An overview of bookish news and stories relevant to the Children’s Book Community in Wales
Award Winning Invertebrates
Invertebrates are Cool by Nicola Davies and Abbie Cameron (published by Graffeg) has won the English 4-11 Picture Book Award for non-fiction age 4-7.
The 4-11 Picture Book Awards are presented by the English Association to the best children’s picture books of the year. The winning books are chosen by the English Association and the United Kingdom Literary Association, from a shortlist selected by a panel of teachers and Primary specialists.
“A stunning book that encourages interest in the natural world and inspires children to explore their surroundings.” More details here. The book has also been shortlisted for the School Library Association’s Information Book Award.
Graffeg Announces Middle Grade from Wales Imprint
Graffeg recently announced plans for a new imprint focusing on Middle Grade books in English with uniquely Welsh content. The Cardiff-based publisher confirmed they are looking to identify high quality literary texts (both fiction and creative non-fiction) either set in Wales or involving characters from Wales, and which are preferably written by authors with strong connections to Wales.
‘Middle Grade is one of the most crowded areas of publishing’, commented Graffeg’s Publishing Director, Matthew Howard, ‘and there are already some tremendous books out there for readers in the 7-12 age group. But what we’d like to do is establish Wales as the true home of good writing and great storytelling, a place that children can see every day in the very best books they read.’
Graffeg aims to consider around 12 titles per year for publication and will begin the process of identifying suitable texts from May 2023, with the first publications planned for Spring 2024.
Firefly to Publish Exciting New Fiction from Wales
Three titles in a new series of contemporary fiction for children is forthcoming from Firefly Press. The titles include new stories set in Wales from Patience Agbabi, Zillah Bethell and Emma-Jane Smith-Barton. The books will publish from autumn 2024 onwards, and it is hoped that there will be at least another three in the series.
‘We felt there was a lack of children’s and YA stories that reflect what it is like to live in or grow up in Wales in recent times,’ said Thomas. ‘When we approached established authors about this, we were thrilled with the hugely positive reaction from writers who may never have been asked to write about this part of their experience before! We are also looking at publishing them simultaneously in Welsh, to ensure as wide a reach as possible. All this has been made possible by New Audiences Fund from Creative Wales and the Books Council of Wales, and we can’t wait to read the results!
Patience Agbabi said, ‘I’m delighted to be working on a young adult novel with Firefly. I first got into literature and popular culture at school in north Wales so I can’t wait to recreate that setting through my fictional protagonists.’
Emma-Jane Smith-Barton will be writing an illustrated story for 7-9 year olds. ‘As a Welsh-Pakistani woman I would have loved a book like this when I was growing up, to help me navigate the difficulties (and discover the beauty) of belonging to more than one culture, and I hope it will help children in a similar position to feel seen and less alone in that challenge.’
The first title will be by Zillah Bethell and centres on 17 year old Apricot Jones from Port Talbot. Zillah describes it as ‘a darkly comic tale of what it means to be alive’. Full story here.
Wales Book of the Year Shortlist Announced
Literature Wales recently revealed the books reaching the Wales Book of the Year 2023 shortlist.
The Wales Book of the Year Award is an annual prize celebrating outstanding literary talent from Wales across many genres and in both English and Welsh. There are four categories in each language – Poetry, Fiction, Creative Non-fiction, and Children & Young People, with one of the four category winners announced as the Overall Winner, and claiming the title Wales Book of the Year 2023.
The titles shortlisted in the Children & Young People category are:
The Mab, edited by Matt Brown and Eloise Williams, published by Unbound
The Last Firefox, written by Lee Newbery, illustrated by Laura Catalan, published by Puffin
When The War Came Home, written by Lesley Parr, published by Bloomsbury
There is one award decided by public vote – The People’s Choice Award 2023. You can place your vote here.
New Books Published in May
Grandads are the Greatest by Ben Faulks is illustrated by Swansea’s Nia Tudor and published by Bloomsbury. A joyous celebration of wonderful grandads and the love they have for their grandchildren – this is the perfect gift from grandparent to young grandchild.
Miracles, is the debut volume of poetry for children from Children’s Laureate Wales, Connor Allen. Published by Lucent Dreaming and illustrated by Amy Moody.
When you read Vivi Conway (and let’s make this clear from the beginning – you must read Vivi Conway, it is stupendous) there are several things that may strike you. It could be the fact that Vivi and her gang have the most incredible heart-racing adventures. It might be that the writing is so lively and engaging that it pulls you in completely and makes you feel instantly a part of Vivi’s world. It may be that this is undoubtedly one of the most inclusive books you have ever read. It would probably be that you fall in love with Gelert the protective ghost hound who speaks in a Welsh dialect that would make Lesley Parr proud, mun.
I was particularly enamoured by a couple of things: firstly, the constant inspiration of Welsh mythology cannot be underplayed here. I mean we’re single-mindedly here for authentic welsh contexts and it feels like Lizzie has pulled out all the stops to do the Wales Tourist Board proud. The book is completely teeming with legends, folk-tales, Arthurian and mabinogion-inspired references. It is excellently done – I love the part where Gelert describes his own demise whilst standing next to his own grave (macabre but extremely moving!); or where Nimuë the Lady of the Lake recounts the story of Pwyll and Rhiannon. Elsewhere, the inspiration is more subtle and the tales have been twisted, diluted or reshaped (just as they have been over centuries).
