My Name Is River Blog Tour

My Name is River, the new novel from Emma Rea is published on Thursday 6th August by Firefly Press. Earlier this year, we hosted the cover reveal and Q and A with Emma – you can see that post by clicking here.

For the blog tour, we thought we’d ask Emma Rea for her favourite journey books seeing as main character Dylan journeys from Machynlleth to Brazil in this brilliant adventure. But first of all, let’s take a look at the story…

In My Name is River, 11 year old Dylan takes matters into his own hands when a pharmaceutical company plans to buy the family farm in Machynlleth. Dylan senses unfairness, injustice and there is more than a whiff of foul play so he sets off to the company headquarters in Brazil intent on uncovering the scandal.

This is a true adventure, probably unlike anything else you’re likely to read this year – My Name Is River is a dynamic ecological thriller with thought-provoking real world messaging. That may sound earnest – I promise it’s not – there’s plenty of action and adventure bursting through its pages, from speed boat chases to kidnappings and piles of peril in the Amazonian rainforest. This is James Bond with a conscience for 10 year olds.

What really makes the story though is the characters. Emma Rea kept Dylan from a previous book (Top Dog, published by Gwasg Gomer) and he’s likeable, determined and principled. However, it’s fair to say that the Brazilian characters steal the show. Lucia is a street child; a bold, resourceful and gutsy girl who has fought and found her own way. She is written with great warmth and humour by Emma who clearly has a soft spot for her. The relationship with Dylan is honest, caring, respectful and loyal – readers will love this demonstration of friendship.

If you’re looking for exciting and compelling entertainment it’s here in spades in this accomplished and thrilling novel.


Emma’s Favourite Journey Books

In My Name Is River, Dylan embarks on an incredible journey. We asked Emma to tell us about her choice of books that all contain journeys…

I absolutely love Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo, not only for the family voyage across the world’s seas, nor just for Michael’s long stop on an island before he can continue his journey home, but for the way Michael and Kensuke make friends very slowly, fall out badly, and manage to restore their faith in each other. I defy anyone to finish this book without needing six handkerchiefs.

I Am David by Anne Holm is unbeatable. Twelve-year-old David escapes from a concentration camp and travels alone across Europe, armed with nothing but a compass and a bar of soap. Crackling with tension and dotted with small kindnesses, this is a book with an emotional punch you never forget. More handkerchiefs needed.

Holes by Louis Sachar is full of eventful journeys: from Latvia to the US, all over Texas, across the desert and up to the top of a mountain that resembles ‘God’s Thumb’. The plot reaches back four generations, encompasses powerful themes, and is leavened with mystery, humour and several endearing nicknames: Armpit, Zero, Squid and Barf Bag to name a few.

What are your favourite journey books? Get involved and let us know in the conversation on Twitter.

You can buy My Name Is River by Emma Rea on the Firefly website or from your local independent bookshop. Follow Emma on Twitter, or visit her website.

Thank you to Fireflies Leonie and Megan for supporting us with materials and a proof copy of My Name Is River, given in exchange for the review. Lastly, thanks to Emma for her engagement and for writing such a brilliant book!

Sophie Anderson Wins Wales Book of The Year

Sophie with her Wales Book of the Year trophy and the winning book

On Friday July 31st, live on BBC Radio, Sophie Anderson was announced winner of the Children and Young People’s category for Wales Book of the Year 2020. Her book, The Girl Who Speaks Bear (Usborne) is a wildly imaginative and lyrical folk tale about finding yourself. Full of magic and hope, it is a skilfully written and rather brilliant adventure.

The Children & Young People category was added for 2020, designed to enthuse a new generation of readers, raise the profile of Wales’ talented authors, and establish that literature for children is on a par with that which is intended for adults. Readers of this blog will not need convincing that children’s books are full of hope, bravery, wit, empathy and love. Recognition of this is growing and quality examples from Wales are becoming far more widespread as demonstrated by the shortlist.

Children’s Laureate for Wales, Eloise Williams, says that the introduction of this category confirms children’s literature as an important artistic form. “I am so delighted to see Literature Wales recognising and celebrating children’s literature like this; we’ve got a wealth of children’s writers who are producing superb books – the quality is so high, engaging readers of all ages.”

In addition to the category win, The Girl Who Speaks Bear also won the People’s Choice Award decided by a public vote. Sophie sees this as a validation of the new category, “I am over the moon,” she told BBC Radio Wales, “Children’s books are books for everyone; they wrap up the big things we all feel, helping children to navigate the world.” Echoing the rather brilliant essay by Katherine Rundell, ‘Why you should read children’s books, even though you are so old and wise’, Sophie recently said, “I honestly believe some of the most important, most philosophical, and most enjoyable books are labelled for children.”

It’s important to note that the other two children’s books on the shortlist are worthwhile additions to any home. Butterflies for Grandpa Joe by Nicola Davies (Barrington Stoke) is about Ben’s attempt to engage and comfort his grieving grandfather. The story moved WBOTY judge Ken Wilson Max to proclaim it “a powerful, deeply sensitive story, beautifully told.” On Susie Day’s Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It, which was also nominated for this year’s Tir na n-Og Award for children’s books set in Wales, Eloise Williams said, “This is a humorous, touching, beautiful story about the metaphoric mountains that some young people have to climb.” Both books come highly recommended by Family Bookworms.

We’re really grateful to Sophie Anderson for agreeing to answer a few questions following her award, and we’re really pleased that Sophie has recommended some high-quality children’s books towards the bottom of the page.

