og Award Celebrations, we are delighted to have been able to interview author Frances Thomas, winner of the Tir na n-Og Award four times! Her first children’s book, The Blindfold Track, was published in 1980 and won the 1981 Award. The Region of the Summer Stars won in 1986; Who Stole a Bloater? in 1992 and Finding Minerva in 2008.

Frances was born during the War in Aberdare, South Wales, where her mother had gone to escape the bombs. Her mother’s family was Irish and English, her father’s Welsh. She returned to the family home in London, where she grew up. A few years ago, she moved to Mid Wales where she lives very happily, she says, trying to learn Welsh, going for walks on the hills, writing and painting.

Her books have been translated into ten languages and she has been published by Bloomsbury, Macmillan, Red Fox, Gomer and Seren Books, amongst others.

You have won the Tir na n-Og Award an incredible four times. More than any other author. What does that mean to you?

I was surprised and overjoyed to win the Tir na nOg; it’s gratifying to know that people have read and appreciated my work. Otherwise writing can be a somewhat lonely existence.

You have been nominated 6 times – what draws you to write books set in Wales?

There are various reasons why I write about Wales – I’ve spent a lot of time here over the years, family holidays and travel. And for the last fifteen years we’ve lived in Mid-Wales. Partly of course because Wales is so beautiful – the view from my window inspires me every day. And there’s such a rich store of mythology and story to draw on. How could I not want to write about it?

Which other authors of Wales do you admire?

There are many writers for children in Wales whose work I admire; Catherine Fisher, Jenny Sullivan, Jenny Nimmo, Paul Manship, Phil Carradice; they’re all very different writers, but full of imagination and inventiveness. I wish their books could be more widely available in the rest of the UK.

Many of your books could be classified as historical fiction. What is your favourite period in history? And why do you suppose historical fiction is so popular with readers?

As a child, Frances loved the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff

As a child I devoured historical fiction; Rosemary Sutcliffe and Geoffrey Trease were my idols. It’s a little less popular now, I’m afraid, especially for young people’s books; publishers don’t seem to think it sells (of course it doesn’t if they don’t publish it). My most recent books are a series of four set in the period of the Trojan War – part history, part myth. I’m fascinated by all those long ago dark periods, and love trying to shine some light on them. And the dark ages aren’t really dark when you examine them…

Of more modern periods I love the seventeenth century, a kind of turning point between the old and the modern, when we suddenly find we can recognise the people and their ideas and desires, at the same time being aware of their difference from us. Many of the ideas and scientific theories that we take for granted now had their origins in the seventeenth century. And there were some marvellous poets writing then – Donne, Herbert, Traherne. I once set a story in that period (not published of course because Historical Novels Don’t Sell but I hope it might see the light of day some time.)

Hilary Mantel has proved that historical fiction can be both well written and popular; she manages to shine a light on the politics and political machinations of the present day, and also to delve into the strangeness and difference of the past in a way that makes it accessible to her readers and highly enjoyable.

Your books are well-known for their vivid, evocative descriptions. Do you have any advice for budding writers wanting to improve their descriptions?

The Region of the Summer Stars won the Tir na n-Og in 1986

I think the only way to write successful descriptions is just to observe and observe. You turn yourself into a perpetually open eye, looking hard at what you see, even if what you’re looking at seems banal and everyday, and trying to pin down the exact words. And keep those words as simple as you can; you don’t want to be overladen with flowery elaborate language. I might be wrong but I have a feeling that today’s school pupils are being encouraged to fish out fancy words, rather than using the simple. strong, expressive words that make our language so rich and subtle. And if you can’t be present at a scene, set your imagination to work on it – as a child I believed that Rosemary Sutcliffe must have travelled extensively to write the descriptions that brought her historical backgrounds so vividly to life – it wasn’t until I was older than I realised she was almost completely crippled, and that many of those descriptions came from her imagination. Everyone has imagination – it just needs to be switched on.

