Q and A: Sharon Marie Jones

Sharon Marie Jones, author of Grace-Ella: Spells for Beginners and Grace Ella: Witch Camp has kindly answered our questions as part of the Witch Camp Blog Tour. She grew up in North Wales and now lives near Aberystwyth with her family, close to the sea and countryside. Having worked as a Primary School Teacher for 13 years, Sharon is now a full time author.

What are you reading at the moment?
I’m currently reading ‘The Girl who Speaks Bear’ by Sophie Anderson. I loved her first book, ‘The House with Chicken Legs’, so I couldn’t wait to start this one and it definitely doesn’t disappoint! It’s a magical mix of folklore and adventure, friendship and being true to yourself; utterly enchanting.

Could you tell us how you got into writing?
It has always been my dream to become an author, from a very young age. I loved writing stories and spent much of my early childhood living in my imagination! In Secondary School, I won the school’s R S Thomas prize for creative writing.

But once I decided on a career as a teacher, my job and life in general took over and writing was pushed to the back of my mind – but it was always there, lingering, never completely gone.

I was on my second maternity leave when I decided that I would chase that dream of being a writer. I sat down determined to write. I wrote a short story, which was placed second in a competition and published in Writers’ Forum magazine. This was a huge boost to my confidence. I then had a further seven short stories make the shortlist.

I was enjoying writing short stories but knew that my real passion was to write a book for children. I had just returned to my teaching job by then, and as was driving to work one morning, when the name Grace-Ella popped into my head. I pulled into a lay-by and started to scribble frantically in my notebook.

The following morning I set my alarm for 4.30am and I started to write my first Grace-Ella story. I continued like this, writing for a couple of hours every morning, before real life had to take over. It took me a year, by the end of which I was exhausted, but I had finished writing my first ever book. I sent it to Firefly Press with no expectation at all of hearing back from them … but after three months an email pinged into my inbox and my journey with Grace-Ella truly began.

Why writing for children?
I think you just know if you want to write for children. It’s something intrinsic. I wanted to dive back into that imaginary world that I would escape to as a child. I wanted to let my imagination take over again and lead me on a magical journey.

Because children’s books are just that – they’re magical. I loved reading aloud to my class when I was a teacher; looking at the children mesmerised by the words, and loving the, ‘Oh, please just one more chapter’ chorus at the end of a reading session.

I knew once I started to write that my heart lay with children’s fiction. Seeing a child engrossed in a book is so wonderful and to think that a child could pick up a book that I have written and become lost between its pages is an amazing feeling.

Where and when do you write?
I write at home, in my office. I’ve decorated the room so that it feels relaxing and peaceful, a room that I enjoy being in. I can only concentrate fully on my writing when the house is empty and silent, so my writing time happens when my boys are at school.

Sharon’s Office

Now that I write full time, I don’t set my alarm for 4.30am! But my writing is at its best in the mornings, so I aim to be at my desk by 10am, after dropping my boys off at school and doing a quick tidy up of the house. I can usually ‘write’ for 3-4 hours – I say ‘write’ because I don’t necessarily mean I’m typing away continuously for 3-4 hours. There’s a lot of staring out of the window, allowing ideas to brew and scribbling notes in a notebook. It’s all part of the process of ‘writing’.

On days where the words are hiding from me and I know I won’t add anything to a story I’m working on, I’ll settle down to read a book and allow another author’s words to carry me away. Some days I need this break and find that I’m ready to get going again with my own story, the following day.

Who are your favourite authors for children?
As a child, my favourite author was Enid Blyton. I devoured her books. My favourite being ‘The Enchanted Wood’ and ‘The Faraway Tree’, which I read over and over.

Now … there are so many! There is such a wealth of children’s authors writing today, which is wonderful. I strongly believe that there is a book out there for every young reader. I have far too many authors I currently love, so I’ll choose the ones who I know for definite that I’ll always rush out to buy their next book:

  • Eloise Williams – her writing is so beautifully atmospheric, I feel like I’m in the story with her characters
  • Sophie Anderson – I love folktales and her books bring a new twist to old folktales and are utterly charming
  • Lisa Thompson – she’s a master at tackling difficult issues, weaving them into a sparkling plot that always keep me gripped till the end
  • Onjali Q Rauf – again, she tackles real-life issues perfectly, with wonderfully believable and relatable characters.