What was your reaction on learning that you had won the Wales Book of the Year category?

Complete and utter disbelief! The news came via an e-mail from my publisher, Usborne, and I e-mailed back with the response: ‘Am I reading this right? Has BEAR won in the Children’s category?!’

Once the news was confirmed and had sunk in a little, I was over the moon of course, and ran outside to tell my husband and children, who are always so happy to celebrate with whoops of joy and plenty of hugs!

Is being Welsh important to you?

Absolutely. All the Welsh people I know, myself included, are proud of their Welshness and consider it an important part of their identity.

Since I moved away from Wales (when I was eighteen) my Welshness has only become more important to me. I still think of Wales as my home, and I believe I always will. It is where my family live, and some of my oldest and dearest friends. But it is much more than that too …

I feel Welshness as something in my soul. It’s difficult to define, but it relates to the landscapes, the cultures, and the people of Wales. I’d describe it almost as a lyricalness, a deep emotional connection, and I think if you’re Welsh (or have spent some of your life in Wales) then you understand this!

Does being Welsh have any influence on your writing?

Definitely. With my Welshness being part of my soul and identity, it is bound to come out in my writing. I think many Welsh creatives are deeply inspired by beautiful landscapes, ancient heritage, and poetic language, because these things are so important in Wales.

When I look at my own work, and the work of other Welsh authors, I often feel these strong connections to the land and to the tales of old, and also sense a deep passion and almost symphonious way of expressing thoughts, experiences and emotions.

You also won the public vote. How does that make you feel?
I desperately wanted one of the children’s books to win the public vote, so I was absolutely thrilled with this news. It feels like the most wonderful of celebrations for the new Children and Young People’s category of the award.

Knowing that so many adult readers took a children’s book into their hearts and took the time to vote for it really is such a wonderful thing, a brilliant reminder that children’s books are not just for children – they are exceptionally well-crafted stories that can deeply move readers of all ages.

You are no stranger to awards. Is this one any different?

This one feels like a celebration of both my Welshness and my writing, so it does feel very special – like a big warm hug from my motherland!

Different awards are judged in different ways; some recognise commercial success, others look at the technical quality of writing, and some look at popularity with readers (which you could argue is often a function of marketing and publicity!).

Wales Book of the Year is judged by a panel of talented and erudite judges. Knowing the quality and range of books they will have considered makes me feel honoured they chose BEAR. But it must be such an impossible decision – like picking one jewel in a treasure chest bursting with equally beautiful jewels!

Whilst it is wonderful to see BEAR with a crown of sorts, I think the really brilliant thing about awards like this is in the celebration of the longlists and the shortlists, because they present an opportunity to promote a wide selection of fantastic books to readers who might not have heard of them.

Seeing children’s books part of Wales Book of the Year for the first time has been a wonderful experience for this reason, and I truly hope it marks a jump forwards in celebrating and increasing the visibility of this beautiful sector of literature.

The quality of the shortlist was very high. Have you read the other nominees?

I read Max Kowalski when it was first published and adored it. I hadn’t heard of Butterflies for Grandpa Joe until the shortlisting, even though I am a huge fan of Nicola’s work, so this really highlights how important awards can be in terms of raising awareness of new titles. I’ve read Grandpa Joe now of course, and think it is a really beautiful, special book.

You will hopefully be contributing to The Mab – a collection of Britain’s oldest stories – with 10 other Welsh writers. Does it feel like you’re part of a Welsh writers’ club?

It really feels like I’m part of a family! Welsh children’s writers are so friendly and supportive of one another. I think because we all have some shared experiences, and also share this undefinable, lyrical Welshness, it does make us feel close to one another.

All of us work together to promote children’s literature in all its forms, celebrate each other’s books and recommend a wide range of titles. There is no competition between us, because we feel like we are on the same team – if we can create readers, then all of our books will be successful!

What other quality Welsh fiction can you recommend?

Now this is the hardest question because there is so much Welsh fiction that I adore, and so many Welsh authors who I deeply admire – Catherine Johnson, Zillah Bethell, Stephanie Burgis, Claire Fayers, P G Bell, and Jackie Morris just to name a few!

But onward to choosing a few titles …

The Quilt, written and illustrated by Valeriane Leblond is a breathtakingly beautiful picture book that stole my heart recently. It holds a moving story of migration, explores themes of home and hiraeth, has a gorgeous message of hope, and I loved the symbolism of the quilt.

Nest of Vipers by Catherine Johnson (around 9+) is a thrilling historical adventure with the most wonderful group of characters who I still miss long after reading! I would recommend any of Catherine’s books in a heartbeat, she is a huge talent and her books are massively important as they are some of the few books seeking to write lost and erased stories – such as the story of Matthew Henson, in her book Race to the Frozen North.

The Snow Spider trilogy by Jenny Nimmo is my third choice. Such beautiful stories, they really capture some of the Welshness I’ve talked about in this interview: the love of landscape, the nods to ancestry and heritage and the tales of old, and the stories have a dreamlike, magical quality that I always associate with Wales.

And one more shout-out! Even though you asked for fiction I’d like to highlight a non-fiction book: What is Masculinity? by Darren Chetty and Jeffrey Boakye is outstanding and deserves a place in every school and library (and if I had my way every home too!).

If you asked me about the future of Wales Book of the Year I would talk about my hopes for even more categories under a Children and Young People’s umbrella. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a children’s non-fiction award, and a children’s poetry award, like there is for the adult books? And also, an award that celebrates illustrators and illustrated books, as they are such a massively important part of children’s literature too!