Taliesin, The Blindfold Track and Regions of the Summer Stars include elements of Welsh legend / Mabinogion – as do other Tir na n-Og winners – Jenny Nimmo, Susan Cooper and Catherine Fisher. Why do you think the reimagining of these stories has had such widespread appeal?

The Welsh legends are just so exciting, so mysterious and so full of stories. And there must be many others which were never written down or which haven’t survived – who, for example, was Dylan, Son of the Sea, mentioned so tantalisingly in the Mabinogion? This gives writers a chance to poke about in those murky areas and find out stuff that they can set their imaginations to work on.

Which Welsh character from folklore do you most identify with and why?

Morgan le Fay, a bewitching character from Arthurian legend

I’m rather fascinated by Morgan Le Fay, a clever, talented girl maligned by being seen as a witch by male interpreters of her story. I did start a story about her some years ago, but my Welsh publisher at the time said they didn’t want any more stories about mythology and legends, so I shelved it. I think the reasoning was that they wanted more emphasis on contemporary themes. But it did seem that some perfectly good babies were being thrown out with the bathwater. Hmmn – I’ve thought about that story since, and wondered how it was going to work out (curiosity about how your own story is going to end is one of the motives that impels writers to keep going). So I think I might just take it off the shelf and dust it down. We’ll see.

 

We are delighted that Frances Thomas took the time to answer our questions and allowed us to celebrate her achievement in being the most crowned author of the Tir na n-Og Awards. You can find out more about Frances at her website, and you could also follow her on Twitter. Her most recent novels can be found here. The links to her Tir na n-Og winning books are shown below.

The Blindfold Track (1981)

Region of the Summer Stars (1986)

Who Stole a Bloater? (1992), Seren Books

Finding Minerva (2008), Gwasg Gomer

Ariki and the Giant Shark

Ariki and the Giant Shark

Nicola Davies (illustrated by Nicola Kinnear)

Walker Books

Review by Daddy and Nina

Any book that starts with a map gets a thumbs up from us. You know you’re in for a fantastic adventure, and Nina heartily approves.

In this new short chapter book (142pp) from Nicola Davies we are introduced to the feisty and compassionate Ariki; a heroine of the Pacific Ocean, more at home diving through coral and swimming with the fish than playing on land with other children.

This is a wonderful story that educates as it entertains. As we have come to expect from the zoologist storyteller, Davies’ narrative is informative with descriptions of the reef, the wildlife and geography of the island rooting the story in fact. Helpful analogies allow us to picture the exotic creatures – Nina particularly enjoyed the one about each shark’s tooth being as big as a man’s hand.

And so we learn about malu, nihui and the giant shark of the title, Wahine (a Hawaiian and Mãori word for woman); but we are never distracted from the absorbing tale of how Ariki strives to protect and shelter the creature that the majority of the island fears.

It is through this human story that we are given hope. Because when the adults are running scared, reaching for their spears and gathering armies of men, the children of the island are the ones who demonstrate true humanity and compassion.

Illustrations by Nicola Kinnear adorn the pages inside and out adding real character to the host of island inhabitants, lovingly framing the text and adding to the drama.

This is the first in a series for Ariki and we can’t wait to dive in to the next one!

 

Thanks to Nicola Davies for sending a copy of Ariki and the Giant Shark. You can buy it from Hive or better still, from your local bookshop.

You can follow Nicola Davies on Twitter, as well as the illustrator Nicola Kinnear.

Tir na n-Og Award 2018 Shortlist

Below you can watch a video review of the entire #tirnanogaward 2018 shortlist. The Tir na n-Og Award is given annually to an English language children’s book with an authentic Welsh background. This year’s winner will be announced on Wednesday 9th May at the National Library of Wales.