Secondly, there is great humour here. Real laugh-out loud stuff. Observational comedy and warm-hearted funnies that made me beam as I read. These kids are going through some wild episodes but their sense of humour is maintained throughout. My supposition is that there is a bit of author Lizzie Huxley-Jones in Vivi and that they had a ball writing the story; their warm personality certainly shines through the writing. By the end of the book, not only are you desperate for more, but you feel like you actually want to be in the company of these misfits, and by association, get to know Lizzie Huxley-Jones better. (We promise to try and get them to do a Q and A soon!)
However Vivi Conway floats your boat, one thing is sure; it is a completely joyous book that I will happily recommend to everyone for the rest of my life. The Sword of Legend is full of the most excellent fun.
At the start of the story, Vivi Conway is moving to London. But the night before she leaves, she hears a voice calling her to the lake. It is here that she is given Excalibur and a quest to contain Arawn, the King of the Underworld. She can’t do this alone, and finding her tribe is a central theme to the story – both for real-world Vivi as she settles into her new school in London, and for fantasy-world Vivi as she seeks out the other ‘calonnau’ who are charged with defending the mortal world.
What follows is a story full of magic, myth and monsters that will (mildly) terrify and thrill readers of all ages. There are missing children, seized by the horrifying spider-like Coraniaid who seem to have taken the job of the Tylwyth Teg in kidnapping youngsters and holding them captive in the Unlands (that space between our world and Annwn). As Vivi and her friends Dara, Stevie and Chia learn to tame and hone their magical powers ‘on the job’ the adventure to rescue the missing children takes in the Science Museum, the British Library and the Crystal Palace dinosaurs. It really is an education!
For a fantasy story full of the supernatural it’s also intensely real. Autistic Vivi was bullied in her previous school and is extremely wary of other kids – particularly as she’s now in a new city and feels she cannot give herself up to friendship due to previous experiences. Readers will enjoy following Vivi as she works these things out, opens up, conquers fear and becomes more content with her place in the world. She is battling supernatural demons by day but also inside her head. The parallel nature of Vivi in the human world and Vivi in the Unlands works phenomenally well.
An authentically Welsh, fun fantasy, expertly written with joy woven through every page. A story that encourages everyone to be themselves and to assure growing youngsters that they will find their place. Vivi Conway and the Sword of Legend is essential for every home, library and school; this is a special one I’m going to be recommending to a lot of people. Thanks Lizzie Huxley-Jones for writing.
Blog Tour Content
Lizzie Huxley- Jones recently tweeted about their research in the British Library. We thought it may be fun to pull out some of the myths and legends that have inspired Vivi Conway and the Sword of Legend and highlight some retellings for children. Hope you enjoy…
Gelert is a ghost dog in Vivi’s adventure and a faithful guardian to the children. This is the wiry hound Gelert of legend, and in one very moving scene he transports Vivi to Beddgelert and recounts his story right next to his grave. Try holding the tears in when you get to that part. A really lovely retelling of Gelert for children is the Cerys Matthews version but it also appears in the ‘Tales from Wales’ collection.
Vivi meets Dara at the lake – like Vivi, Dara has been gifted a magical power associated with a figure from mythology. Ceridwen is that mythical legend – a sorceress who had a magical cauldron. The story of how she brewed a potion to give her own hideous son great wisdom, but instead the potion inadvertently spilled on a servant boy, is told brilliantly by Jenny Nimmo in ‘Gwion and the Witch’, illustrated by Jac Jones.
The Lady of the Lake / Excalibur
Also known as Nimuë (or Viviane in some tales), the Lady of the Lake is the Arthurian story of the enchantress who, amongst other things, gives Arthur the Excalibur sword. Vivi and Nimuë are partnered souls and the discovery of Excalibur in Llyn Arian is the start of Vivi’s adventure. This is a story told many times in many ways. I’ve chosen three books which were all nominated for the Tir na nOg Award in their day.
The Afanc is a lake monster from Welsh mythology – an enormous supernatural beast sometimes described as resembling a crocodile, and often a scaly beaver – take your pick! Chapter 1 of Vivi gets us off to an uber-exciting start as Vivi has to wrestle with the Afanc in the lake. There is an afanc pool near Betws-y-Coed and the Showell Styles book provides a guided walk. The Claire Fayers collection recounts the legend of how the afanc was removed to a more remote lake away from the town, and the Dark is Rising sequence features the afanc in the final book.
The Coraniaid feature in the Mabinogion tale of Lludd and Llefelys. They are one of three plagues that descended on Britain during the reign of King Lludd – an undefined creature or people who were characterised by a remarkable sense of hearing – which meant that the land fell silent because no-one could take any action against them. In Vivi’s story the creatures take on an arachnid form and they learn about the Coraniaid plague from a pamphlet in the British Library. ‘The Three Plagues of Britain’ is recounted in Gwyn Jones’ Stories from Wales, while Zillah Bethell retells the story (wherein “even the fool daren’t tell his jokes”) in The Mab. In ‘Island of the Mighty’ Haydn Middleton’s version features tiny folk called the Corannies who were water-tamers (there’s another link to Vivi there, but I think we’ve given away enough spoilers!)