Grace-Ella is a witch in training. What drew you to her story?
I think it’s because it’s the kind of story I would have loved as a child. I was entranced by Enid Blyton’s magic, and discovered that I had my very own fairy door on the trunk of the crab apple tree at the bottom of our garden. If I closed my eyes and tapped on the tiny door three times, I would be transported to the kingdom of the Crabble Fairies.
I was always mixing up my own ‘potions’ in the garden – mixing wildflowers and berries with water in empty jam jars. I would line them up on the outside kitchen windowsill.

So once the name Grace-Ella popped into my head, I knew that she was going to be a magical character. Her story began to flow once I started to write the words. I didn’t plot the story, I let the story take me where it wanted to go. Grace-Ella is the girl I would have loved to have had as a friend when I was 9 years old.

Did you ever go to camp as a child?
No, I never went to a Camp as such. I was a painfully shy child and had low self-esteem and confidence. I loved school and was happy playing with my friends, but away from that security, I always stayed close to home.

I was a Brownie, and they went to Camp every year, but I was always too nervous to go. I do remember us going to Brown Owl’s home one evening where we toasted marshmallows on an open-fire. I remember it feeling magical – being wrapped up warm in the dusky darkness, the smell of smoke floating in the air and the sweet taste of the sticky marshmallows.

I spent a lot of time outdoors as a child. I loved pressing wildflowers after going for a walk in the woods with my dad. These memories came flooding back as I wrote ‘Witch Camp’.

Will there be more Grace-Ella?
I hope so! I still have plenty of adventures for her to go on, so fingers crossed…

How does Wales inspire you?
The first thing I loved about Firefly Press was that they were looking for stories for children aged 7-9 years, specifically based in Wales. Wales is rich in stories. As a child, I listened in wide-eyed wonderment to folktales about giants and the tylwyth teg.

The Arch at Devil’s Bridge

The landscape is a constant source of inspiration. There are so many wonderfully wild places to walk, where stories whisper in the rustle of leaves. The setting for ‘Witch Camp’ is very much based on places I have visited. The map of ‘Witch Camp’ at the start of the book shows ‘The Old Stone Archway’, which is based on ‘The Arch’ at Devil’s Bridge, just outside Aberystwyth.

I often read about authors travelling the world on magnificent adventures, which then feed into their writing. For me, Wales is such a beautiful country and is full of inspiration for stories, I don’t feel the need to stray far. T Llew Jones, Wales’ most famous Welsh children’s writer, wrote stories based in Wales for over half a century!

I feel strongly that stories based in Wales should reach young audiences far and wide. Every child should experience the magic and wonder of this beautiful country, and one way for them to do that, is by reading stories from Wales.

One of your own mottos, as signalled on your website is “be proud of your achievements”. This comes across in Grace-Ella: Witch Camp. Was it a conscious decision to allow these messages to filter through your writing and Grace-Ella’s character?
I hadn’t even thought about that so no, it hasn’t been a conscious decision. I’m a perfectionist and my own worst critic in everything I do. As a child, I never felt quite good enough, even though I was often ‘top of the class’ in terms of my work. I’ve also taught children who found it difficult to feel a sense of achievement, often comparing themselves to others and in their minds, finding themselves lacking.

With Grace-Ella, I wanted her to be able to shine at something. She struggles a little with schoolwork and worries that she won’t be able to do her work well, so I wanted to give her something new that she would be good at.

I’ll always remember a young girl I taught, who felt her schoolwork wasn’t good enough and would get herself into a worried mess when having to do tests. She would compare herself to her sister and friends and feel that she wasn’t as good as them. I wanted to help her find that something that she sparkled at. It came when the class were put into groups to work on creating a stall for the school’s Summer Fair. One of the items her group decided to make was bunting. Once this girl started sewing, there was no stopping her! The other three members of the group worked on other items whilst she developed her sewing talent and made all the bunting herself. On her last day of school, she gave me a handmade cushion which was perfect in every way.

We all have the ability to shine at something, it’s just a matter of finding what that is.

What else should we ask you?
Can I do magic? Yes! I can make a coin disappear…

What comes next for Sharon Marie Jones?
Lots of published books I hope! I have stories other than ‘Grace-Ella’ that I want to write, and it would be wonderful for some of them to become published books.

But right now, what comes next for me is a cup of coffee and diving back into writing Grace-Ella Book 3…

Thanks again to Sharon for answering our questions! You can follow her on Twitter and should visit her website.

