Storm Hound

Storm Hound

Claire Fayers

Macmillan

Storm Hound is Claire Fayers’ fourth novel following two award-winning books in The Accidental Pirates series and last year’s riveting Mirror Magic. A Hound from Odin’s Hunt has fallen to Earth as he seemingly couldn’t keep up with the pack. The thunderous skies break open and the beast lands on the A40 just outside Abergavenny. On falling to the realm of humans he transforms from a wild beast to a small puppy and is taken in by Jessica Price, her brother Ben and their father.

The torrential weather causes Jess to name the puppy Storm and he immediately gets the attention of several suspicious characters who sense his magic. The three professors display dubious demeanours and have questionable motives for being “seconded” to Jessica’s new school. Meanwhile her new friend David’s behaviour is often shrouded in mystery, especially when he’s around his peculiar Aunt. For the sake of Storm, Jess has to work out who she can trust.

Storm Hound is fast-paced and highly engaging – the narrative is driven and satisfying. There is a lot of humour in the book, derived from the relationship between man and dog (and who is the boss); with the interplay between cat and dog, and sheep and dog giving much cause for the giggles. There’s no humour amongst dogs though – Storm may be little but when he gets angry his shadow suggests his true status – and other dogs are in no doubt of his power.

Mount Skirrid

The book is indebted to Welsh mythology and legend with Claire putting her own spin on the Hounds of Annwn and borrowing Welsh enchantress Ceridwen and her son Morfran for her characters. The whole book is firmly rooted in the Welsh landscape too with the story unfolding in the shadow of Mount Skirrid – an oddly profiled Black Mountain allegedly flattened by the foot of the devil.

Whilst the book is full of Claire’s trademark magic, enchantments and fantasy, Storm Hound stands out because it is the most human story Claire has told. Jess’ parents have just split up and she is having to deal with a move away from her established friends – a new house, neighbourhood and school. She has to look after her younger brother in this transition and cope with being away from her mother. Despite the downpours and tempest in the weather, the largest storm is reserved for her internal struggle. There are many parallels throughout the book between the puppy and Jessica: the puppy does not belong; he finds it hard to communicate; he worries that he cannot protect. Huge credit to Claire for including these realities, and credence also for not trying to resolve them all (sorry – slight spoiler!).

For us (the book has been enjoyed by Mummy, Daddy and Noah), this is Claire’s most accomplished book yet. It’s funny and fast-paced and the layers of subtext allow for a wide age range to enjoy. This perfect Storm comes highly recommended.

Thank you to Macmillan for sending us a proof copy of Storm Hound in exchange for a review. Storm Hound is available now from your local bookshop or direct from Macmillan. You can visit Claire’s website here or follow her on Twitter.

Illustrator Q and A: Nathan Collins

Nathan Collins is an illustrator born and bred in South Wales. He graduated from Swansea College of Art, with a degree in Illustration. He works with traditional and digital media. In 2018 he illustrated the Anthology of Amazing Women (20Watt) and also produced new cover art for new editions of The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs (Piccadilly) – the Lewis Barnavelt series. The third book in the series will be republished with new artwork by Nathan on 21 March.

What are you reading at the moment?

The “To Read” collection is certainly building up lately, I recently completed a handful of classic stories that I’ve always wanted to read such as The Jungle Book and Peter Pan. I’ve also been sinking my teeth into John Bellairs’ series lately with it being an on-going commission; the magical themes are right up my street.

Could you tell us how you got into drawing?

It’s hard to say; drawing was always a go-to hobby of mine as a kid and it just continued from casual doodles to now working on commissions. I remember loving Maurice Sendak’s book ‘Where the Wild things Are’, and obsessively drawing creatures from the book along with my own additions; some of them probably made my parents a little worried.

Where and when do you work?

I work in a little humble studio space at home, I do miss being part of an open studio space with other illustrators but I’m just as productive here at home. Working hours tend to be all over the place, but I work mostly everyday. On days when I do get to chill out, I’m probably still thinking about the next illustration idea or sketching for fun.

How would you describe your illustration style?

The past year I’ve become a lot more comfortable in my style. I like to illustrate with clear and simple shapes in mind, always thinking of ways to make the silhouettes a little easier to read. I also play a lot with textured brushes too, recreating traditional mediums in digital brush form and painting digitally.

Did you always want to be an illustrator of books for children?

Not really, I never had a set direction on which creative field I wanted to fully dive into. It took a lot of time for me to decide what to study at university – when I finally settled on illustration it became really overwhelming the different avenues you could go down. But after looking at what I enjoyed most in my final year and what my style lends itself to, it was an easy decision – picture books was the right fit for me.

How do you go about creating an illustration? What are your methods?