The third calon to be discovered in the story of Vivi Conway is that of Rhiannon – a character from the Mabinogion (though probably better known through the Fleetwood Mac song). Rhiannon is the intelligent, beautiful horse goddess. She features in the first branch of the Mabinogi, but also the third. Aside from The Mab, mentioned above, here are two other versions of the Mabinogion.
Thanks very much to Lizzie, Knights Of and Team ED for inviting us to be part of the blog tour and for sharing an early proof copy of Vivi.
“I don’t think I’ve ever loved a cover more or been so involved with a character than with Skrimsli,” wrote author Nicola Davies recently. Skrimsli, the prequel to double-Carnegie nominated The Song That Sings Us will publish with Firefly Press in September 2023 with a cover by artist Jackie Morris. Both author and artist are hugely talented and it is a real thrill to see them continue their creative relationship with a second collaboration. Jackie and Nicola have been firm friends for many years, both have a passion for the wild and a belief in active hope. Davies calls Morris’ cover ‘glorious’ whilst Morris says Davies’ novel is ‘a triumph’.
For the first time, here is the cover…
Nicola told us, “Jackie was one of the first to love my tiger Skrimsli and her cover catches his spirit and the soul of the story. Her beautiful map makes the world in my head accessible for everyone.”
Nicola recently gave her twitter followers a sneak preview of writing from the new book:
The cover lettering is by textual artist Stephen Raw, who has exhibited widely, and is currently artist-in-residence at Manchester Cathedral. You may recognise this combination of artist and calligrapher (Morris/Raw) from the Robin Hobb books.
The synopsis from the publisher is as follows:
Skrimsli is the second fantasy adventure from author Nicola Davies set in a world where animals and humans can sometimes share their thoughts. It traces the early life of Skrimsli, the tiger sea captain who stole readers’ hearts in The Song that Sings Us.
He and his friends, Owl and Elo, must escape the clutches of the tyrannical circus owner Kobret Majak, and his twin assassin-acrobats, then stop a war and save the ancient forest, where the Tiger, and the Owl are sacred guardians. Skrimsli and his friends are helped by the Palatine, desert princess and her eagle, a chihuahua who thinks she’s a wolf, a horse with heart of gold and the crew of a very unusual ship.
This is a story full of excitement and danger, that explores themes of friendship, loyalty, identity and love, in the context of some of humanity’s toughest problems.
A recent post in Jackie’s online journal describes her approach to the stunning map that will grace Skrimsli. Follow the link to read about this fascinating process. The full cover jacket is shown below.
Skrimsli, written by Nicola Davies is scheduled to be published on 14 Sept 2023 in foiled hardback with cover, map and internal illustrations by Jackie Morris. Huge thanks to Firefly Press for inviting us to reveal the cover; it is a great honour. Preorder your copy now direct from their website.
A Cover Reveal of Michelle Briscombe’s new novel with Candy Jar
The Ghosts of Craig Glas Castle, a spooky yet warm-hearted sequel to The House on March Lane, is due to be published on World Book Day, March 2nd 2023.
It had been ten months since the ghosts had started talking to Flora and her best friend Archie at her dad’s reclamation and antiques warehouse. So, when the two friends are offered a trip to Wales, and a break from the ghosts, to pick up some antiques from Craig Glas Castle, they can’t wait to go. But not everything at Craig Glas Castle is what it seems! Another unearthly mystery awaits to be unravelled by the intrepid duo.
The cover, shown below, was created by artist Martin Baines.
Michelle Briscombe was born in Cardiff but now lives in Barry, South Wales, with her husband and two children. She has been a Primary School teacher for over 18 years, enjoys walking and often takes walking holidays with her family who all have a keen interest in the natural world. She has been a Literature Wales Bursary recipient and placed second in the Wells Festival of Literature short story competition. Michelle has also been shortlisted for a short story competition by Royal Society of Literature.
Artist Martin Baines is a professional storyboard and concept artist. He has worked extensively in the field of storyboards for advertising agencies. As an illustrator of book jackets and comic strips he has worked with Match of the Day Weekly, the Wallace & Gromit comic, the Beano and People’s Friend. He is a regular illustrator for Candy Jar and has done several covers for the Doctor Who spin-off, Lethbride-Stewart.
Wales Book of the Year Award winner, Zillah Bethell’s new novel is published with Usborne on 2 February 2023. We are delighted to present an exclusive reveal of the cover, illustrated by Saara Söderlund.
The Song Walker is an extraordinary new story of friendship, discovery and courage from Zillah Bethell, author of The Shark Caller which won the Wales Book of the Year and the Edward Stanford Children’s Travel Book of the Year 2022.
“There are three questions that I need to find the answers to: Where am I? What am I doing here? And… Who am I?”
When a young girl wakes up in the middle of the desert, she has no idea who she is. She’s wearing one shoe, a silky black dress, and she’s carrying a strange, heavy case.