To read a full review of Grace-Ella: Witch Camp, click here.

Blog Tour: Grace-Ella Witch Camp

Witch Camp

Sharon Marie Jones

Firefly Press

We are enchanted to be the final stop on Sharon Marie-Jones’ Witch Camp Blog Tour. Grace Ella has a special place in all our hearts but is loved especially by Nina who was absolutely thrilled to read an early copy of Witch Camp.

The books are aimed at young readers and are probably best suited to 7-8 year olds; although Nina is 10 and counts Witch Camp amongst her favourites (along with Malory Towers, Amelia Fang and Wendy White’s books). Short chapter books of this quality are few and far between, but Sharon has created a likeable and realistic character with depth for us all to relate to. In fact, we’re keen to read more about Grace Ella and are thrilled that book 3 is being written.

In this episode, Grace-Ella gets invited to Witch Camp and makes friends with others in her cabin. An adventure is on the cards when the friends go into the woods against the rules. But do they have any choice if they are to make amends for the broomstick incident? Friendships and making right choices are explored through this engaging and irresistible story.

The text is interspersed with Adriana Puglisi’s delightful illustrations and give the story another dimension and added interest. It’s a bewitching and beguiling story that will charm and delight. In Nina’s words, “an awesome read!”

To celebrate the Blog Tour, Sharon Marie Jones has kindly answered our Q and A which you can find here.

To buy a copy of Witch Camp, visit the Firefly website or visit your local independent bookshop.

With huge thanks to all at Firefly Press and to Sharon for their support with these posts. We received a copy of Witch Camp in return for this honest review and book cover endorsement.

Review: The Comet and the Thief

We are delighted, enthralled and completely enraptured to be taking part in The Comet and the Thief Blog Tour. We are pleased because The Comet and the Thief was written by Ruth Morgan, one of our favourite authors. We are pleased because today is launch day for The Comet and the Thief. And we are pleased because the book is really rather good.

So before we get to the blog tour extras, let’s tell you about the book. I, Daddy Worm, was given an early digital copy of the book by publishers Gomer and I absolutely loved it.

The story centres on Kit, the eponymous Georgian thief, who finds a mysterious and magical medieval book which connects him to the inhabitants of a cursed village 300 years in the past. Evil Lord Colwich is also after the book, having initially hired Kit to steal it for him, and a tense chase ensues.

It’s an intriguing and engrossing adventure as Kit flees London and affiliates with Saroni, a travelling puppeteer in Bath; which proves to be a decent hiding place if only for a short amount of time. It gives Kit some breathing space to be able to explore the book and the villagers who each have their own page. Kit strikes a bond with Zannah and ultimately works out a way to go through the book and into the village. Colwich is no quitter though and he is determined to find the book. Will Kit work out how to save the villagers or will Colwich catch him before he can?

If you are familiar with Ruth Morgan’s other recent release, Ant Clancy Games Detective (Firefly Press) then you will know that it is a brilliantly fun and immediate fantasy adventure – perfect for 9-12 year olds. The Comet and the Thief is quite different; aimed at a slightly older audience (11 to YA?), it’s sophisticated storytelling and intricately weaved plot lines exploring trust, friendship and witchcraft are an absolute joy, forcing the reader to surrender to the thrill of Ruth’s virtuosity.

What the two books have in common is that they are both extremely well crafted, with inventive worldbuilding and insightful commentaries on their subjects. This book surely cements Ruth’s reputation as a writer of real quality and ambition, who should be revered as one of the best in Wales right now.

The Comet and the Thief is a vividly imagined, pullman-esque page turner. It is a totally compelling and brilliantly written novel, perfect for fans of Julie Pike, Frances Hardinge and Kiran Millwood-Hargrave.

Thanks so much to Gwasg Gomer for providing a digital copy of the book in exchange for this review. If you’d like to buy your own copy, visit GWales or Hive or your local independent bookshop.

And now to the blog tour extras… Ruth Morgan has very kindly written this exclusive content about her writing routine…

Ruth Morgan: “My Writer’s Routine”

A couple of years ago, I visited an exhibition about ‘Queen of Crime’ Agatha Christie at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and one exhibit in particular grabbed my attention: her well-travelled typewriter.  Agatha wrote many of her detective novels whilst accompanying her archaeologist husband Max on his expeditions to the Middle East and I found it touching and reassuring to discover that she got on with the task of writing wherever she went and whatever the conditions.  I must admit, I still occasionally dream of my perfect writer’s retreat: an uncluttered desk, a view of the sea and uninterrupted hours during which the words flow effortlessly onto my laptop screen. It will always remain a dream but that shouldn’t really matter. The fact is, if setting up her modest typewriter on whatever she could balance it on that day was good enough for Agatha, it’s good enough for me!