I’ll always start with sketching in my sketchbook, loosely playing around with thumbnails making really messy doodles that probably only make sense to me. After settling on a composition I like to move the sketching process to the computer and create a black and white tonal rough that’s much clearer. I concentrate a lot on this part because it makes the later colouring stage easier.

We love the Anthology of Amazing Women, which you illustrated. Who were your favourites to illustrate in that book?

So many! I could easily ramble and end up listing pretty much every amazing lady featured in the book, but to narrow it down to a few I’d have to say Aretha Franklin, Emmeline Pankhurst, Margaret Hardenbroeck Philipse, Mary Anning and Frida Kahlo. All were really fun challenges to capture their likeness in my style. Aretha Franklin and Frida Kahlo were also personal icons that I really wanted to make sure to nail perfectly for this book.

You’ve also illustrated covers for the John Bellairs ‘Lewis Barnavelt’ series. What was the process in designing a cover?

It always starts with a brief and a helpful rough from the design team over at Bonnier. I’ll dissect the brief and from there, like I’ve mentioned earlier loosely sketch thumbnails, character designs and key featured elements for the cover. I’ll settle on a final composition and create a digital rough ready for initial feedback. At this point there’s usually a few changes to make before moving onto the coloured rough and then the final.

Were you aware of any of the other illustrated covers for the books (particularly the rather gruesome pen and ink drawings by Edward Gorey)?

Yes! It’s certainly a little strange to be working on a project like this when I remember some of these covers from my childhood, particularly ‘The Ghost in the Mirror’; it was slightly intimating to illustrate this series since Edward Gorey is such a huge name and a personal favourite of mine!

Which books, authors, illustrators and artists inspire you?

Again, this could be a long list! I’m madly in love with Carson Ellis’s work, her stylistic choices are perfect and I’m just obsessed with her ink work, which is a strong influence texturally to me when it comes to working on internal black and white illustrations for books. Rebecca Green is another illustrator I strongly admire; like Carson the forms she draws are simplified perfectly and she plays with unique colour schemes in the same way as Ellis.

Are you inspired by Wales?

I’d say I’m pretty inspired by Wales, especially by the environment. I grew up in a small village surrounded by forests and hills and it became the main subject for a lot of my early work, even today I feel like I’m in my element when there’s a lot of greenery or foliage to illustrate.

What are your illustration ambitions?

In general my goal is to always better myself from the last illustration I made and to improve in so many different ways. But one goal I’d love to focus on this year would be to fully develop a picture book written and illustrated by myself. Mainly just as a fun project and for the portfolio but hopefully later down the line get something published that I’ve created from the start.

Looking back over your instagram snaps, your more recent work is focused on people, but you also draw birds and beasts (and we spotted goblins!). Do you have a favourite thing to draw?

I have without really realising it focused on people lately; I have a new found love for character design solely based on people, whereas before I shied away from drawing people and mainly focused on mythical creatures or woodland animals. A lot of the times I’ll often find inspiration from people in pop culture, TV shows and mainly books, but who knows I think a few more goblins might make a comeback along with a few more animal illustrations.


“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.” Stephen Hawking

Are there plans for more published illustrations? What can we expect from Nathan Collins next?

Yep, I have plenty of plans for more published work in the future. At the moment there are still quite a few more books in the pipeline from the John Bellairs series, I’ll still be working on over the next few months, which I cant wait to show everyone!

Thank you to Nathan for taking the time to answer our questions. The Anthology of Amazing Women, written by Sandra Lawrence and illustrated by Nathan Collins, is published by 20 Watt and is available to buy in your local bookshop or online

The third book in the Lewis Barnavelt series, The Letter, The Witch and The Ring, will be published by Piccadilly Press on 21 March.

The Blue Balloon:30 Years Blog Tour

30 Years after it was first published, The Blue Balloon is reissued in a special anniversary edition with bonus material. The book marked the first of many appearances by Kipper, the loveable, friendly puppy.

The Blue Balloon is a celebration of imagination, creativity and playfulness and for this blog tour, we were challenged to come up with something different to mark the occasion. The worms got to work and the result is this video on our new YouTube Channel. Please enjoy, like and subscribe. Thank you.

The Blue Balloon Blog Tour on the Family Bookworms YouTube Channel

Thanks to Hodder and Hachette for the invite to take part in the Blog Tour – we had great fun!

For more information on The Blue Balloon: 30 Years Anniversary Edition, click here.

Author Q and A: Laura Baker

Laura Baker is a children’s book author currently celebrating the success of The Colour of Happy, a new picture book with Angie Rozelaar. She is also an editor with over twelve years experience.

Having grown up in Canada and moved to Wales to complete an MA in Creative Writing, she now lives in Wales with her husband, two young sons and basset hound.