She meets Tarni, who is on a mysterious quest of her own. Together, the two girls trek across the vast and ever-changing Australian Outback in search of answers. Except both are also hiding secrets…
Zillah told us, “As a child growing up in Papua New Guinea, I learnt about the songlines. I particularly liked how the melody and rhythm of the songs seemed to follow the contours of the land they passed over because it felt as if the land were being sung into existence; that the song created the land as much as the land created the song. The beauty and power of this idea seemed immeasurable to me as a child and it still does. I’m super thrilled that illustrator Saara Söderlund came on board again as the The Song Wallker is something of a companion piece to The Shark Caller. Saara has brilliantly articulated the blaze of the desert in colours that have huge symbolic resonance to both Papuan and First Country Australian communities, whilst managing to evoke a sense of infinite space and untethering by presenting spare and ever so slightly changing images to our gaze.”
Cover artist Saara Katariina Söderlund is a freelance illustrator. She paints with gouache, sometimes mixing coloured pencil or digital tools into the process. Her other covers include books by Sophie Anderson, Skye McKenna and Tom Avery. You can find out more about Saara’s work on her Instagram, @saarainfeathers or visit her website.
Zillah Bethell was born in the shadow of the volcano Mount Lamington in Papua New Guinea. She grew up without shoes, toys or technology. Consequently, she spent a lot of time in the sea swimming and in canoes. Zillah’s family returned to the UK when she was ten, and she now lives and walks in the hills of South Wales. A few of her favourite things include swimming in the rain, cheesy fridge magnets, Chopin, dancing and diphthongs.
Huge thanks to Fritha at Usborne for inviting us to host this reveal. Follow Zillah on Twitter and follow illustrator Saara’s work on her Instagram, @saarainfeathers or visit her website.
To preorder The Song Walker by Zillah Bethell, please ask at your local independent bookshop, or find out more at the Usborne website.
We are so pleased to be kicking off the Honesty and Lies Blog Tour. Eloise Williams is a true hero of ours and we absolutely adore her writing. As Wales’ first Children’s Laureate she worked her socks off to encourage a love of reading and writing for pleasure across the whole of the country. She is also the most amazing encourager and supporter of artists in Wales, raising the visibility of quality children’s literature on both sides of the River Severn. When we’ve met her, she has been kind, thoughtful, optimistic, funny and always willing to chat. As an editor of The Mab (with Matt Brown), she brought together an incredible assembly of talent to produce new versions of the Mabinogion stories for the children of the 21st Century.
Honesty and Lies is a truly brilliant novel. Set in Elizabethan times, in the court of the Queen, Honesty has fled West Wales for London. A chance meeting with Alice finds her working as a maid. Whilst Honesty is keen to make a name for herself, to escape the menial tasks and get closer to the Queen, Alice has a reason to stay hidden. She keeps her head down and aims to go unnoticed. The friendship between the two is put under the spotlight by Eloise, expertly aided by a dual narrative in the first person. You really feel a part of the secrets and lies – the frustrations, the claustrophobia, the anger and desperation of the teenagers. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read with a brilliant climax. Eloise’s best yet!
Another Eloise novel means another chance to ask her some questions! Thanks for indulging us once again Eloise!
What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished reading Fear Ground by Jennifer Killick which is a little bit creepy but absolutely hilarious and a definite must read. Balanced at the top of my teetering TBR pile is The Shadow Order by Rebecca F. John. I’m really looking forward to it.
Where and when do you write?
All over the place and at no specific time. It depends how busy I am with other things. Often, I’m dashing from school to school, so I only have time to write in the evening or make notes on scraps of paper throughout the day. If I’m at home, I sometimes write in my attic room which is very small and has a slanted ceiling so it’s easy to bump your head if you aren’t careful, but I can often be found writing in the garden, the kitchen, in the woods, or on the beach. Lots of my writing is done in my head before I ever put pen to paper, or fingertips to laptop keys.
What was the seed that began Honesty and Lies?
Honestly, I can’t remember what it was exactly. A mixture of things, I think. I’ve always loved London and am fascinated by its history. I recently took a trip to Greenwich and a boat back along the Thames to Southwark. I think that had a lot of influence as you get a very different perspective of London from the water. I’ve also been wanting to write something through two different points of view for a while and the contrast of rich versus poor, appearance versus reality, honesty versus lies seemed to fit perfectly into the court of Queen Elizabeth I.
This is your 6th novel. What do you know now that you wish you’d known before Elen’s Island?
That you should define what success is for you as a writer and not compare yourself with anyone else. It’s not a linear path and there are huge emotional ups and downs. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky and I’m very grateful, but I have had lots of times when writing has been hard for many different reasons. I now define my success as a writer by my dedication to telling the story in the best way I can. That’s the only thing I can control and really, it’s the most important part.
As Wales’ inaugural Children’s Laureate, you travelled the country inspiring hundreds of children to read and write. You must have learned some lessons yourself?