Huge thanks to Sophie Anderson for indulging us with this blog post, and massive congratulations on your double win. If you haven’t yet read the prizewinning book, you can order it now from your local independent bookshop. Sophie’s next book, The Castle of Tangled Magic is due out in October, published by Usborne.

#TheMab

Earlier this week, a crowdfunding campaign was launched to finance a new version of The Mabinogion for young people. These are the earliest prose stories of Britain and have been hugely influential on storytelling across Europe. With contributions from 11 acclaimed Welsh writers for children, the new book promises to be an epic retelling for a new generation. Each tale will be written in English then translated into Welsh by Bethan Gwanas and will feature glorious illustrations from the incredible Max Low.

The book is being put together and edited by Children’s Laureate Wales, Eloise Williams and Matt Brown who will also contribute a story each. Matt posted this video to explain more about The Mab.

The book, which is not yet a reality, is seeking publication through Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher. Readers choose a reward – everything from a signed copy of the book to author virtual visits – pledge their money, and wait for the project to be 100% funded.

At Family Bookworms we are giving this project our full support and backing and would encourage you all to visit the unbound website to donate if you can. As one of our worms says:

“The Mabinogion is part of our cultural heritage and to have these amazing contemporary authors, representative of the very best in children’s writing from Wales, is a real coup. It promises to be an essential and important volume for a new generation.” 

Simon Fisher, Family Bookworms

Eloise Williams, Children’s Laureate Wales and author of 4 novels set in Wales, told us, “As far as we know, there isn’t another collection like it! We have so many amazing people working on the project and we are so excited to bring the stories to everyone.”

So let’s take a look at the amazing cast of contributors and hear directly about their involvement, their excitement and their motivations…

I am overjoyed to be collaborating on this magical project with a group of writers that are inspirational, artful and delicate in their gathering of words. As a poet, this opportunity opens up the page and offers me space to dreaming, space to unravel, unfold and stretch my ideas – and I’ll be listening to the whispers, to the mutterings of the old tales.

Alex wharton

I am delighted to have been invited to contribute to this project, especially as I have moved to Pembrokeshire where so much of the action of the Mabinogion takes place. The stories are so strange, like something translated with a slightly dodgy Rosetta stone; but what I love about them is the echos they carry of a long lost world where wolves howled on the Welsh hills and the landscape was populated not with humans but with wild species in abundance. Immersing myself in that world with its priorities so very different from our own, is going to be a deep pleasure.

nicola davies

I remember my primary school teacher reading the Mabinogion to us in class. The Owl Service (inspired by the story of Gronw and Blodeuwedd) was one of my favourite books growing up. I rediscovered my love for these tireless tales in adulthood, so much so I gifted my son with the middle name Lleu. I am honoured and excited to work on this project and weave myself even more closely to the legacy of these fascinating stories.

Hanan issa

We dream in myths and they in us. They are a society’s safety valve. All our taboos, our deepest fears and desires are played out through the symbolic language of myth and thereby rendered to some extent harmless.

zillah bethell

I’m relishing the opportunity to work on these historic stories with such a fantastic group of writers. Eloise has been doing wonderful things as Children’s Laureate Wales – so I was delighted when she asked me to be part of this.

darren chetty

My mother used to tell my brothers and I all kinds of stories when we were young, but the stories from the Mabinogion always felt extra special, because we knew they were stories from Wales, our home. To be invited to be part of this wonderful project is honestly a dream come true. I believe it is hugely important to preserve the stories from the past, because they are full of wisdom and magic and adventures that speak to our souls. But to preserve these tales, we need to keep retelling them in ways that ignite the interest of readers today. The talent and passion of the creatives working on this project is going to make this a very special book that I know will be treasured by generations of readers to come.

sophie anderson

I didn’t discover the stories from the Mabinogion until embarrassingly late in life, despite having grown up a stone’s throw from Caerleon, where Arthur holds court in many of the tales. For whatever reason, the Mabinogion just didn’t seem to feature in my cultural landscape at the time. That’s why I’m so happy to be part of this fantastic group of artists that Eloise and Matt have assembled. I can’t wait to help share all the magic and strangeness, the adventure and humour with a new generation of readers across Wales and beyond.

P g bell

This is my copy of The Mab from around 1976, maybe earlier. It’s got Olwen on the cover and it’s so floppy and old (although not as much as me) it’s losing pages. I loved it: Welshness was an important part of my identity growing up in London and this book with its weird weighty words is hardwired into my heart. I always always wanted to write something that used the bones of these stories and this is a brilliant brilliant opportunity.

catherine johnson

I’ve spent the past year immersed in Welsh folklore for my own books, so I’m tremendously excited to be a part of this project. What I love most about these ancient tales are the gaps – events that are never properly explained, threads of stories that are left dangling. It’s like seeing a landscape through mist, and it gives tremendous scope to interpret and reimagine. The stories of the Mabinogi explore everything that’s human, from family and friendship to cruelty and murder. Best of all is the sense that the Otherworld of magic is never far away. I’m looking forward to seeing these stories brought to life in a new way for today’s readers.

claire fayers

These stories are part of our heritage and should be in every classroom and every home. By crowdfunding the book we’re making it part of everyone who helps get it made.

matt brown

The Mab is an amazing new book retelling all 11 stories for young people. They are the oldest British stories and #TheMab will help new generations of children fall in love with them. But we need your help – please visit the Unbound page to pledge your support.

eloise williams

The Mab will feature illustrations by Max Low.