She says that her career highlights so far include having her first picture book, I Love You When… (written as Annie Baker, illustrated by Barroux), read on CBeebies Bedtime Stories; reading her super-short stories (101 words each) at the Hay Festival and editing a number of award-winning children’s books.

We are delighted that Laura agreed to answer our questions and would like to thank her for her responses.

Where and when do you write?

I write mostly at a little desk in the corner of our dining room/lounge, or sometimes on the sofa with the dog curled up next to me. I try to write in my daytime working hours, but sometimes when I’m excited about an idea I carry on into the evening too. I remember pulling out my laptop at midnight to make some tweaks to The Colour of Happy

The Colour of Happy and My Friend Sleep are your first books as Laura Baker, but you’ve worked as an editor on many more books. Can you explain the difference between an author and an editor?

As the editor, you’re working with the author (and illustrator and designer) to pull the book together. It can involve everything from briefing an author on an idea to checking that the words flow to getting the book ready for print. Whereas, as the author, it’s the opposite! You supply the text and someone else takes over. It’s amazing seeing your words brought to life in that way, growing with the ideas from a team of editor, designer, illustrator and more. They often bring things to the story that you never thought about, making it even better. I feel so grateful to be able to work on both sides.

As an author, you are more visible – having book launches and more direct communication with readers. How has this been for you?

It’s been lovely! It’s a bit scary too, because everyone is reading the words you’ve so carefully chosen, but the publishing world is so friendly and encouraging. It was very special to celebrate the launch of The Colour of Happy with the team who brought it together, plus a wonderful group of supportive writer friends. I’m loving going into schools and connecting with readers directly too. Talking to them is giving me more and more ideas to write about!

You have written previously as Annie Baker – why the name change?

I wrote I Love You When… when I worked at the publisher, so I used the pseudonym Annie Baker. Now that I’ve branched out on my own, I’m using my real name! 

Your latest book, The Colour of Happy, explores emotions through colour. What brought you to this topic?

I wrote this story when my son was about two years old. I noticed that he and his friends could experience so many different emotions in a single day, and to them words like ‘mine’ and ‘share’ and ‘sad’ were huge. I’d also been trying to think visually about a book and wondered about using different colours on every spread. I combined the two ideas – along with the fact that my son would always pick a special flower for me whenever we went for a walk – and brought them together to use colour and emotions to frame the story. I love that Hodder understood what I was thinking, and the fact that they stuck to the single colour per page so strictly! I think it’s made for a really striking and different book. 

Can you tell us something about how you worked with your illustrator Angie Rozelaar? Because the book is so visual, we guess you must have been in contact quite a bit?

The editor and designer at Hodder took the reins on this. I think the designer and Angie were in very close contact about how they wanted the pages to look, and I got the lucky job of seeing everything when it came through! 

Which books and authors have inspired you in your career?

My favourite picture books as a child were by Shirley Hughes: Dogger and Alfie Gets in First. I still love them today, being drawn to real stories showing real emotions in everyday life. I could name loads of other inspiration as well: currently I love the Oi! series by Kes Gray and Jim Field because of its appeal to children, and I enjoy Rob Biddulph’s heartfelt stories and his inspiring career path towards children’s books.

You are originally from Canada, but came to Wales to do a Creative Writing MA. How supportive has the community been to your writing?

Very supportive! I started out in publishing straight from my MA, working with Parthian Books. This led me to work with other Welsh publishers, such as Firefly and Accent, and ultimately to my work in children’s publishing. Having the support of these publishers from the beginning really encouraged me along my path towards editing and writing. Now I’ve also met a very supportive group of writers and illustrators through Twitter, book launches, writing conferences and more – all of whom are happy to share both challenges and successes with each other.

Are you inspired by your Welsh surroundings?

Of course! We live in a lovely town by the coast, with everything you need for inspiration: green fields nearby, a local school down the road, parks full of children, the sea in view. I think being from Canada but moving to Wales provides inspiration of its own too.

As an editor, you have worked on some really interesting (and award-winning) projects with other authors. Which of these stand out?

Oh, there are so many! In picture books, I might have to say Scaredy Boo by Claire Freedman and Russell Julian. This was one of the first picture books I worked on as an editor, and I worked really hard to get amazing contributors on it. I remember reaching out to Claire through her website and was so pleased when she responded and was interested in the project! One other stand-out project worth mentioning is an adult travel book I edited for Parthian: Cloud Road: A Journey Through the Inca Heartland by John Harrison. It won Wales Book of the Year, and I got to attend the awards ceremony – red carpet and all! That was definitely a memorable moment early on in my career.  

What can we expect from Laura Baker next?

I’m keeping busy writing a variety of things, with some beautiful board books and fun activity books on the way. I’ve also got some picture books percolating and plenty of ideas brewing, so watch this space! 