Absolutely. It reaffirmed my belief that stories connect generations. I also learned that young people are endlessly creative and courageous and that made me challenge myself more. They taught me to take risks and to laugh at myself when something failed. If you are failing, you are trying. They’ve also taught me about individuality and how it should be celebrated. One group of young people made me a thank you card which advised me to ‘stay weird’. It’s one of my favourite possessions.
What is your writing routine?
I laughed when I read this question. I’m not very good at routines. For a while, I tried to kid myself that I had a routine but really, I was just aspiring to be an organised writer. I’d keep reading about other writer’s routines and thinking, yes, that sounds like the right way to do it! Then I’d get up at the crack of dawn and write and think, yes, I am better at this time, until that pattern dwindled. Then I’d try writing late at night until that dwindled too. Eventually I just accepted that my writing routine is a bit haphazard, I’m afraid. I spend long periods of time thinking and then I’ll write something in bursts. It always seems like a minor miracle when I’ve managed to finish a story.
Honesty and Lies is brilliant, and totally brings into focus a relationship between two girls. Interplay between characters and particularly the development of friendships is a common theme for you. Did you enjoy writing these characters?
Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I loved creating Honesty and Alice. Creating different characters is one of my favourite parts of writing. These two were particularly fun because they are both flawed in different ways. I always give my characters a really hard time and I felt really guilty to put them through so much! That’s why their friendship was so important. Together they are strong. They are so real to me, and it was very difficult to leave them behind.
What is your favourite period in history? Why?
Ooh, I’m not sure. I loved writing about the Elizabethans, but I also loved writing Gaslight which is set in Victorian Cardiff. I’m a big fan of historical fiction so am reading lots about different periods of history at the moment. This is a tricky question. Can I go for the 1980s? My niece learned about the TV adverts from the Eighties as part of her homework once and it was so strange to think of my own childhood as ‘history’. That was a good lesson for me. It made me remember that people from history were real people. I mean, I knew it, but it brings it home every time I think about it.
What do you hope young readers will get out of Honesty and Lies?
I’m really hoping they’ll enjoy the story if they love historical fiction and that it will give them a taste for it if they haven’t read any before. There is so much wonderful historical fiction out there and if this book opens the door to the past for even one young reader, then my work is done!
Which of your characters is most like you?
That’s a really difficult question – I can see elements of me in both. I think probably Alice though. She keeps a lot on the inside and gets irritated easily because she is worrying. I’m a worrier too! She also chooses to be kind at every opportunity, and I hope that I do the same. Alice has a quiet nature and that’s one of the qualities I like most about her and about myself too.
What books can you recommend for fans of Honesty and Lies?
Flight and Safe by Vanessa Harbour are great historical reads. Anything by Emma Carroll, Lucy Strange, Lesley Parr, Catherine Johnson, Phil Earle or Kiran Millwood Hargrave.
If you want a pre-order I’m really looking forward to Rhian Tracey’s forthcoming book, ‘I. Spy’.
What are you excited about right now?
I may have some exciting book news on the way, but my lips are sealed!
How would your 10 year old self react to what you do now?
I think I’d be very surprised! It took me a long time to realise that I’m at my happiest when I’m allowed to be quiet. For a long time, I thought that I had to be loud and outgoing to be interesting. I think that being loud is often confused with having something to say and with being a success. I love that I can now accept myself for being the quiet person I was always meant to be.
What is next for Eloise Williams?
I’m working on a few writing things in my own haphazard way but am mostly looking forward to spending some time with my family. Autumn is my favourite season so there’ll be lots of dog walks, warm jumpers, pumpkin soup and ghost stories involved.
If you weren’t an author what would you be?
A detective. I like to think I could be the next Miss Marple!
Huge thanks to Eloise for putting up with our questions, and to Karen for organising the blog tour. Honesty and Lies is available to buy now. Order direct from Firefly Press.
We are delighted to conclude the blog tour for Rebecca F. John’s first novel for children, The Shadow Order. The book has been hotly anticipated and most definitely does not disappoint. Beginning with a unique premise, that shadows begin to show people’s real character rather than an outline of their shape, this is a book that has many curious twists and turns. Those in power ban citizens from going out in the daytime, thus passing ‘The Shadow Order’. From the outset it is pacey and intriguing – the fantasy world is built with care and skill, and the characters are immediately believable and totally likeable. There is a threat that hangs over the characters throughout and these ingredients make for a thrilling and edgy pageturner – authored by a writer with serious talent. Whilst there are pertinent central messages about government control and confinement, the power of rebellion and the will for change, there is an overriding sense of hope. It’s a brilliant read, and we’d say that even if we weren’t in the blog tour.
As with all #TheShadowOrder blog tour posts, we have some exclusive content from Rebecca. First, in a series of posts about the world of Copperwell, we get to know one of the alleys of this fantasy world. (Do visit the other stops on the blog tour to find out more about this wonderfully realised world).
Judge Marlow’s Way Before it was renamed, Judge Marlow’s Way was called Runaway Alley. It was where all the petty criminals of Copperwell lived, stacked together in houses where nothing was safe. Men and women tricked and stole from one another, and no law-abiding citizen dared to set foot there… Except for Judge Marlow, who strode onto the alley one rainy autumn day and declared that from then on Runaway Alley would be made honest, Judge Marlow’s way. Betsy was only a tiny bit of a girl that day, but, cowering in a doorway, she had laughed at Judge Marlow’s declaration. People could not be changed so easily, she’d thought. But that was before the Shadow Order, before she met Teddy and Effie, and before she understood that people really can be changed entirely.