Gaslight, Eloise Williams (Firefly)

The Nearest Faraway Place, Hayley Long (HotKey Books)

King of the Sky, Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin (Walker)

Santa’s Greatest Gift, Tudur Dylan Jones and Valeriane Leblond (Gomer)

The Jewelled Jaguar, Sharon Tregenza (Firefly)

St David’s Day is Cancelled, Wendy White (Gomer)

HwCL Blog Tour

Sadko (On the Power of Music)

Sophie Anderson

Number 6 in a series of blog posts to mark the publication of The House with Chicken Legs

‘In Novgorod, in famous Novgorod,

There lived Sadko…’

Sadko is the main character in a Russian medieval bylina (a narrative poem or song). Sadko’s only possession was his maple gusli (a stringed instrument), but he played it so beautifully he was invited to all of Novgorod’s feasts.

One day, Sadko played his gusli on the shores of Lake Ilmen, the water began to swirl, and the Sea Tsar rose from the surface and said,

‘I don’t know what I can reward you with

For my pleasure, for my great pleasure,

For your tender playing.

Perhaps with countless golden treasure?’

The Sea Tsar tells Sadko to make a wager with all the merchants in the city that he can catch a fish with golden fins. Sadko does this, casts a net into the lake, and catches three fish with golden fins. He wins three shops of the finest goods and begins to trade and make great profits. 

Sadko builds thirty scarlet ships and spends many years trading along the River Volkhov, Lake Ladoga, the Neva River, and across the blue sea. He earns barrels of gold and silver, but when he decides to return to Novgorod a storm forms in a cloudless sky and his ships stop in the middle of the sea. 

The Water Tsar Dances: Illustration from “The Russian Story Book” by Richard Wilson, illustrated by Frank C. Papé, 1916

Sadko realises it is time to make a tribute to the Sea Tsar and lowers a barrel of silver into the water, but the storm continues. He lowers a barrel of gold next, but still his ships won’t move. Sadko realises the Sea Tsar needs a living tribute and asks his crew to write their names on wooden lots and cast them into the sea. 

All the lots float, apart from the one with Sadko’s name on. So, Sadko takes his maple gusli and sits on a plank in the sea while his ships sail away. He falls asleep and wakes on the bottom of the sea, with the Sea Tsar’s palace before him.

The Sea Tsar asks Sadko to play his gusli as tribute, and when the music sounds the Sea Tsar begins to dance. For three days Sadko plays, unable to stop, and the Sea Tsar dances up a storm that, far above, on the surface of the sea, smashes ships and drowns sailors. 

Finally, Nikola Mozhaisky (the patron saint of sailors) touches Sadko on the shoulder and tells him to break his gusli strings, so Sadko plays a chord that breaks his strings, the Sea Tsar stops dancing, and the water calms. 

To reward him for his playing, the Sea Tsar asks Sadko if he would like to marry a beautiful mermaid. Under the guidance of the saint, Sadko lets hundreds of mermaids pass by, and chooses a maid at the back of the procession. Then Sadko does not sleep with her on their wedding night, as the saint tells him he will stay forever in the blue sea if he does. The next morning, Sadko wakes in his beloved city of Novgorod. 

I recognise several themes in the Sadko bylina, such as paying respect to those who help you, and love of home. But to me, the story of Sadko was always about the power of music.

When Sadko had nothing else, his music nourished him; both metaphorically and literally as he was welcomed at feasts. Music made the Sea Tsar rise from Lake Ilmen and reward Sadko with riches. 

Music took Sadko to the underwater realm, where he saw a great palace and many beautiful mermaids. And Sadko’s music was so powerful, it made the Sea Tsar dance up a storm. 

Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, composer of the Sadko opera

I have always loved music. Long before we can talk or understand speech, music provides an introduction to how we communicate, how we feel and express emotions, and how we use our imaginations to create and tell stories. Music is a powerful magic, a universal language of the human soul. 

And the story of Sadko has inspired more music! Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov composed a piece of orchestral music based on Sadko in 1867, and later developed this into an opera.

A version of Sadko can be found in Old Peter’s Russian Tales, written by Arthur Ransome, published by Puffin. 