Thanks again to Laura for agreeing to this Q and A, which was written and compiled by us with no financial payment or gifts received in return.

You can visit Laura’s website here or follow her on Twitter. The Colour of Happy is available in the shops now.

Author Q and A: Graham Howells

Graham Howells is an author and illustrator raised in Pembroke Dock and now living in Llanelli. He works in book illustration, television, film and board games. His book Merlin’s Magical Creatures won the Tir-na-nOg Award in 2009 and he was previously shortlisted with Jenny Sullivan for Two Left Feet. His illustrations for The Story of King Arthur (Rily, 2017) by Sian Lewis are fabulously shown off in a square hardback. He is clearly drawn to themes of fantasy and magic, as seen in his latest work The Lonely Bwback (Gomer, 2018).

The Lonely Bwbach is the story of a magical house-goblin who lives in a run-down cottage in North Wales. Every Bwbach needs two things – a house to take care of and a family to look after. So what’s a poor Bwbach to do when his home is literally dismantled around him? Go after it, of course! On the way, he will meet friendly foxes, helpful hawks, and a variety of mythical beasts, the most puzzling of which: human children. Will the poor Bwbach ever find his cottage again?

We wanted to find out more about the Bwbach, so sat down with his creator, Graham Howells, to learn all about this enchanting character.

How would you describe the Lonely Bwbach?

Nothing is more important to the lonely Bwbach than carrying out his duties, and his duties involve being the most loyal, caring friend you could ever have.

You have written and illustrated the book – which came first, the images or the words? 

I think the pictures came at the same time as the words. For example, the part where the Bwbach visits the school came to me as if I was watching the characters act it out in my imagination. I knew then how to describe it in words, but I could also ‘freeze-frame’ a scene from my mind, and that would become a picture in the book. 

When creating illustrations, how do you start the process?  Were there many versions of the Bwbach before he looked just as you wanted? 

There were a few versions of the Bwbach. Before he showed me what he looked like the Bwbach showed me what a few other Bwbachs looked like first. One of the most fun parts for me is to sit quietly and see what pops into my head, waiting to be surprised.

You have written and illustrated many books featuring folklore and legends. How did your interest in this begin and what keeps you fascinated? 

I have written a few books featuring folklore and legends, and I’ve illustrated even more that were written by other people. 

My interest began when I was growing up in Pembrokeshire and walking in the lovely countryside. After reading The Lord Of The Rings I then found out that Wales was full of stories about wizards, heroes and magical creatures.

What keeps me fascinated is the feeling that comes when walking on the coast, or on a high hill, that the strange, magical things are still so close.

St Fagan’s National Museum of History is a central part of this magical story, did you visit when writing the book? 

I’ve visited St Fagan’s many times, and it was on one particular visit that the story of the Bwbach came to me. 

In one of the cottages I got talking to an attendant who said he had lived in North Wales, and he told me that when he was young boy in school one of his teachers had lived in the actual cottage we were standing in. 

I can’t remember now whether he mentioned a Bwbach living in the house also, or did the Bwbach whisper it to me later?

Is there a particular house at the Museum on which the Bwbach’s home is based? 

The cottage where I met the attendant was Llainfadyn cottage, so that cottage became the Bwbach’s house.

You clearly enjoy the landscape and wilderness of Wales, which is your favourite area and why?

I do have a particular attachment to Pembrokeshire, as it’s where I grew up and where I started feeling the magic that was in the countryside. 

In Pembrokeshire there are standing stones, cromlechs, castles and ancient forests. There are stories everywhere of miraculous saints, dragons, knights on quests, and Fairy Folk. The land is so magical that thousands of years ago they dragged large Pembrokeshire stones hundreds of miles across Britain to build Stonehenge.

Do you find it easy to see the magical and the mythical in the everyday world?  Do you think that the presence of televisions, computers and phones have meant that we have actually lost a bit of magic in life? 

I think I do find it easy to see the magical and mystical in the everyday world. It just takes a little bit of imagination.

That’s why I wouldn’t blame modern technology for taking the magic away. The problem comes when we get lazy and allow the gadgets to do all the imagining for us.

Use the technology, but also go for a walk, look at the faces in tree trunks and stones, and read books that allow you to feel the magic. 

Do you have a Bwbach living in your house? 

Yes, I do have a Bwbach living in the house. He puts stories and magical pictures in my head and lets me think I came up with them myself. 

I wish he’d do the dishes sometimes, but he doesn’t, so I think he might be a bit lazy. 

Thank you to Graham Howells for answering these questions and for sharing some of his early sketches of The Lonely Bwbach. Thanks also to Gomer for organising the q and a.

The Lonely Bwbach is available now on-line and in bookshops across Wales for £5.99.