We are also very pleased to bring you this Q and A with author, editor and publisher, Rebecca F. John. Thanks so much to Rebecca for answering our questions with such care – a lot of work goes into organising a blog tour and we are extremely grateful to Rebecca and to Karen at Firefly Press.
What are you reading at the moment?
As usual, I’m reading more than one book. My work as an editor means that I’m always reading several as-yet-unpublished books, in various stages of the editing process. But beyond that, I tend to be partway through two or three published books simultaneously. At the moment, those books are Liz Hyder’s middle-grade novel Bearmouth (which I’m really excited about as I ADORED Liz’s adult novel, The Gifts), and a proof of a novel called The Circus Train, by Amita Parikh, which is due to publish in the UK in 2023 but which I think has been a bestseller elsewhere in the world. I’ve only just started reading both, but I’m equally entranced by the two completely different stories.
Where and when do you write?
Anywhere and everywhere. I’m busier than I ever have been: I started working as an editor for Firefly Press very recently; I set up my own publisher, Aderyn Press, last year; I have published three of my own books this year, and I’m currently working on edits for another which will publish next year; and I had a baby four months ago. So at the moment, I write in bed for about ten minutes between the time when the baby falls asleep and I do! I’ve always felt able to write just about anywhere, though, luckily: at a desk in my study preferably, yes, but also in doctors’ waiting rooms, or in car parks, or hotel rooms, or at the beach. Once I’m writing, it’s very easy to tune out from the rest of the world and exist instead within the one I’m creating.
What was the seed that began The Shadow Order?
As I wrote The Shadow Order, it became apparent that it was being shaped by a number of different ideas, memories, books and more. There was a specific moment, though, when the concept for the central idea – the shifted shadows – came to me. I was walking my dogs, Betsy, Teddy, and Effie, along the beach one early morning. It was cold, just after sunrise, and I noticed that our shadows were very clearly cast across the sand, but also that they were quite distorted: stretched long. With that observation came the inciting incident for The Shadow Order – what would happen, I wondered, if our shadows suddenly started revealing our secret feelings? – and also the characters. It was the presence of the dogs as I had this thought, I suppose, which caused them to become integral to the idea in my mind. Or versions of them, at least. I didn’t start writing the novel for another year or two, but that idea stuck with me, and the world of Copperwell started to build around it, so I knew I had to write it.
You have written for adults and this is your first book for children. Was The Shadow Order always a children’s book?
I never really thought about writing for children, though I’ve long stated that it was a children’s book that made me decide to become a writer. When I read Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, aged roughly ten, I was so blown away by the characters, the world, (and jealous, of course, of the animal daemons), that I decided immediately that I would become a writer. For some reason, I always imagined I’d be a novelist for adult readers – and I have been and will continue to be. But when the idea for The Shadow Order came to me, I knew it was supposed to be a children’s book. I never questioned that. The concept and the characters came to me quite completely, and, as with all my best story ideas, my task was then to transcribe what was already so well realised in my mind. I ‘see’ my stories in that way: like films, almost; as though they already exist. I was fairly nervous about writing for children. I thought of them as a tougher audience – I still do. But the story existed for me by the time I finished that beach walk, and so I had to tell it.
In terms of the writing process, was writing ‘The Shadow Order’ different to your other
Not really in terms of process. I’m not a great planner and I’m not a great plotter (though I’m a better one now, having written a children’s book!). The story tends to play for me like a film – though not as neatly of course – which I desperately try to get down on paper. I think most writers will say, however, that none of it is ever as good, as vivid, as it is in your mind by the time is reaches the page… I suppose I’m quite a simple writer in that sense, though. I start at the beginning and write to the end, stopping to research when I reach a sticky point. What did feel slightly different was the editing process, which was often focussing on not holding the young reader up, through description, but also through punctuation, for instance. That was a learning curve for me.
Do you have a writing routine?
Absolutely not. I wish I did, but I genuinely don’t have the time. I snatch writing minutes or hours whenever I can. Perhaps if I were a full-time writer, I might develop a routine, but I’m not sure that would suit me particularly. I think those aspects of routine which, by necessity, I lack, are made up for with industriousness. I work incredibly hard, whenever I’m able. And I LOVE the time I spend writing, so I’m always looking forward to it. One of my favourite things to do is get up very early and write while everyone else in the house (dogs included) is still asleep… I suppose there is one aspect of my life which is routine driven, and which certainly feeds into my writing, and that’s my daily walk. I start almost every day with a dog walk and, like many writers, I find that the act of walking allows my ideas to grow and settle in ways I might never have expected. I don’t know whether it’s something to do with the rhythm of footsteps, or being out exploring and experiencing nature, but whatever it is, I don’t feel that I’d be the same writer if I wasn’t able to walk along the coast or amongst trees.
The Shadow Order has a very unique, almost sci-fi idea at its core which is to do with
space, time and horology. Is this something that interests you? (and how on earth did you
come up with it!?)