I’m really chuffed to be illustrating this wicked update to the legendary Welsh tales from The Mabinogion.

max low

It’s been a real pleasure to be involved in #TheMab launch. Please head over to Unbound to donate if you can. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the funding target over the coming months.

Thanks to all the authors and illustrator for giving us some exclusive content. While we wait for The Mab, and if you have any money left after donating on Unbound, you can head over to your local bookshop and buy a book by one of the contributors. Here’s our recommendations*:

*Firefly Press will publish Daydreams and Jellybeans by Alex Wharton in Spring 2021.

**Images on this page (the author profiles) were made by EW Graphic Designs and are not to be reproduced without permission.

Wales Book of the Year 2020

Which of the three shortlisted books for children gets your vote? We ask 3 bloggers to fight their corner.

We invited Anne Thompson (A Library Lady), Caroline Fielding (Teen Librarian) and Lilyfae (Lily and the Fae) to have their say.

Wales Book of the Year is Wales’ national book prize from Literature Wales, celebrating “outstanding literary talent from Wales across various genres in both English and Welsh.” For the first time, books for children and young people are celebrated amongst the shortlisted titles which features additional categories for Poetry, Fiction and Creative Non-fiction for adults. 

The shortlisted books in the children’s category are:

  • Butterflies for Grandpa Joe by Nicola Davies (Barrington Stoke)
  • The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson (Usborne)
  • Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day (Puffin)

The winners of each category, chosen by a judging panel, will be announced on 31 July and there will also be an overall winner. At the same time, a public vote is taking place to choose a popular favourite.

But who should you vote for? Well, our answer would be “all of them”, so we decided to enlist the help of three excellent bloggers as a supporter for each book.

Butterflies for Grandpa Joe by Nicola Davies

Butterflies for Grandpa Joe, written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Mike Byrne was published by Barrington Stoke in October 2019.


Synopsis


Grandpa Joe has always loved butterflies. There used to be nothing he enjoyed more than heading off to search for the flutter of brightly coloured wings and snap some photos for his collection.
But since Ben’s granny passed away, Grandpa Joe has changed. He doesn’t want to go outside, and nothing Ben says or does makes him smile. It feels like Grandpa Joe is slipping away too. So there’s only one thing left to try – if Grandpa Joe won’t come searching for butterflies, Ben will bring the butterflies to him …

Nicola Davies lives in Pembrokeshire, having recently moved from the Powys hills. She is the author of over 60 books published mostly by Walker, Hachette and Welsh publisher Graffeg – most of which draw on Nicola’s zoological knowledge. In September she publishes the first book to feature her own illustrations – Last, with Tiny Owl.

Championing Butterflies for Grandpa Joe is experienced school and public librarian and all-round children’s book enthusiast, Anne Thompson (@Alibrarylady).

“Sometimes children’s fiction can do more than entertain; it can comfort, enlighten and educate. Butterflies for Grandpa Joe does all of these things and in an accessible format. A lovely children’s book that well deserves this recognition.”

Anne Thompson, @Alibrarylady

In her blog, alibrarylady.blog, Anne sings the praises of this gentle story, which “conveys how love across the generations and the healing power of nature can soothe the heartache of grief and give hope for the future.” She goes on to say that “this lovely book deserves a place in every primary school library and classroom.” To read Anne’s full review follow this link.

Familybookworms say: Butterflies for Grandpa Joe is a gorgeous story that will pull at your heartstrings. Nicola is a master of empathy and this book had us in tears. A really special book.

Watch Nicola speak about the book in her official shortlisting video for Lit Wales here.

The Girl who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson

The Girl who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson with illustrations by Kathrin Honesta was published by Usborne in September 2019.


Synopsis


Found abandoned in a bear cave as a baby, Yanka has always wondered about where she is from. She tries to ignore the strange whispers and looks from the villagers, wishing she was as strong on the inside as she is on the outside. But, when she has to flee her house, looking for answers about who she really is, a journey far beyond one that she ever imagined begins: from icy rivers to smouldering mountains meeting an ever-growing herd of extraordinary friends along the way.

Sophie Anderson was born and raised in Swansea. Her first novel, The House with Chicken Legs, won several awards and was shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, the Blue Peter Book Award and the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize amongst others. This autumn she publishes her 3rd adventure, The Castle of Tangled Magic.

Championing The Girl Who Speaks Bear is Lilyfae, blogger at lilyandthefae.wordpress.com who blogs on Children’s books and reading for pleasure with her two girls and tweets from @faeryartemis.

“Sophie’s writing is a rich tapestry, weaving family, folklore, history and mythology with her own vivid imagination. The Girl Who Speaks Bear is a powerful exploration of finding oneself, embracing your differences and finding your pride. It’s a thrilling adventure exquisitely told. Sophie is a modern day bard.”

Lilyfae, @faeryartemis

In her blog, lilyandthefae.wordpress.com, Lily says, “This is a wonderful book full of hope, strength and warmth that will appeal across the ages and generations. I’ve been reading this aloud with my daughters, and this style of narrative interspersed with short folk tales has been a real experience. The bitesize folkish interjections give both relief and colour to the story and their ancient rhythms and themes reach a timeless place within the reader, and speaks truths that even the youngest can understand.” To read Lily’s full review follow this link.

Familybookworms say: The Girl Who Speaks Bear is a brilliant and beautiful adventure by one of our favourite writers. It’s a thrilling and spellbinding tale that has brought us a lot of joy.