Mae fersiwn Cymraeg, Y Bwbach Bach Unig, hefyd ar gael ar-lein ac mewn siopau llyfrau ar draws Cymru am £5.99.

Storm Hound Blog Tour

In Claire Fayer’s fourth novel, Storm Hound, one of the dogs from the Wild Hunt falls to earth and lands near Abergavenny. In a special blog post, marking the publication of this new fantasy adventure, Claire explores the legend of The Hunt.

The Wild Hunt

I am Storm of Odin, he said, Stormhound of the Wild Hunt, follower of Odin One-Eye, also known as Arawn of the Otherworld. I run with thunder and lighting and all creatures tremble when I pass.

The dogs didn’t look very impressed.

You have gravy on your nose, the old dog said.

Imagine, if you will, that you are standing on top of a mountain in the rain. Night is falling. (I have no idea why you’d want to climb a mountain in the rain, especially when it’s getting dark, but I’m sure you have a good reason.) Thunder rumbles close by, and then the sky is split with a flash of silver lightning. In that moment, as you gaze upward, your rain-filled eyes can just about make out shapes racing through the clouds. Horses and dogs. The next time the wind howls, it sounds like the ring of hunting horns.

Be very careful climbing back down that mountain. To see the Wild Hunt, according to legend, means that disaster and death is coming.

The Wild Hunt of Odin. Peter Nicolai Arbo, National Gallery of Norway

The Wild Hunt appears in many guises across northern European mythology. In most traditions, the Hunt represents chaos, the forces of the supernatural world. It is a presage of disaster. At the very least, the person who sees the Hunt is likely to die.

One of the things I like most about the legend is its ambiguity. A glimpse of riders hurtling across the sky. No one really knows who they are or what they are doing. The various legends can’t even agree about who leads the Hunt. In Germanic folklore, it is Odin, in some areas of England it’s Herne the Hunter or King Arthur. Here’s an extract from the Peterborough Chronicles, referring to a sighting of the Wild Hunt in 1127.

Many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen… rode on black horses, and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers and horrible.

Meanwhile, in Wales, you’ll find the Hounds of Annwn – the hunting hounds of the magical Otherworld, ruled by King Arawn. This is how they appear to Pwyll of Dyfed in the Mabinogi.

As he listened out for the cry of the pack he heard the cry of another pack, with a different bark, coming to meet his own… Of all the hunting dogs he had seen in this world, he had never seen dogs the same colour as those. The colouring they had was a dazzling bright white and with red ears. As bright was the dazzling whiteness as the brightness of the red.

I could have picked just one of these legends to use in Storm Hound, but one of the big themes of the book is that life is messy and you can’t put everything neatly into categories. In the end, I thought it was more fitting to use a combination of them all.

Ysgyryd Fawr or Skirrid Mountain near Abergavenny

So, if you’re standing on top of Mount Skirrid in the rain, look out for the dogs. Some will be black, some will be white, all will be fierce. And if you see one a bit smaller than the others, struggling to keep up, say hello to him for me. That will be Storm.

Huge thanks to Claire for preparing this blog post for us. To mark the release of Storm Hound, the worms have made a short book trailer. Click here to see their creation.

See the banner below for more details about where you can read more from Claire during the week.

More about Storm Hound…
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 12-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 . . .
In Claire Fayers’ electrifying adventure Storm Hound, 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.

Storm Hound is officially published on Thursday 21st February, and can be purchased from your local bookshop. Visit Claire Fayers’ website, and do follow her on Twitter.

Author Q and A: James Davies

James Davies is the author and illustrator of Long Dog (Templar), a heartfelt, quirky, hilarious picture book about a canine who is ‘different’. He has also published 4 picture non-fiction volumes, Meet The… in which we learn about the Romans, Ancient Egyptians, Pirates and the Ancient Greeks. These last two came out in January 2019.
James is from Wales, but now lives and works in Bristol. We are delighted that he answered our questions.

What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve got a lot on the book pile! I’m reading the Barry Loser series while I start writing my own middle grade series, to see how it’s done. I’m also reading everything I can find about myths, legends and monsters from all over the world, which is my favourite subject!

Could you tell us how you got into writing and drawing?
I’ve been writing and drawing for as long as I can remember. My nan has a collection of all my first drawings – for some reason I liked making stories about angels being made from empty baked bean tins? Drawing is just something I’ve always done, but it took a little while to discover what I wanted to do with my drawing skills. I tried a bit of everything but then in University I made a picture book for the first time. That was the start of it all! 

Where and when do you work?
I work almost every day. I don’t really have a schedule, as some days it can take a while to really get going! I’m very lucky to have a great studio, Dove Street, here in Bristol. I share the space with lots of great illustrators, so it’s a very inspiring place to work. At weekends I work at home, but my fat cat can be a bit distracting. 