It does now! Really the idea grew from that one moment I described on the beach. As I wrote further into the novel, the world obviously needed to be more and more realised, it needed to have its own set of rules – a fantasy novel can’t work otherwise. And as the world grew, so too did these ideas around space, time, and horology. I soon realised that Betsy was a keen amateur astronomer and that added another layer to those developing ideas. I won’t pretend to know very much about any of it. I was learning along with the characters. But it certainly was fascinating to write… As for how I came up with it… Who knows? Writing is so often exploration of a question or an idea the writer wants to know more about, and probably that’s what I was doing with this novel – exploring and musing on the human relationship with the natural world and all that we cannot control.
The main characters of the book are inspired by your dogs, not just in name but in
personality too. Did this lead to any confusion for you?
It actually helped me to develop the characters. Oftentimes, characters begin as a true blank slate. But with Betsy, Teddy, and Effie, I had their funny little ways to refer to, to flesh out the characters which would, inevitably, grow apart from their canine counterparts as human concerns increasingly shaped their thoughts and actions. Still, the characters have retained the essence of Betsy, Teddy, and Effie’s personalities, I think. Betsy remains the apparent leader of the pack, but with a need to lean on her friends for support. Teddy still lacks confidence compared to the others, but is loyal and true. And Effie’s mature and more sensible nature reflects that of the real Effie-cocker-spaniel. It was a lot of fun to humanise them in that way.
The world you have created is fantastically realised. What is the key to making it so tangible?
Thank you… Practise! World building is just another facet of writing – like character development or description – and hopefully, the more we do it, the better we get at it. There are techniques, of course: writing the senses, moving your characters with attention through the space, allowing yourself to develop aspects of that world that will never belong on the page, so that you can know and feel them. But really what I’m saying is you have to believe in it. You need to be able to envisage what your characters might do off the page. Just knowing those things, even if they never leave your mind, will enable you to write more convincingly.
You are a keen walker. How important is walking to your writing process – if at all?
Ah, I touched on this earlier! I think it’s hugely important. So many writers walk, and that can’t be coincidental. There might be something to the rhythm of just putting one foot in front of the other which, I don’t know, encourages ideas to … solidify, almost. Perhaps being in nature nurtures creativity. Maybe it is simply that doing something physical, as opposed to sitting still with your thoughts, helps to shape them. I really don’t know; it’s probably all of those things. What I do know, though, is if I don’t walk, I experience the same feeling I get if I can’t write: an itchy, uncomfortable, discontent which can’t be assuaged by any other means.
What do you hope young readers will get out of The Shadow Order? Particularly, what do
you hope they might learn from Betsy, Teddy and Effie’s journey?
I hope The Shadow Order will encourage young readers to explore and adore the natural world, to challenge the systems they live within, and to nurture their true talents, whatever they might be. Those ideas are central to this novel for me. I hope, too, that they will learn to accept themselves, as Betsy, Teddy, and Effie do. That is something I came to later, after I turned thirty, and something which I think we could talk to young people about more, rather than expecting them to figure it out by themselves. Self-acceptance is not necessarily something we all just arrive at over time.
Which of your characters is most like you?
Betsy, probably. She’s the one who reveals the least of herself, and I think that’s one of my traits. I’m very self-contained. I like to be perceived as always calm, always capable, and so does Betsy. I think, though, that we are forever mining different parts of ourselves for characters. They are perhaps all variations on who the writer is or might be.
Tell us about working with Firefly Press.
Working with Firefly Press has been amazing. Penny Thomas is an incredible editor: experienced, wise, and sensitive. She’s taught me a lot about writing for children and in a completely unobtrusive way. I’ve admired Firefly’s books for a long, long time, so when I had the idea for The Shadow Order, I knew exactly where I wanted it to be published. I’m so pleased the Firefly team were willing to take a chance on me as a first-time children’s writer.
You recently set up Aderyn Press. Why did you feel there was a need and will there be
Aderyn is dedicated to adult books – specifically spooky, historical, and speculative stories. There were a lot of reasons for setting up Aderyn. I wanted to help prove that books of wonderful quality, with global appeal, can be produced in Wales. I wanted to offer a home to those stories which ought to be told, but perhaps don’t quite fit within the parameters of big-five publishing. I wanted to be a female business owner. I wanted to publish first-time authors and really support them through the process. I could go on… I decided, though, that this big project needed to have quite a narrow focus for it to work, so I came to the conclusion that I should publish the kind of books I most like to read. ‘Spooky, historical, and speculative’ best summed that up. Aderyn will publish only three titles a year, since I’m going it alone and there really is SO MUCH involved in publishing a book. I’m scheduled up to the end of 2023 with novels which are completely different which all tell compelling, intricate, and heart-breaking and/or hopeful stories.
What books can you recommend for fans of The Shadow Order?
Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Anything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: The Way Past Winter is a favourite of mine. Eloise Williams’ Gaslight. Catherine Fisher’s The Clockwork Crow. October October by Katya Balen. I loved all of these books.
What are you excited about right now?