Watch Sophie talk about the book in her official shortlisting video for Lit Wales here:

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It was published by Puffin in September 2019.


Synopsis


Max wants to be just like his dad – fun, loud and strong.
Instead, he always seems to be accidentally getting into fights and breaking things.
But when his dad starts bringing home mysterious boxes, even more mysterious wads of cash starts turning up.
Then Dad disappears. And it’s up to Max to look after his sisters until he comes home.
When they run away to a remote village in Wales, he’s convinced that no one will find them.
He’s Max Kowalski. Of course he can look after three kids with no grownups around!
Although, he can’t stop thinking about where Dad really went. And the whispers of a golden dragon, asleep under the Welsh mountains…

Susie Day was born and raised in Penarth. She is responsible for the Pea series and the Secrets series as well as recently contributing a short story to a Doctor Who anthology. Max Kowalski was also on the shortlist for the recent Tir na-nOg Award.

Championing Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It is Caroline Fielding, past judge for the Carnegie Kate Greenaway and a chartered school librarian. She blogs at teenlibrarian.co.uk and tweets @CazApr1.

“Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It deserves all the prizes for tackling toxic masculinity with such a light touch. It is full of warmth, humour and wonderful descriptions of the Welsh mountains.”

Caroline Fielding, @CazApr1

In the blog, teenlibrarian.co.uk, Caroline speaks of seeing Louie Stowell’s ingenious review, “If Jacqueline Wilson ganged up with Alan Garner and remixed A Monster Calls, with dragons. Powerful and deep.” She goes on to say that Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It is everything it promises to be – brilliant, warm and funny featuring “fabulous characters in pretty dire but totally believable circumstances.” Caroline features an interview with Susie Day on the teen librarian website.

Familybookworms say: Max Kowalski is a fantastically original and heartfelt tale about growing up, dealing with siblings and inner dragons. This witty and emotional book shows middle grade readers that empathy and stories make for a better world.

Watch Susie talk about her shortlisting in this official video from Literature Wales:

Huge thanks to Anne, Caroline and Lily for allowing us to quote and link to their reviews. Follow them on Twitter and subscribe to their blogs! Do head over to the public vote too, run by Wales Arts Review to place your vote for one of these brilliant books. And if you’re concerned about not having read one of them, you can put that right this summer…

Valériane Leblond

Popular illustrator and artist Valériane Leblond has written her first book for children, as well as painting the images that bring the story to life. Valeriane was brought up in Angers, France but moved to Wales in 2007 and now lives in a farmhouse near Aberystwyth. Valeriane speaks French, English and Welsh.

The Quilt (Y Lolfa) is a beautifully illustrated hardback offering a message of hope and hiraeth. The picturebook pages are captivating taking us from rural Wales at the turn of the 20th century to the New World via Liverpool. We love the colour palette and how this changes as the family enter America (reminiscent of Kyffin Williams’ tone in his Patagonian paintings) and the buzz of Liverpool is Lowry-esque in it’s industrious hustle and bustle. This truly is a stunning book and we felt compelled to get in touch with Valériane to find out more.

Could you tell us how you became an artist?

I’ve always enjoyed drawing, painting and being creative in general, so it happened quite naturally. I had another job for a few years before being able to go full time though.

What was your own journey to settling near Aberystwyth?

I had a Welsh boyfriend that I met at University in Brittany and I followed him home here to Ceredigion. I didn’t know much about Wales at the time, but I felt welcomed here, and I fell in love with the place and its people. Now I’ve got three sons who were born here, I’ve learnt the language and I feel that I can make a contribution through my art.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m reading a novel called Le Principe by Jérôme Ferrari about the physicist Heisenberg. It’s sometimes a bit too clever for me!

The Quilt is an incredible achievement. How long did it take to complete?

Thank you! It must have taken 6 to 8 months to write, and about 3 months to illustrate. I was working on other projects while writing, but I worked full time on the illustrations.

What attracted you to the story?

I always wanted to illustrate a story about a Welsh quilt, I think it is a fascinating craft, visually and historically. And I’ve always been interested in movements of people, especially to North America as my father was from there.

What are your methods of illustration?

I have several techniques, and I love varying and experimenting. I always use a sketchbook to draw roughly the silhouettes and plan the compositions. For The Quilt, I worked with gouache and coloured pencils on paper, and to obtain the muted palette and the sepia overall tone I dyed the paper with brown ink before painting. 

The story absolutely suits your illustration style – particularly the period and lifestyle – is this just coincidence?

No, it’s not just coincidence. Being both the author and illustrator has been a very interesting experience: the text has been feeding the illustrations, the illustrations have been modelling the text too. There are pictures that I just wanted to paint for a book some day, like the double page with a small ship in the big ocean, and this was the perfect opportunity. 

Did it involve a lot of research?

Yes, there was a lot of research involved. I got help from the historian Menna Morgan in the National Library, and from quilt expert Jen Jones of the Welsh Quilt Centre and I used pictures and paintings  from different archives as references for the illustrations.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from your research on The Quilt?

I loved learning about anything food-related : what people ate on the ship, the ‘discovery’ of different food like watermelons, pumpkins, sweetcorn in North America. I would love to explore further the relations between food, home, and place in the future, in a book or in my art.

What was the inspiration for the design and colours of the quilt itself?

I needed a quilt design that would be realistic for the period. After talking to Jen Jones I realised that a bold black and red flannel quilt would suit the story, and I used an existing quilt from her collection.

There is a symmetry between the family’s new life in America and the life they leave in Wales. How did you go about making these connections? 

