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:

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); 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).