A lot of your drawing is done on computer/tablet – is this more complicated than using pencil and paper?
Yep, I do almost all my work digitally, with a Wacom tablet and Photoshop on a Windows PC. If you’ve only used pen and paper before it can take some getting used to, but it’s how I’ve worked for about ten years now. There’s just so much you can do with different brushes and effects when you work digitally, it’s so inspiring! It’s also much, much, much easier to make changes to artwork, which happens quite a lot. When I first started I was drawing things on paper then scanning them in, but working straight onto the computer makes the process much faster – and I like working as quickly as possible. Recently a lot of my friends are doing all their drawing on an iPad, so I’m wondering about making that move too.

We understand you moved away from illustrating for a while – what brought you back?
I think it was probably all that scanning! I was working in a style that I didn’t really like, and felt a bit fed up of drawing the same fluffy animals when I wanted to draw spikey goblins. I think it’s good to step back a bit sometimes and do other things. I had some fun adventures and some boring jobs in the time I wasn’t illustrating at all, but eventually I realised that illustration was what I enjoyed doing more than anything else in the world. So I started drawing dragons and goblins in a way I enjoyed, and it went down really well. And now here we are, five books later!

You’re clearly a cat person (hello Audrey!), so how come you ended up writing a book about a (long) dog?
Oh, I’m a dog person too! I grew up surrounded by all sorts of animals – cats, dogs, goats, horses, and an owl at one point – so I’m inspired by them all. Long Dog came about from a series of ridiculous book ideas I drew one day. Something about a really long dog was appealing to me, so I kept working on him, and he just kept getting longer.
Audrey says hi, by the way!

Which books, authors, illustrators and artists inspire you?

My favourite books are still the ones I read as a kid. Not Now, Bernard McKee is still a huge inspiration to me. I love the style of illustration where everything is flat and a bit strange, a bit like the Mr. Benn cartoons. Everything Roald Dahl ever wrote still amazes me – I really love his nasty short stories for adults too.  Terry Pratchett, of course, and Allan Ahlberg. And just so many more…

How are you inspired by Wales?
I was very lucky to grow up in the heart of the Brecon Beacons, so I was surrounded by stunning landscapes and wildlife. My parents rescue animals, and I’m still inspired by every broken pet we’ve had. It’s hard not to be swept up in the language, legends and history of Wales. For someone who loves mythical beasts and ghosts as much as me, there’s a lot to work from!

Your website and twitter feed are full of one-off characters – goblins, dragons, hares and lots of random doodles. Where do these ideas come from and do they ever develop into stories?
I never really plan what I’m drawing, these characters just seem to come out when I sit down to draw. I guess I’m just a bit goblin-obsessed…
Some things I just like to leave as one-offs, but then others lend themselves to stories. I’m slowly working some of the barbarians I’ve been drawing recently into quite a weird story.

Your Meet The… history series is brilliant. We love the Egyptians because of the mummification, which book is your own favourite?
Thanks! I love doing those books, and have such a good time making them. My favourite is probably the Ancient Greeks, I really like the orange colours and they were such an interesting culture. Plus, I got to draw the Minotaur!

What’s the strangest fact you’ve uncovered in your research?
It’s gross, but I did enjoy researching the diseases and injuries a pirate might have to deal with, in Meet the Pirates. Peg legs would have looked cool, but would have been agony! Especially after the ship’s cook had just chopped your leg off…

Will there be more? Have you considered Meet The Welsh?
I’m taking a little break from the series to do some different projects for a bit, but I’m sure they’ll be back soon! The Vikings are calling. Meet the Welsh would be fantastic, too!

What’s the weirdest doodle you’ve ever done?
Errr… let me see… I had a phase of drawing scary witches that might have been a bit TOO scary. They’re locked away now though, now all my witch drawings are a bit friendlier.

What illustration ambitions do you have?
I just want to get better all the time and do more and more. I’ve had an incredible time for the past two years working on the Meet the… books and Long Dog, and am excited to see what turns up this year and beyond! 

What can we expect from James Davies next?
More non-fiction in various formats, which is mega exciting! I love working on non-fiction, the world is so bizarre and fascinating. More books generally, really. I’m planning to make some fun animations with a friend soon, too.

Huge high-fives to James and Audrey for answering our questions and for being an all-round top bloke (and cool cat). You can see more of James’ illustrations by visiting his website. To order any of his books, visit Templar’s website. Audrey is yet to have her own social media platform.

The Closest Thing to Flying

Gill Lewis

Oxford University Press

Two girls, a century apart. Together they’ll find freedom.

Gill Lewis’ new novel is a compelling and powerful story that moved me to tears. The empathetic writing and emotive narrative is delivered with conviction by a writer of rare quality. It’s a wonderful story that manages to encompass so much, leaving you slightly dazed.