I wanted to show that places have a lot in common rather than insist on the differences. I’m interested in the idea of “home”, and it is a universal theme we can all relate to, whether we are grown-up or not, wherever we live or come from. 

Do you consider yourself an artist or an illustrator?

It’s difficult to answer, but I would say both. When I work with another author, I am definitively an illustrator, but for The Quilt, I might tend towards being an artist!

The Quilt is a fine example of a picturebook where the images give as much information as the words. Do you have any favourite picturebooks?

My all-time favourite is The Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall and Barbara Cooney. The text is beautifully written and works by itself, and Barbara Cooney’s pictures are extraordinary. I also love Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. When pictures go beyond the text it literally creates a new dimension.

The book was published in Welsh first then English. Are there any differences between the two versions? Which language did you originally write it in?

I wrote it in French, my mother’s tongue, first. Then I re-wrote it in English, and finally in Welsh. I also worked on the pictures before finishing the text, so it’s difficult to say what is the original version! I think the Welsh text might be more poetic, but it might be down to the language itself!

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

I’m currently working on a language book with Rily Publications, which involves thousands of small pictures, and I’m also about to start on a very exciting book about Siani Pob Man, an eccentric woman who lived on the beach near New Quay in the 1900s’.

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

Maybe a teacher? Or a researcher of some kind? There are a lot of things I would enjoy doing I think!

Thank you / diolch / merci Valériane for answering our questions. The Quilt by Valériane Leblond (£5.99, Y Lolfa) is available now from your local independent bookshop. You could also order it direct from Y Lolfa.

Follow Valériane on Twitter and visit her website.

Tir na nOg Award Data

The Tir na nOg Award winner for 2020 will be announced on Friday 3rd July. The award is given to the best children’s book with an authentic Welsh setting. Winners since the inaugural award in 1976 include The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo, The Grey King by Susan Cooper, Arthur The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland and The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher.

We decided to look into the statistics behind the award to see if there is any indication of who is most likely to win…

It seems that if you want to win the Tir na nOg Award, your best bet is to be a female author named Jenny Lewis published by Pont/Gomer. The title of your book should be ‘The Tale of the Welsh King of the Sea’. And if you want the best shot at the trophy, then you’d need to go back to 1981 when there were 17 books shortlisted.

Gender. Female authors outnumber the men significantly, both in terms of receiving nominations and overall winners.

Individual Winners. Frances Thomas has won the title four times. First in 1981 then subsequently in 1986, 1992 and 2008. There are several authors who have won twice. Jackie Morris has won once as author and once as illustrator.

Nominations. Jenny Sullivan leads the nominations with 7 in total.

Publishers. One publisher has, far and away, published more shortlisted books than any other. Pont, an imprint of Gwasg Gomer, has published 54 of the titles. Gomer accounts for one third of all shortlisted titles.

Winners of the award have been published by…

We’ve analysed the names of all nominees to see which were the most popular:

Keywords. The most popular words in nominated titles…

The award has been withheld on 8 occasions, though not since 2003, so fingers crossed!

So what does this all mean for this year’s nominees? Er, probably not very much. However – we have to say that the shortlist is very strong and any of these would be worthy winners. We look forward to celebrating the 2020 winner very soon…

Wilde About Eloise

Our Children’s Laureate Wales publishes a new book today. And what a book. Wilde is a brilliant story full of excitement, anguish, humour, fantasy and weirdness. Wilde moves in with her Aunt Mae, but struggles to fit in. Odd things keep happening – the birds are following her, she wakes up in strange places, other children keep their distance. Does Wilde have a connection to the legend of The Witch Called Winter? It’s a completely engrossing tale of belonging and acceptance that would appeal to readers age 9+. It’s written by one of our most favourite authors so we thought we’d give you 5 Reasons why we’re Wilde about Eloise Williams:

1 Eloise is a fantastic writer. From the dramatic and tempestuous opening chapters of Elen’s Island, her first book published in 2015, to the poignant and tender close of her latest Wilde, Eloise gets under the skin. She gets under the skin of the reader, compelling them to drop everything and devour every word. Descriptions of landscapes are a real draw; whether it’s the wild and windswept coastline of Pembrokeshire in Seaglass, the grimy Victorian backstreets of Cardiff in Gaslight, or the waterfalls of the Brecon Beacons in Wilde.

What’s impressive though is how she gets under the skin of her characters, producing very real depictions of isolation, loneliness, the frustrations and fears of teenage years, and the joys too. Elen is plucky. Nansi is feisty. Lark is confused. Wilde is lonely. Eloise writes with real empathy for her female protagonists and portrays real understanding for her readers.

2 Eloise works non-stop. Even before she was appointed Children’s Laureate for Wales, Eloise Williams spent a lot of time in schools, libraries and book festivals. She delivers courses like those at Ty Newydd, and is invited to attend courses like the Writers At Work scheme at Hay Festival. And despite claiming to be a procrastinator, on top of all this travelling, publishing four books in 5 years is quite an achievement. Hard work deserves to be recognised and rewarded. Even in lockdown, she is producing weekly challenges to motivate and engage young people…

3 Eloise passionately promotes reading and writing for pleasure. Now, as Children’s Laureate for Wales, Eloise is a strong voice for the children of Wales. She travels the length and breadth of the country (and that takes some time!) enthusing about reading and writing. She talks fervently about the writing process and nurtures strong relationships with the children in her workshops. She is an inspiration to watch in these situations and has a lasting impact on those she meets.