Alexei Tolstoy wrote a poem, Sadko, but I have never found an English translation – so if you know of one, I’d love to hear from you! 

Do check out the rest of the blog tour (see graphic at the top) – Sophie has written 15 posts about Russian Fairy Tales and what they mean to her. You can read Noah Worm’s review of The House with Chicken Legs here, and Sophie has also answered our questions here.

Author Q & A: Sophie Anderson

To mark our stop on the House With Chicken Legs blog tour we asked Sophie Anderson to answer these questions set by the young worms. We have previously reviewed The House with Chicken Legs and we are delighted that Sophie has also written an exclusive post for Family Bookworms.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just finished The Wild Folk by Sylvia Linsteadt. It’s published on 31st May, but one of the enormous perks of being an Usborne author is getting the occasional ARC! The Wild Folk is glorious; both thrilling tale and song to the natural world. Next on my tbr pile is The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day by Christopher Edge, which I have been excited about forever! 

Where and when do you write?

I home school my three children, and every day is different. Sometimes I get up before my children and write for an hour or two. Or sometimes I get a little writing done in the afternoon if my youngest has a nap, and the older two are busy with their own projects. Or sometimes I write at the end of the day, when my children have gone to bed. I don’t have an office or dedicated writing room; just a small standing desk in the corner of the living room with a laptop on it.

Who or what inspires you?

I love writing stories inspired by fairy tales, or fairy tale characters. Fairy tales can stimulate so many ‘what if?’ questions that spark new stories; they beg to be told from different points of view; or reimagined in original ways. 

Which book do you wish you’d written?

The Moomin books by Tove Jansson were my first love, and I hugely admire her talent as a writer and illustrator. But I can’t wish I wrote them, because if I did, they would be something completely different! I think it’s important we all keep our unique voices, and create our own works of art, so I’m just happy to have written The House with Chicken Legs! 

How long did it take you to write The House with Chicken Legs?

The first draft flowed so well, it poured out in less than two months. But then there were three months of edits with my agent, where the book went through two more drafts and nearly doubled in size. Then there were two months of structural edits with my editor at Usborne, followed by a month of copy edits, and at least another month of final tweaks. So, nine months in total. But there were around two years between writing and publishing because between each stage is some waiting time. It can feel like nothing is happening during these times, but they are actually really important stages in themselves, as they distance you from your work, enabling you to look at it with fresh eyes.

How do you choose character names?

Good question! They have to feel right for the character, and for me there always has to be a kind of hidden meaning or link. For example, there is an old folk tale I once heard where Baba Yaga has a daughter named Marinka, so that is where her name came from. Jack for a jackdaw is unimaginative I know, but it felt perfect! The Old Yaga, whose name is Tatyana, and Yaga Onekin both have names borrowed from Eugene Onekin, a novel written in verse by Alexander Pushkin. In Pushkin’s novel, Onekin and Tatyana show love for each other at different times of their lives, but never manage to get together. It isn’t mentioned in The House with Chicken Legs, but I think Yaga Tatyana and Yaga Onekin have a similar history. 

Marinka is a really interesting character. Are you like Marinka at all?

Yes! I am in my forties, but I often still feel like a young girl trying to find my place in the world! Her character was also inspired by my children who, like Marinka, dream of climbing over fences and carving their own destiny. But as soon as I started writing Marinka, she became incredibly real to me and took on a life of her own!

When Marinka leaves the house to explore the world and make friends, she finds that friendship has its challenges. What makes a good friend?

Another good question! I think someone who values and respects you for who you are, and genuinely enjoys spending time with you. Someone who makes you feel happy and loved.

Would you like to live in a Yaga house?

Oh yes! I have always wanted to. I would sit on the house’s roof as it ran over fells and hills, splashed through rivers, swam across seas, and skated across ice sheets. It could grow me a vine hammock on its porch, and we could sleep together under the stars. 