I have got my own routine when I write, and it has evolved to fit into a busy life with the everyday demands of family and also my much-loved work as a part-time teacher in a local primary school. I have been teaching for thirty years and writing for children seriously for about twenty but that’s covered everything from picture books, poetry and non-fiction to scripts for animation and radio. I am one of those writers who does as little planning as possible because I love the adventure of not knowing where the story’s going to take me. There are real thrills to be had along the way, as more and more of the story reveals itself. That’s why I only ever begin a longer novel with the vaguest idea of a plot, although I have to keep feeling an excitement and belief in the ideas at the heart of the story, in order to know it’s worth carrying on.  In the day-to-day business of writing, I tend to think in scenes and particularly love writing dialogue. 

Here it is then: the innermost secrets of my writer’s routine. In the evening I’ll unwind by listening to music or some light reading, basically the aim is to feel happy and relaxed at bedtime. Then, when I’m in bed, I think around and about the scene I intend writing the next day, for example what the characters are going to say to one another or what’s going on in my hero’s mind, which will often be reflected in their surroundings. Crucially, I consider how that scene is going to drive the story on, but not in a stressy way: these pleasant thoughts simply drift around in my head as I drop off to sleep.  I will get up early the next day – a non-teaching day – and start by editing what I wrote the day before.  Then I’ll carry on writing the next scene and a lot of the groundwork will have been done already, although I still won’t know exactly what’s going to happen: that will emerge as I write.  If it’s a good day, I’ll complete at least half a chapter, 1,500 words or more before I have to go and do the shopping or organise some other family stuff to keep our home lives running smoothly.  On a not-so-productive day, I’ll only get as far as editing the last bit.  On a hopeless day, something else will happen and I’ll have to shelve my plans altogether. Most of the time, I manage to get something onto my screen. I am definitely a morning person when it comes to work, and if I can produce something I’m happy with by 9 a.m., the rest of the day’s looking good.

Not very exciting sounding, is it? No-one sees the thrills: those go on inside, but you have to work hard for them. However, there’s something else.  When you are really into a story and have got to know your characters well (which is vital, your number one job as a writer, really), it’s like having an alternative life you can dive into and daydream about at any boring moment.  In The Comet an the Thief, I especially enjoyed writing the theatrical scenes, where my hero Kit is learning his craft as a performer from his master, the puppeteer Saroni. Several times in the queue at the supermarket I floated off into a wonderful daydream and witnessed one of their marionette shows playing in some wayside tavern: 

Kit would peep from behind the stage and was amused to see the audience enthralled by his master’s performance, their expressions altering as he played with their feelings almost as though they were puppets too.  In some of the coaching inns, the crowds were squeezed in rows several deep along the balconies as well as down in the yard.

I realise all I’ve talked about here is me, me, me.  When I write, I am thinking about my young readers too, I promise! I hope that if I get excited about and engrossed in a story, that’s going to communicate itself to my readers. It also adds another dimension to my life and that’s a wonderful feeling, one I would lose were I stressing about when to find time to write or beating myself up over not having written enough that day. I think if you are like me and have lots of tasks to juggle, you have to find some routine of your own and accept that conditions and never going to be perfect. Anyway, when there’s a lot going on in real life, there’s plenty of inspiration to draw on. What would I write about at that uncluttered desk staring at the sea for hours on end?  My mind would be a blank!

THANK YOU SO MUCH RUTH FOR YOUR TIME AND COMMITMENT TO THIS BLOG!

Ruth has been writing for children and young adults for more than 20 years, everything from picture books to novels, plus many scripts for animation and radio series.  She is also a part-time teacher at a local primary school – a constant source of inspiration.  In the small amount of time that’s left, she loves to dance, play ukulele and stargaze.
You can follow Ruth on Twitter @alienruth and Instagram ruth.morgan.ant.clancy

Guest Blog from Julie Pike

We are delighted that Julie Pike has written this wonderful guest blog for us. Her debut book, The Last Spell Breather, came out in July and is a brilliant and magical fantasy adventure. Here, she tells us how the book was inspired by the land in which she was born and grew up.