The story centres on Semira, a young refugee from Eritrea. There is little in the story about her journey to London; instead, the focus is on her struggle, several years since her arrival, to escape the clutches of the man who brought her to the UK. He is manipulative and overpowering, forcing Semira’s mum to work to earn him money; denying them food, stability and the freedom they have sought. Robel is an ugly piece of work.

He is furious when Semira buys an old hat on a market stall for a few pounds. She is attracted by a memory triggered by the small bird mounted on the brim. Semira discovers the diary of a Victorian girl and a connection is made that spans the century. Now look again at the cover of the book, and the amazing artwork of Paola Escobar – there is a symmetry to these girls’ lives – their stories seem to be reflections of each other as they find inspiration in a kindred spirit. They are linked by the hat, by their experiences and by their motivations and desires.

Hen’s lifestyle is a complete contrast to Semira – she is the daughter of a well-heeled businessman and his wife (who keeps the social diary). But this lifestyle, like Semira’s, is stifling and Hen finds hope and ambition in her Aunt Katherine. Dealing with votes for women and animal rights, the overarching theme of the novel is finding your place, knowing your worth, and having the freedom to be yourself.

Gill says, “The Closest Thing to Flying is a story about friendship and loyalty and standing up for others, and is set against a backdrop of women’s rights. Henrietta’s story made me question how far we have come since Victorian times. Women still face discrimination in many aspects of life. I wanted to write a story about the empowerment of women and celebrate those people, both female and male, who help to make it happen. I wanted Henrietta to reach through time to a modern girl and share her story. I needed to connect the two girls across a whole century, and find something that could link them both.

That something became a bird. A small green bird. All the way, from the Horn of Africa.”

Gill writes with such intensity that you can often hear her voice and feel her passion for these subjects. The Closest Thing to Flying is most definitely from the heart. Stunning.

Thank you to OUP for sending us a copy of The Closest Thing to Flying in exchange for a review. The Closest Thing to Flying is available now from your local bookshop or direct from OUP. You can visit Gill’s website here or follow her on Twitter.

Anticipated Reads of 2019

January

We’ve already had a number of exciting releases to devour in 2019. The Colour of Happy by Laura Baker and Angie Rozelaar (Hodder) is a beautiful exploration of feelings for young children – allowing them to interpret and acknowledge their own emotions and develop empathy for others.
The Girls (Caterpillar), by Lauren Ace & Jenny Lovlie is a celebration of individuality and friendship. It follows the journey of four girls who meet under an apple tree and they form a bond that lasts a lifetime. The girls grow and follow their individual paths but know that they always have the love and friendship to share the good times and get them through the bad.
Meet The Pirates and Meet The Greeks by James Davies (Big Picture Press) are superb non-fiction hardbacks that everyone needs. Filled with hi-res humour these are perfect for any age and should be in every school library in the land.

February

Three MG novels of real quality are on offer this month. The Train to Impossible Places by PG Bell (Usborne) gets a paperback release. It deserves your attention as it’s one of the most inventive books we’ve read recently. Suzie is a bold heroine seeking justice as she traverses the Impossible Places on a train piloted by trolls. We’d say it’s best suited to ages 8 to 11. Buy it, you won’t regret it.
The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis (OUP) manages to cover so much ground with an incredible deftness. Topics covered include refugees, votes for women and the ethical treatment of animals, making this book a feast for the mind (and a treasure-trove for teachers’ planning). It’s highly emotive, engaging and intelligently written – but then if you’ve read any of Gill’s other books, you’d be expecting that.
We’ve just received our copy of Storm Hound, the new novel from Claire Fayers (Macmillan) that has already received a collection of favourable first reviews. We’re looking forward to reading this funny and fast-paced story of the mythical young bloodhound who falls to earth. Claire does magical adventure extremely well so we can’t wait to get stuck in.

March

The Wonder of Trees is published in March. Non-fiction expert Nicola Davies explores the extraordinary diversity of trees and forests with illustrations by Lorna Scobie (Hodder). This is the same duo who produced The Variety of Life last year, a gorgeous large-format celebration of biodiversity that we often goggle at for hours at a time.
We are very excited about Lubna and Pebble, written by Wendy Meddour and illustrated by Daniel Egneus (OUP). A picture book addressing the refugee crisis, it follows the story of Lubna who’s best friend is a pebble she finds on the beach when she arrives in the night. It’s a story that celebrates the human spirit, hope and friendship. We know that Daniel Egneus is a quality illustrator – and the images promise to be both sensitive and skillful.
Walker is a new story from Shoo Rayner (Firefly) about a boy who can talk to dogs. Shoo’s well-loved firefly trilogy about Dragons came to a close in 2017, and we’re excited to read this new story aimed at 8-10 year olds.