Can you tell us about your Welsh connections?

I was born and brought up in Swansea. My maternal grandparents lived in Pontypridd, and my paternal grandparents in Brecon. I left Swansea when I was eighteen, to go to University in Liverpool, but my parents still live in my childhood home in Swansea, and I visit them regularly.

Can you tell us something about your next book/idea/future plans?

My next book is a reimagining of another, lesser known, Russian fairy tale called The Lime Tree or Why Bears’ Paws are Like Hands; and, like The House with Chicken Legs, it is an MG novel with themes of identity and belonging. One of the minor characters from The House with Chicken Legs features with a larger role, but it is definitely another stand alone novel.

If you weren’t an author what would you do?

I think I would have to express my creativity in other ways. Maybe puppetry! A giant marionette House with Chicken Legs would be awesome!

 We’d like to sincerely thank Sophie for taking the time to answer our questions. She has also written a brilliant blog post just for us on Sadko – a character from a narrative poem and an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov.

Author Q & A: Christopher Edge

We are absolutely thrilled to be part of this astronomical blog tour and are delighted that Christopher Edge has answered some questions set by the young worms. You can read our review of The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day now or later.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just finished reading Daemon Voices, a wonderful collection of essays from Philip Pullman on the art of storytelling. I always read in bed at night before I go to sleep, so for the past few weeks I feel as though I’ve been having some rather intense late-night discussions with Philip Pullman!   

Could you tell us how you got into writing?

I’ve been writing stories since I first learned how to write, although publication came much later. Following a short-lived career in teaching, I made the move into educational publishing and there had a role reading some of the best contemporary children’s literature being published with a view to discovering novels that teachers might want to use in the classroom. Reading books by authors such as Frank Cottrell Boyce, Sonya Hartnett and Philip Reeve showed me the brilliance and ambition of the stories being told in children’s fiction and made me want to write my own, which I then started doing on the commute to and from work. After a couple of unpublishable novels that are still locked away in a drawer somewhere, I wrote the story that found me my agent, and then a publisher and so finally realized my dream. 

Do you miss teaching?

As you might have guessed from my description of my short-lived teaching career, the answer is no! I was waylaid into teaching by the film Dead Poets Society and misled into believing that all you needed to do to be a great teacher was inspire students to stand on desks declaiming poetry.

Where and when do you write?

In the best tradition of Roald Dahl and Charles Dickens I have an office at the bottom of my garden that I retreat to. When I’m writing the first draft of a story I like to immerse myself in this writing full-time, but other times I’ll be travelling to events with a notebook handy so I can keep scribbling away on the move. I actually think I do some of my best writing on trains, so would quite like to be hired as the writer-in-residence on Great Western Railways.

You have written several books for budding authors. What is the most important piece of advice you have on this?

Every writer is a reader and every reader can be a writer too. Fill yourself with stories and I believe your own will start tumbling out. 

Which books and authors inspire you?

Too many to mention! Every book I’ve ever read feeds the roots of the tree my stories grow from. Many years ago, bunking off school to get my comics signed my Neil Gaiman inspired me to dream that one day I could be a writer and I’ve blogged about this here. 

How do you choose names for your characters?

For me, every story starts with a character and they seem to come to me with a name attached. For The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day I had an image of a girl opening her front door to find an infinite blackness outside and the moment this image came into my mind, I knew this girl’s name was Maisie. 

Do you have any connection with Wales?

I’ve walked the whistling sands on the Llyn Peninsula, visited Conwy Castle as a child, but think my strongest connection to Wales is my love of the Super Furry Animals! 

You’re clearly interested in Science. Where did this interest come from?

I didn’t enjoy science at school, but as I’ve got older my interest in science has grown. Watching documentaries made by scientists such as Carl Sagan and Professor Brian Cox make me marvel at the sheer wonder of the Universe, and I now find myself picking up books by popular science writers such as Brian Clegg and Carlo Rovelli to read for pleasure! 