When I set out to write The Last Spell Breather, I knew I wanted to create a spell-binding adventure. To bring the fantasy to life, I decided to set the story in a magical faraway land. But after I’d finished writing it, I realised the story was actually set in the place I grew up in Wales; a place where I’d had many adventures as a child, a place where – when it came to stories – anything seemed possible.

I grew up on a council estate called Longford, on the outskirts of Neath. It’s a wonderful spot, nestled between a stream, a hill, woodland, a river and a mountain. In my story, the hero, Rayne, grows up in a remote village. When I came to think up a name for her village, I wanted the place to feel like home. I grew up on a street called Heol Penderyn. So, it seemed natural to name her village Penderyn (which I later changed to Penderin, to make it sound more magical).

Penlan Farm, on Drumau Mountain.

In the story, Penderin is nestled under a mountain, just like Longford is nestled under Drumau Mountain. It was up there that my friends and I had many adventures growing up. I cooked bacon and eggs on an open fire on its slopes as a Guide. At the very top, there was a rundown farmhouse, with its roof caved in. The house was completely empty, save for a mysterious pile of old medicine bottles made of thick glass, which wouldn’t smash even when I foolishly threw them against a wall. Those glass bottles came home with me and stayed on my shelf and in my imagination. Later they wormed their way into my story.

Neath has a fine Victorian Library. Its many books are one of the reasons I grew up to be a keen bookworm. As a child, Mam would take me there every week, regular as clockwork – both of us heading home on the bus with a pile of books each. In my story, Rayne’s mother goes missing. It didn’t take me long to work out where Rayne might find her. Yes, you’ve guessed it – she finds her at the library. But not just any library, she finds her at the Great Library. I’ve come to learn that libraries are places of magical possibility, their words have the power to transport you on amazing adventures. And that’s exactly what happens to Rayne when she finds Mam.

Me and my friends on St David’s Day. You can see the slope of Drumau Mountain behind.

Thinking about it now, my story has other similarities to my childhood too – not just the setting. I grew up in the 1980s. Back then people hardly seemed to worry about whether children playing outside unchaperoned would be safe. I remember spending long summer days outside having adventures. In the evening, Mam would stand on the street, calling me and my brother home for tea. I’m sure a small part of her worried where we were and if we were okay, but I’m also sure the bigger part was more concerned we weren’t home when we said we’d be, and the tea would spoil. Looking back, even though we were playing away from the house, Mam made it easy for us to believe the whole estate and surrounding land was a safe place. If she’d been worried, we would have been too, and we’d have stuck to the house and garden. Thinking about my story now, it’s no surprise to me that in Penderin, Rayne’s Mam creates – magically creates – a safe place for her daughter. In fact, the whole story is based on this, and what happens when she finds out that her home is no longer safe.

Perhaps I did after all set The Last Spell Breather in a magical land. Just not a faraway land. I set the story in Wales because my home (and now Rayne’s home) is, and always has been, a land of magic.

Thanks to Julie Pike for taking the time to write this exclusive blog for us. You can read our review of The Last Spell Breather here.

Follow Julie on Twitter or visit her website.

The Last Spell Breather

Julie Pike

Oxford University Press

Cover illustration by Dinara Mirtalipova

Synopsis: Enter the unique world of the Spell Breathers! Spell Breathing does not come naturally to Rayne – she loathes the hours of practice, the stacks of scrolls, and the snapping mud grotesques that cover her mother’s precious spell book. When she holds the spell book over a fire, it is only meant as an empty threat – until she feels the grotesque’s tiny teeth biting into her finger and lets go. In one clumsy move, her mother’s spells are broken, her village is plunged into danger, and an incredible adventure begins . . .

Noah says: The Last Spell Breather is a magical book involving a brave and clumsy girl named Rayne and a daring and kind boy named Tom.

In a world where monsters exist, Rayne and her village are safe behind a magical barrier. Rayne is an apprentice spell breather, her mam insists on going to the Great Library leaving Rayne all alone. Rayne tries to learn more and when she picks up the spell book everything goes wrong. She has to find her mam to fix the mess.

I really enjoyed the book – I felt like I was inside it because the way Julie Pike described the scenes; this book is incredible! I recommend it for readers who like A Darkness of Dragons (SA Patrick), Podkin One Ear (Kieran Larwood) and The Maker of Monsters (Lorainne Gregory).