4 Eloise is a tireless advocate for Welsh writers and writing from Wales. As Children’s Laureate for Wales, Eloise encourages and supports other writers for children, sharing her passion for the wealth of talent in Wales. Good stories and excellent writing has no borders, and Eloise pushes the view that books from Wales are books for everyone, raising the visibility of children’s literature in Wales and beyond.

5 Wilde is her best book yet. It’s creating a stir amongst readers and we’d strongly recommend you order a copy this weekend (direct from Firefly Press or from your local independent bookshop). Don’t take our word for it, just look at these quotes…

  • ‘A spookily good adventure that will hold children spellbound. Bewitching.’ Zoe Williams, South Wales Evening Post 
  • ‘I loved this contemporary adventure of witches, curses, identity and belonging, from Wales’ children’s laureate.’ Fiona Noble, The Bookseller 
  • ‘An inspirational book. She just keeps getting better.’ Claire Fayers
  • ‘Packed with chills and thrills, but is also full of heart. I loved it!’ Kat Ellis
  • ‘A TRULY BRAVE AND BEAUTIFUL BOOK! … Utterly beguiling.’ Zillah Bethel
  • ‘Thrilling throughout … her best yet.’ Scott Evans, the Reader Teacher

Synopsis

Being different can be dangerous. Wilde is afraid strange things are happening around her. Are the birds following her? Is she flying in her sleep? Moving to live with her aunt seems to make it all worse. Wilde is desperate to fit in at her new school, but things keep getting stranger. In a fierce heatwave, in rehearsals for a school play telling the old, local legend of a witch called Winter, ‘The Witch’ starts leaving pupils frightening letters cursing them. Can Wilde find out what’s happening before everyone blames her? Or will she always be the outcast?

Follow Eloise on Twitter, she also has a Children’s Laureate Wales account. Why not visit her website too?

Tir na nOg Award Shortlist 2020

Tir na nOg Award Shortlist 2020

The shortlists for the Tir na nOg Award 2020 have been released. Organised by the Books Council of Wales and sponsored by CILIP Cymru, the awards celebrate the work of authors and illustrators published in 2019.

There are three categories – Welsh language books for primary age children, Welsh language books for secondary age children and English language books for all ages. The English language award celebrates books with an authentic Welsh background.

Chief Executive for the Books Council of Wales, Helgard Krause said, “The Tir na n-Og Awards are an opportunity for us to celebrate the talents of our writers and illustrators who are creating world-class content for our children and young people.”

We have to agree that the English language shortlist is very strong – there are books here that would win easily in a different year, and the decision of the judges will be difficult.

Last year’s winning author, Catherine Fisher, tweeted her congratulations to the shortlistees:

The 2020 Shortlist for the English Language Category is as follows:

The Secret Dragon, Ed Clarke (Puffin)

Set on the coastline of the Vale of Glamorgan, The Secret Dragon is a gorgeous story full of fun and fantasy. It’s great for those around aged 8 and above and has a real focus on science and discovery. Fossil hunter Mari Jones makes a remarkable discovery on the beach, and decides to keep it to herself. There’s an interesting and sensitive sub-plot about family breakups that makes this an absorbing tale for all.

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It, Susie Day (Puffin)

Max and his sisters escape Southend to the mountains of Snowdonia – 6 miles from Llanberis; without their dad, without any adult, without telling anyone. Max Kowalski is a fantastically original and heartfelt tale about growing up, dealing with siblings and inner dragons. This witty and emotional book takes on toxic masculinity and shows middle grade readers that empathy and stories make for a better world.

Storm Hound, Claire Fayers (Macmillan)

Storm (a hound from Odin’s Hunt) finds himself fallen to earth on the A40 a few miles from Abergavenny. This fast-paced and highly satisfying mash-up of Norse mythology and Welsh legend is firmly rooted in the Welsh landscape. Jess adopts the puppy but his magic is much sought-after by suspicious characters. It’s an accomplished, funny fantasy with a very human story at its heart.

Where Magic Hides, Cat Weatherill (Gomer)

Where Magic Hides is a collection of short stories anchored in the four corners of Wales. Ancient kings, trolls and unicorns bound through the pages but the real message is for the contemporary world: magic can be found if you know where to look.


Creating these short summaries has highlighted the many connections between the shortlisted books. Clearly, the Welsh landscape is a unifying factor but there is also the magic and fantasy element. See also: dragons and creatures of mythology; children battling inner demons; the humour and wit of the author. As we say above, all fully deserving of the shortlisting and all worthy of your time. There are some classics here and we look forward to the winner being announced in late May.

Chair of the judging panel, Eleri Twynog Davies said, “All four books on the shortlist are of very high quality. It is so important that the children of Wales can see themselves reflected in Welsh literature, and that children outside Wales have a window on another culture.”

Summer of the Dragons

The sequel to The Secret Dragon by Ed Clarke is released in April.

When The Secret Dragon was launched last year, it garnered a lot of praise for its joyous and enchanting story of keen fossil hunter and aspiring scientist, Mari Jones. We called it a “great adventure full of humour and heart”. We loved the setting of the heritage coast, making it eligible for this year’s Tir na n-Og Award shortlist, to be announced in the next few weeks.

Imagine our delight then to be tasked with the cover reveal for Summer of the Dragons, the follow-up coming to all good bookshops on 16 April 2020. And this is really special because it is, once again, illustrated by Ben Mantle. Ben is quickly gathering a reputation for some amazing MG and older fiction covers – see recent examples for stories by Jenny McLachlan, Fleur Hitchcock, Piers Torday and Carlie Sorosiak.