Your most recent books have been full of scientific ideas but there is often an emotional human story at the heart. Is this a fair assessment, and do you see either as more important?

I think both science and stories approach the same questions from different angles. Why are we here? What makes us human? How do we know we really exist? Both science and fiction help us to make sense of the world, with all its wonder and possibilities as well as its inevitable pain. In my books I hope to use scientific ideas to explore the human condition and tell stories about love, loss and family. Without heart, the story would be a lifeless thing.  

You have a Spotify playlist for Jamie Drake. Are you planning one for Maisy Day? If so, what would be your top choices?

Yes, there is a soundtrack for The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day – actually there’re two! As well as my own chapter-by-chapter soundtrack for the book, there’s also a soundtrack that’s been curated by BBC Radio DJ Chris Hawkins of the songs the story reminded him of. And the one song that made it onto both soundtracks is the mesmerizing ‘Birthday’ by The Sugarcubes, whose queasy beauty sets the scene in my mind for the opening chapter of the story. (For more on this visit the Nosy Crow blog). 

We love the covers by Matt Saunders. How much involvement do you have with this and how important is it for you that the cover somehow reflects your writing?

I love Matt’s cover art too and the brilliant design that Nosy Crow create for my books. I’m very lucky in the fact that I’m allowed to comment on the cover concepts and designs as these are developed, and feel incredibly proud that the first contact a reader might have with my books comes via Matt’s cover art as I love the way my stories are represented by his artwork. 

Can you reveal anything about what you’re working on at the moment?

I’m writing a new novel at the moment which should hopefully be published in Spring 2019. I can’t say too much about it at the moment, but it’s about friendship and what it means to be alive. 

What question do you wish we’d asked?

I’m just glad you didn’t ask me to explain infinity!

Thank you so much to Christopher Edge for indulging us. Did you know he came with us to Scotland? Read our review now.

The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day

The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day

Christopher Edge

Nosy Crow

Review by Noah (age 10) with Mummy Worm

Terrifying and terrific science educates as much as it entertains.

A few weeks ago we took Christopher Edge on a very long car journey. It was one of the most interesting car journeys we’ve ever been on – one which expanded our minds and took us to other dimensions. We’d heard so much about his ‘science’ novels, and the Albie Bright audiobook was out-of-this-world amazing. Imagine our keenness and delight, when we were invited to review Edge’s new story, The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day.

10 year old Noah was drawn in by the ‘familiar world’ story of gifted Maisie, also 10, struggling to make sense of her relationship with her big sister. He was more fascinated by the terrifying science bits and keen to share his new found understanding of “dark matter” with his confused Mother (who decided to read the book for herself to understand what her very intelligent-sounding son was going on about!) Mum enjoyed feeling (temporarily) super-intelligent too and anticipates some impressed stares from her Mummy friends as she and Noah discuss the authenticity of the plot’s ability to anchor familiarity in its setting, whilst at the same time enabling the space-time distortion to feel weirdly authentic.

There comes a point in the story, a very powerful and crucial point, where the mystery begins to unravel and things start to change, heading towards a resolution – this is Noah’s favourite part. The vivid descriptions of optical illusions such as Escher’s never ending staircase chill as much as they thrill. The alternate universe and the superb and frighteningly convincing explanation of events make this a unique book from a unique author – Noah has never read anything like it, nor has Mum, hence its huge appeal. This really is a book you must pick up and you won’t want to put down.

With its challenging concept, engaging plot, endearing narrator and satisfying conclusion, The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day is a “boss read”. Noah would recommend it especially to anyone in Year 6 or Year 7 who enjoys thrilling heavenly stories!

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow for sending a copy of The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day. You can buy it from Hive or better still, from your local bookshop.

You can follow Christopher Edge on Twitter, as well as Matt Saunders who designed the cover.

We were part of the Maisie Day Blog Tour – you can read a Q and A with Christopher here.