Daddy says: There is a huge amount to admire in The Last Spell Breather. The story itself is beautifully written and constructed, the characters and creatures are brilliant (even the evil ones!), and the little details succeed in building an entirely convincing fantasy world. It’s a captivating read for adults and children not least because of the unique take on how magic works via spell breathing and spell writing.

Rayne is a relatable heroine and readers are sure to will her on to a successful conclusion despite her self-doubt. Frank (the fox seen on the cover) is a curious guide and you’re never quite sure if he can be trusted. The fish-monsters (yes you read that correctly) and grotesques made me squirm and the world of the Citadel, Great Library and Scriptorium is gloriously realised.

This is fabulous stuff from Julie Pike and The Last Spell Breather is up there with the best Middle-Grade fiction published this year. Enchanting!

To buy yourself a copy of The Last Spell Breather, visit your local independent bookshop, or buy online. You can read an exclusive blog post from Julie here.

Peril en Pointe

Helen Lipscombe

Chicken House

Peril en Pointe follows Millicent Kydd as she accepts an invitation to join the Swan House Ballet School. Six months earlier Milly messed up in the performance of her life on the same night that her mother disappeared, so the invitation comes as a bit of a surprise! It turns out however, that Swan House is no ordinary ballet school; it’s a school for spies… So alongside lessons in the perfect plié and grand jeté, there’s espionage and codebreaking too.

There’s a bitter rivalry between Millie and Willow Perkins, ‘friends’ since they were very young, but Willow is jealous, holds grudges and seems to be sabotaging Millie’s attempts to make a good impression at Swan House. Could Willow be an insider who knows more about the whereabouts of Millie’s Mum? Or maybe one of the ensemble cast of school staff, students or visiting competitors could be double-bluffing? There is certainly enough of them to provide interest and intrigue and they all do their bit to cloud the narrative and throw the reader off the scent.

Milly is a likeable and very real protagonist – she struggles to deal with the disappearance of her mother, her new surroundings and new friendships – yet she is determined, honest and ambitious. She may not be the best ballerina in the block but she is determined that she is the one to lead the mission to find her mother. It’s a heartfelt and raw tribute to the bond between mother and daughter.

Neath debut author Helen Lipscombe, has created a fresh and engaging thriller that will keep you engrossed and ‘en pointe’ up to the dramatic final curtain. The writing is confident and assured and keeps you guessing to the end. Comparisons will no doubt be made to Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike series, but the Swan House Ballet School Mystery is lighter in touch, and suited to a slightly younger audience who enjoy the boarding school antics of Malory Towers combined with a splash of James Bond gadgets. And ballet.

As Helen revealed in a recent Q and A, Swan House Ballet School Mysteries will return for another episode next year. Follow Helen on Twitter. Buy yourself a copy of Peril en Pointe by Helen Lipscombe from Hive or from your local bookshop. We received a free copy of Peril en Pointe in return for this honest review.

Author Q & A: Helen Lipscombe

We are delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for Helen Lipscombe’s debut novel, Peril en Pointe. Helen grew up in Wales, studied at Exeter College of Art and Design and went on to work in agencies in London, Singapore and the Caribbean. She obtained an MA in Creative Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University and now lives in the Cotswolds with her family.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve got four books on the go . . . The Dragon in the Library by Louie Stowell, Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, The House of Light by Julia Green and No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton. I’ve just finished Normal People by Sally Rooney, The Last Spell Breather by Julia Pike and The Middler by Kirsty Applebaum. All wonderful books. I wish I could read faster. Got a very lovely, but slightly wobbly tbr pile.

Could you tell us how you got into writing?

When I was little, I used to turn my favourite Ladybird Books into plays so I could act them out in front of anyone within a five-mile radius. Such a show-off! 

We understand you trained to be a graphic designer. Did you work on any books?

The majority of my design work has been for charities like The British Red Cross and Salvation Army. Although I LOVED creating a storyboard of ideas for Peril En Pointe’s cover, the designer Helen Crawford-White did a much better job than I could have ever done.

Where and when do you work?

I’m rubbish at any kind of routine. I have a desk in a study off the kitchen, but I only tend to use it when I’m in the thick of rewriting. My ideas flow better when I’m out walking the dog or staring out of a train window. I’m not really a morning person either, so I try to get all my admin done before lunch and focus on the creative stuff later. 

Why writing for children?