April

Several Welsh picture book authors seem to have found a happy home with Little Tiger – and there are two being published in April.
We’re very lucky to have seen an early proof of Stefano the Squid, by Wendy Meddour and Duncan Beedie (Little Tiger). The illustrations are top-notch – bold and bright underwater scenes compliment Wendy’s funny and sensitive text about finding the heroic in the ordinary. Stefano lacks confidence in his own appearance – the other creatures seem far more interesting, colourful, amazing even. When disaster strikes, Stefano steps into the limelight.
The One Stop Story Shop by Tracey Corderoy and Tony Neal (Little Tiger) is a fun frolic through the magical world of storytelling. We don’t have much more information about this one at the moment, but it’s another quality pairing with a great track record.
Graffeg have a number of books scheduled for release in April – the brilliant country tales series from Nicola Davies and Cathy Fisher continues with Mountain Lamb (Graffeg); Ceri and Deri Build a Birdhouse in Max Low’s third installment of the vibrant duo’s adventures; and Helping Hedgehog Home, by Celestine and the Hare (Graffeg) is the 9th little book with a big heart featuring the Tribe. Grandpa Burdock and Granny Dandelion must help Hedgehog get home when a new fence traps her outside the garden.
The Sea House (Firefly) written by newsreader Lucy Owen has an intriguing and striking premise. Grieving nine-year old Coral cries so much, she fills her house with tears and wakes to find a magical underwater world. This fantasy story has a focus on the magic of being able to swim through your own house. Rebecca Harry’s illustrations (her 40th book!) make this a fantasy story with a big heart that will appeal to children aged 5+.
A Little House in a Big Place (Kids Can Press) by Alison Acheson is illustrated by French-born, Aberystwyth-based Valeriane Leblond. A nominee for last year’s Tir na-nOg Award with Tudur Dylan Jones, Valeriane’s images are compassionate, soulful and beautiful. The ‘big place’ in the title is the prairie, where a little girl stands in a window waving to the engineer on a passing train. Canadian author Alison Acheson has written a deceptively simple book which deals with growing up and what may lie beyond our own familiar surroundings.

May

Another exciting pairing of author and illustrator will be seen with the release of Hummingbird (Walker) by Nicola Davies and Jane Ray. This promises to be a spellbinding nature book. These tiny birds travel huge distances (from wintertime in Mexico to a spring nesting as far north as Alaska and Canada) and this book follow’s one bird’s migration. Jane Ray is a talented and distinctive illustrator, regularly shortlisted for major prizes – a worthy partner for the incredible Nicola Davies.

June

The hysterical Fables from the Stables get a new addition in Hayley the Hairy Horse, by Gavin Puckett and Tor Freeman (Faber & Faber). These rhyming tales are perfect for the 5 – 7 year olds who are after a chapter book of their own. We’ve loved every edition so far, and can’t wait for more.

July

Tracey Corderoy and Tony Neal release their second book of the year with Little Tiger entitled Sneaky Beak, a warning fable about materialism.
Ant Clancy Games Detective is new from Ruth Morgan (Firefly). Her last novel Alien Rain was nominated for the Tir na-nOg and was a sophisticated, well-crafted, compelling story, so we’re naturally including this new story in our ‘ones to watch’. Race-Chase is the new virtual reality game that everyone’s playing but gamers are starting to get hurt. Could the problem identified by the game’s creators turn out to be something deadlier? Ant Clancy and his friends set out to investigate.
Ariki and the Island of Wonders is the follow-up to last year’s Ariki and the Giant Shark by Nicola Davies and Nicola Kinnear (Walker). We loved this informative fiction – with descriptions of the reef, the wildlife and the geography of the pacific island featured – but it’s the feisty heroine who will get young readers hooked. It’s well-suited to 8 to 10 year olds, but the joy of nature will not be lost on any age.

And in the second half of the year…

There’s a lot more to come from the authors and illustrators of Wales in the second half of the year. News of the following publications is floating our boat at the moment:

The Last Spell Breather, Julie Pike; Every Child a Song, Nicola Davies & Marc Martin; The Princess Who Flew with Dragons, Stephanie Burgis (Bloomsbury); Max Low publishes a book with Otter Barry; a second Grace-Ella story is due from Sharon Marie-Jones (Firefly); a third (and final?) Aubrey book from Horatio Clare (Firefly); a second novel from Sophie Anderson; Peril en Pointe from Helen Lipscombe (Chicken House); there may be a new book from Wendy White, and new books from Dan Anthony and Ruth Morgan will be published with Gomer; a follow up to Through the Eyes of Me by Jon Robinson (Graffeg); Teach Your Cat Welsh and Find the Dragon from Lolfa; and a new Max the Detective book from Sarah Todd Taylor (Nosy Crow).