Ben Mantle comes up trumps again with this stunning sunshine design:

“I just love Ben’s artwork and feel so lucky to have him as the cover illustrator,” Ed told us. “On Summer of the Dragons he really captures that seaside holiday feeling too. Who wouldn’t want to have a summer holiday on the Welsh coast? Especially when there’s tiny dragons around…”

Ben was born in Leamington Spa in 1980, and developed a very early interest in things artistic. He studied animation at Surrey Institute of Art & Design, then gained valuable experience working on Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride” before moving to Brighton to work as Head of Animation in a media company.

He was part of the animation team creating the BAFTA winning ‘Big and Small’ CBeebies website and since 2008, has been working as a children’s book illustrator from his shared studio in Brighton. His picture book collaborations with Lucy Rowland, amongst many others, are well-loved and we look forward to the rest of 2020 when he will illustrate the follow up to The Land of Roar and publish a new picture book with Catherine Emmett, entitled King of the Swamp.


Book Synopsis

Set against the stunning seaside backdrop of the Welsh coast, Summer of the Dragons picks up the story of budding scientist Mari Jones and her pocket-sized dragon Gweeb. A year after she discovered Gweeb on the beach, life is getting back to normal for them both, when two unexpected events turn it upside down again. First comes the news that Mari’s mum Rhian is expecting a baby, meaning that her boyfriend Gareth and Mari’s best friend Dylan will be moving in with them on the farm. Even more incredibly, Gweeb’s family have returned to lay their eggs in the same cave where Mari first found her secret dragon.

With tourists flocking to the beach for the summer, Mari has her work cut out to keep the dragons hidden and safe, especially when disgraced scientist Dr Griff Griffiths turns up on the hunt for a story. And when Griff manages to find and steal Gweeb’s precious egg, Mari must stage a daring rescue mission before it’s too late . . .

Gweeb’s snout emerged once more from Mari’s hoodie, took a sniff of the sea air and nosed out into the open. A second later, the little dragon had sprung forth and rocketed off into the distance. Gweeb loved the beach almost as much as Mari did. With its slatted layers of rolling, undulating rock, it provided the perfect terrain for exhilarating , low-flying aerobatics, and the dark caves cut into the cliffs provided the perfect hiding places, should anyone appear unexpectedly.


About Ed

When Ed Clarke isn’t writing for kids, he is a film and television executive and producer, working with writers to make drama for grown ups. He lives in North London with his wife and two young daughters, who would both desperately like a pet. He realises they may be disappointed now if they get a rabbit rather than a dragon.

Thank you so much to Puffin for asking us to host this cover reveal. You can find links to pre-order Summer of the Dragons at their website. It is out on 16th April 2020. Please also take the time to follow Ed and Ben and Puffin on Twitter.

The Short Knife

A new novel from Elen Caldecott publishing with Andersen Press in July 2020.

The Short Knife is a totally absorbing, powerful story of belonging and identity set in the 5th century as the Saxons invade Britain.

We are lucky to have received a proof copy of the book and it is an absolute triumph – not least in the poetic richness of Elen’s writing, this is a treat for all readers. David Almond calls it a “distinctive and engrossing tale”; Tanya Landman describes it as “grim and gritty but ultimately uplifting – a beautiful tribute to the courage and ingenuity of sisters”; Hilary McKay says it is as “bright and real as the midsummer sunshine”.

https://twitter.com/bookwormswales/status/1233679884687433728

We are in total agreement and thought it an awesome achievement. An awesome book deserves an awesome cover – so, with illustration by Miko Maciaszek here it is…

Miko Maciaszek is a graduate of illustration at Sheridan College in Oakville, Canada. He is currently based in Warsaw and has illustrated for The Washington Post, medium and Sports Illustrated. Miko told us, “It was an exciting challenge to capture the essence of this grand adventure. The great art direction from the team and the abundance of beautiful material I was given to work with inspired the illustration.”

The cover perfectly evokes the atmosphere of the novel and the forthright power of Mai. Elen reacted with glee at the cover, “I’ve loved seeing the different roughs. They’ve been bold, full of adventure and the final version is just so blinking gorgeous!” she told us. “Huge thanks to all the team, especially Miko.” You can find out more about Miko’s work on his Instagram, Twitter or visit his website.


Book Synopsis

Young Mai and her sister, Haf, are suspicious of the Saxon soldiers arriving in their village. Proved rightly so by a brutal attack on their family home, the sisters must seek a new place to belong, encountering betrayal, love, and everything in between in the process. A celebration of difference and finding your own way, when even speaking your mother tongue can be dangerous. 

“They crossed the yard, coming closer. I had my back to the hall door. Behind the hall was the storage barn. To my right, the old byre, long since empty of cows, though still standing, built as it was with sweat and good Roman nails reused. I stood alone to guard it all, with only the useless short knife at my waist; it was meant for eating, cutting cheese and bread, no more.


About Elen

Dr. Elen Caldecott graduated with an MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University and was highly commended in the PFD Prize for Most Promising Writer for Young People. Before becoming a writer, she was an archaeologist, a nurse, a theatre usher and a museum security guard. Elen’s debut novel, How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant, was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Prize and longlisted for the 2010 Carnegie Award.

Thank you so much to Andersen Press for asking us to host this cover reveal. You can find links to pre-order The Short Knife at their website. Please also take the time to follow Elen and Miko and Andersen Press on Twitter.