I think it’s because I didn’t start writing seriously until after my sons were born. Reading children’s books again sparked my imagination and I rediscovered my inner child. When I started to write, that’s who came out!

Who are your favourite writers for children?

That’s a hard one to answer – there are so many, and the list is growing as more and more brilliant new voices are published. As a child, I loved C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome. As a parent, I loved reading Janet and Allan Ahlberg, and Roald Dahl. As a writer, I appreciate strong voices – Louise Rennison, Sally Nicholls, Patrick Ness, Meg Rosoff; and great plotters – J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins and Philip Pullman. And thanks to Peril En Pointe, I’ve just discovered Noel Streatfeild.

Peril en Pointe is out now from Chicken House. Can you give us a flavour?

Absolutely. My heroine’s called Milly Kydd and more than anything, she wants to be a ballerina, just like her famous mum. The story starts as Milly’s about to dance in the biggest ballet competition of her life. It’s called the Scarlet Slipper Ballet Prize and it’s on telly like Britain’s Got Talent – only without Ant and Dec. But EVERYTHING goes wrong. Milly accidentally trips up the despicable Willow Perkins, and worse, her mum disappears into thin air. As a result, Milly’s kicked out of ballet school. Eight months later, her mum’s still missing when Milly’s invited to a mysterious ballet school. But when Millly arrives, she discovers that Swan House School of Ballet is no ordinary ballet school. It’s a school for SPIES.

Did you ever go to ballet?

Yes – when I was very young. I remember dancing in the Christmas show dressed as a little green pixie, which inspired one of the scenes in Peril En Pointe. (My lovely mum made my costume and I’ve still got it). Tragically, my ballet career was cut short when I broke my toes. I’d been watching Olga Korbut winning a gymnastic gold in the summer Olympics and thought, how hard can it be? Alas, my ‘beam’ was the side of the bath. I fell off and my toes got stuck in the plughole. They’ve never been the same since.

Is music important to you and what music inspired the book?

I’m so glad you asked me that! The answer is sort of connected with your next question. As a child, I sang in Eisteddfods and played the viola with the county youth orchestra. When I started learning the piano, my great auntie Lottie, (who I adored), gave me all of her old sheet music from the 1940’s. My favourite was ‘Jewels from the Ballet’ by Lawrence Wright. By the time I got to writing the last draft of Peril En Pointe, I needed a bit of a pick-me-up to keep me going so I made a playlist. There are pieces from Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet, but also Slow-Moving Millie, Family of the Year, Pink Martini, the Be Good Tanyas, Katy Perry and even U2’s theme from Mission Impossible! All the tracks represent a scene or character in the story.

Are you inspired by Wales?

Yes! My family live in South Wales and my eldest son goes to uni in Cardiff. I love the South Wales coastline and have spent time writing there. My first attempt at a novel was set in the Welsh valleys in the 1970’s on the night of a terrible storm. It had everything in it, from sheep farmers to tight-rope walkers to cat burglers. 

Your Twitter profile says that you love words, welsh cakes and waggy tails. But really, if you had to choose one – which would it be?

NOOO, don’t make me choose! Garghhh. It would have to be waggy tails. If I wasn’t walking my dog I wouldn’t come up with nearly as many words. Plus, I love her deeply.

What are your ambitions?

Gosh. Beyond meeting my next deadline? I always thought I’d like to write a musical one day (it’s not going to happen).

Anything else you’d like to declare?

OK.

Yes.

I admit it. 

It was me who ate all the Welsh cakes.

Not the dog. 

Sorry.

What comes next for Helen Lipscombe?

The sequel to Peril En Pointe is due out next year. Beyond that, I’ve got a few more imperiled heroines up my sleeve. I’ll keep you posted!

Thank you to Helen for taking the time to answer our questions. Peril en Pointe, by Helen Lipscombe is published by Chicken House and is available to buy in your local bookshop or online

Hummingbird

Nicola Davies / Jane Ray

Walker Books (hardback 32 pages)

This gorgeous book is a collaboration between the amazing zoologist and nature-lover Nicola Davies and superb artist Jane Ray. These award-winning creatives have combined to make the most beautiful and informative picture book.

The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is one of over 300 different kinds of hummingbird which has the most epic migration journey. They have a flight range of around 1800 miles between Mexico and Central America to the East of the USA each spring. This seems even more magnificent when you consider that the bird weighs less than an American nickel.