Mamgu’s Camper Van

Mamgu’s Camper Van and the Knights in Shining Armour

Wendy White

Gomer Press

A charming short story from the writer of St David’s Day is Cancelled

Review by Nina (Age 8)

St David’s Day is Cancelled is my favourite book. Ever. So I was really happy when I heard that Wendy White had written a new book. Mamgu’s Camper Van is lots of fun; it’s short and I read it in an hour.

Mamgu and Betsi Wyn get the camper van out of hibernation but it doesn’t seem to be working properly! They finally get it going and take it out for a spin to a castle. It’s a heartwarming adventure story that children in Year 2 and Year 3 will love. I think Mum should read it to Kit (my little brother), because he would love it too.

I really liked all the Welsh words that Wendy White used – castell, diolch, da iawn, Ych a fi! – it gave the book a definite Welsh feel! I also loved the pictures: Helen Flook’s illustrations made the story come to life – the colourful front cover is especially good.

I would recommend this book for children up to 8 years old and am looking forward to reading more by Wendy White soon.

 

Thanks to Gwasg Gomer for sending us a copy of Mamgu’s Camper Van. You can buy it direct from Gomer or, from your local bookshop.

You can follow Wendy White on Twitter, as well as the illustrator Helen Flook.

A Whisper of Horses

A Whisper of Horses

Zillah Bethell

Piccadilly Press

Reviewed by Simon (Daddy Worm)

Last year, I fell head over heels in love with The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare, Zillah Bethell’s second MG-flavoured book with Piccadilly Press. Bethell is a master of storytelling; her narrative style is effortless; the plot lines are inventive and clever; her characters feel so authentic they could be members of your extended family. A Whisper of Horses was her first novel for children and was given a paperback release in January.

At this moment in time, it’s not possible for me to like another book more than Auden Dare, but A Whisper of Horses is another fantastic read. Similar to Auden Dare, it’s also set in the future. I’m not sure if Bethell approves of her books being called “dystopian” (adj. relating to or denoting an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one); I believe in America they refer to them as “futuristic adventure fantasy” – possibly a more fitting description although Bethell’s imagined future is run by a controlling government adept in propaganda. The future in ‘Horses’ is certainly environmentally degraded: there have been big changes in the landscapes caused by poisonous gases – the sky is a different colour and many indigenous plants have been killed. The language has evolved too – the names of places mutated into strange phonetic versions of towns, cities, rivers and landmarks we think we know. Serendipity, our main character, lives in the walled city of Lahn Dan where a caste system is strictly enforced and controlled by The Ministry.

Before her mother died, Seren was given a clue to the existence of horses (thought now to be extinct) and she vows to escape the city and embark on a quest across ‘Grey Britain’ in search of these beautiful and elusive creatures. The now clichéd quote from Arthur Ashe about the journey being more important than the destination rings true as Serendipity’s road-trip brings new friends, learning, peril, understanding, resilience, realisation. And these virtues are bestowed on the reader too as one finds oneself questioning society, class, the role of technology and democracy. This is not a journey without danger – this is a pursuit as Serendipity is hunted by the lawmakers who are desperate to stop her from achieving her goal – but why?

A Whisper of Horses is a thoroughly enjoyable read with an enthralling story and one that makes you ponder and contemplate too. I particularly enjoyed the relationships in Auden Dare and the same is true here – Seren’s friendship with Tab, her companion on the journey, is rich and warm and discerning.

So this seems to be no cure for my Zillah Bethell fascination (bethellitis?), and I’ve left it some time before posting this review to be sure that I’m compos mentis. Bethell is such a glorious writer I want to stand on top of my space-age pod-home and shout it out to this oppressed and inhumane world.

 

Thanks to Zillah for sending a copy of A Whisper of Horses. You can buy it from Hive or better still, from your local bookshop.

You can follow Zillah Bethell on Twitter, as well as Matt Saunders who designed the cover shown.