Nicola Davies’ familiar non-fiction fiction tells the story of the hummingbird’s journey from the viewpoint of a granny and granddaughter, and compares the journey to that of the young girl travelling on a plane to her parents in New York. Scientific facts about the hummingbirds are written alongside the story so you learn as the story progresses. Nutrition, feeding, nesting, sleeping and physical characteristics are all covered. A small section at the back gives further detail about these amazing birds.

Jane Ray’s illustrations are absolutely incredible and each spread is a riot of colour. The detail on the birds, flowers and blossom in particular is incredible, and we especially like the pieces of map built in to the mountains. The endpapers are also stunning!

This book is beautiful, informative and colourful; it’s a triumph for both author and illustrator as it feeds the eye and the mind and leaves both fully satisfied.

We bought this copy of Hummingbird ourselves. You can find out more about Nicola Davies at her website or you could follow her on Twitter. You can also visit illustrator Jane Ray’s website or follow her on Twitter too.

If you’d like to buy a copy, why not visit your local independent bookshop or buy online.

ABC of Opera: The Academy of Barmy Composers

Baroque

Mark Llewelyn Evans and Karl Davies

Graffeg

Here is a unique book, the first in a series, that aims to tell the story of baroque music to a new, young (8+) audience. It’s an eye-catching and engaging volume and educational too. Further books on classical, romantic and modern music styles will follow.

The books have been put together by Mark Llewelyn Evans, himself an opera star with a successful career and wealth of experience with Welsh National Opera and other UK-wide companies. Mark is the creative director of ABC of Opera; an organisation offering educational workshops around the country (more info here). Established landscape artist Karl Davies has ventured into the world of illustration and has brought the words to life with incredibly sparky artwork in this colourful and vibrant book.

Mark Llewelyn Evans says: ‘I was 14 when I saw my first opera and was blown away by the whole experience. To this day opera still captivates me, and I wanted to introduce the next generation to this incredible art form in a unique way – one that would not only engage them with the beautiful music but also with the genius composers who created this world. I wanted each composer to come alive, step out of the book and into the hearts of the children. With 97% of the children we have met through the ABC of Opera workshops asking to meet the composers, we knew it was time to open the doors to The Academy of Barmy Composers.’

With Karl Davies, Mark has created a storybook that takes us back in time to learn factual information about the baroque period and its composers. Jack and Megan find a forgotten trunk in an old music hall which takes them back to 1597. They meet the inventor of opera, Professor Peri, who introduces them to the likes of Monteverdi, Handel and Purcell. The narrative text, in many ways, makes this an accessible book to a wide audience. Little footnotes and wry nuggets of explanation adorn the pages making it great fun. There follows some extremely informative pages at the back of the book where fact-seekers will revel in learning about other baroque composers, baroque instruments, operatic voices and more!

Opera is defined as a story set to music and this thrilling history of baroque music is aptly wrapped in a story that will delight and educate in equal measure. We can’t wait to read the rest of the series!

The Secret Dragon

Ed Clarke

Puffin

The Secret Dragon is a wonderful story set on the South Wales coast, inspired by visits to the beaches of the Vale of Glamorgan. Ed Clarke lives in London but the story evolved as he visited his parents.

Mari Jones, inspired by her father, is a young fossil hunter and aspiring scientist. She makes a remarkable discovery on the beach one day – a tiny gwiber or wyvern hatches from the rock. Mari’s mother is tolerant of her passion for paleontology but is far from encouraging and so Mari feels unable to share her revelatory discovery. But can she keep the secret to herself? She wants to honour her father’s memory with ‘Gweeb’ and so begins to study it carefully, putting together her findings before ‘going public’. However, the secret is hard to keep, especially as the dragon is full of mischief and keeps escaping.

This is a great adventure story full of humour and heart. Mari, an isolated and quirky individual, is forced to learn the value of friendship and family. She’s a great character – resourceful, headstrong and determined – even when things are against her. Ed Clarke’s narrative is enchanting and absorbing with more than a touch of danger and there are plenty of life lessons along the way.

The Secret Dragon is recommended for readers 8+, but there is plenty to keep older readers engrossed and engaged throughout.

We received a free copy of The Secret Dragon from Puffin in exchange for this honest review. You can find out more about Ed Clarke at his website or you could follow him on Twitter.

The cover of The Secret Dragon was illustrated by Ben Mantle. If you’d like to buy a copy, why not visit your local independent bookshop or buy online.