So much! The Shadow Order publishing, of course. The book I’m publishing next year being announced. The new ideas I have that I want to write. The huge stack of books I have yet to read. Winter – I LOVE the winter. And planning what comes next. I’m not much of a planner when it comes to narrative, but I love planning for life: little excursions; big ambitions. I try to make the most of every minute.
How would your 10 year old self react to what you do now?
My ten-year-old self would be seeing her dream come true! And actually, I think that’s really important to reflect on every now and then. It’s incredibly easy in this industry to always be comparing yourself to someone else and finding yourself lacking. I published a book, but why didn’t a bigger publisher want it? Or… I sold a book, but not in a big auction. Or… why didn’t my book win a major prize? I’m pretty sure everyone falls into those traps now and then, and I definitely include myself in that. But I do try to remind myself that I have fulfilled my ten-year-old self’s dream. I have published books. They exist in the world for people to pick up and read and find their own dreams or comfort or hope in. My ten-year-old self would be ecstatic about that!
Will there be more books for children?
I hope so. I would like The Shadow Order to become a trilogy, as I don’t think Betsy, Teddy, and Effie have finished with me yet, and I do have an idea for their next adventure. But we’ll see!
If you weren’t an author what would you be?
My first dream was to become a tennis player. I was a very practical child, however, and I soon realised that I really wasn’t very good at tennis. Still, I love to watch it and, in my heart of hearts, I can still quite easily envisage myself on centre court at Wimbledon. Ha! I’m a good dreamer, aren’t I? … Like many writers, there are a hundred things I’d like to be. Perhaps that’s part of the reason we’re writers. I’d like to be a historian, a psychologist, an artist. But at the top of the list is a desire to work with animals. I’d love to offer a retirement home to elderly unwanted dogs – as many of them as possible – and see them live out their days happy.
Thanks again to Rebecca for the content and to Karen for organising. The Shadow Order is available to buy now from your local bookshop or direct from Firefly Press.
Carnegie Medal nominee and Tir na n-Og Award winner, Elen Caldecott’s new novel is published with Andersen Press on 2 June. We are delighted to present an exclusive reveal of the cover, illustrated by Rachael Dean.
Cassie’s older brother Byron has fallen in with the wrong crowd – it’s soon clear these boys are wild, reckless and not human at all. They are tylwyth teg – Fair Folk, who tempt humans down into the dark places of the world. And Byron is tempted.
When he goes missing, Cassie and her cousin, Siân, follow his trail to an old abandoned railway tunnel which goes down and down into Annwn, the underworld. Here they find that the tylwyth teg are restless – and angry. Their leader, Gwenhidw, wants to protect Annwn from the damage humans are doing to the world. Byron is part of her plan. Cassie won’t let her big brother be part of anyone’s plan. But can rescuing him really be that easy?
Andersen says the book is suitable for age 9+, and there seems no doubt that this is going to become one of our favourite Middle Grade adventures in 2022. Anticipation levels are heightened!
Author, Elen Caldecott, told us, “When I was a child, my sister and I would beg Mum to read to us from her collection of Welsh Folk Tales – both of us had been named after characters in the book (I’d got off lightly with Elen, my poor sister, not so much). We’d listen, enthralled, to stories of the tylwyth teg, the magical creatures who were easily angered, who beguiled careless humans and led them astray. As an adult, I wanted to return to these stories. But now, I wondered, what would the tylwyth teg make of post-industrial Wales? What would they make of council estates, of children on tablets and smart phones, of chapels converted into flats or boarded-up completely? What would these creatures of legend make of the Wales of today? In The Blackthorn Branch, the past and the present, the myth and the reality, come together in one story. It was a joy to write, and I hope that young readers find just as much to love about it as my sister and I found in those old tales.”
Cover artist Rachael Dean lives in a seaside village just north of Liverpool. Her work is traditionally and digitally painted, and she loves to illustrate natural scenery. She recently became the new illustrator for Dame Jacqueline Wilson and has also illustrated covers for Sally Nicholls, Aisha Bushby, Lauren St John and Bali Rae.
On illustrating The Blackthorn Branch, Rachael told us, “I thoroughly enjoyed delving into the world of welsh folklore for The Blackthorn Branch cover. It was a wonderful story to illustrate and I absolutely loved working on the decorative elements!”
Elen Caldecott grew up in North Wales. After her Welsh language education she studied archaeology and then creative writing, graduating with an MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. Her debut novel, How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant, was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and longlisted for the Carnegie Medal.
What’s the strangest thing to be sent through the post? Well, after a few hours down several internet rabbit holes, I can tell you that there are no limits to the things that people have attempted to send through our beloved Royal Mail. Pets, children, suffragettes, bricks, shepherd’s pie (warm), game (just a label around the neck will do) and a severed ear have all been wrapped and sent in the history of the international postal service. “Mail artists” have sought to push the envelope (thank you very much) and write addresses on unwrapped items such as leaves, apples, potatoes and a piece of toast.
It appears Holly Rivers was inspired by these tales to write The Boy in The Post (charming and funny with a golden heart), her second novel with Chicken House. The book features children mailing themselves to New York in order to solve their problem. You see, the Shalloo siblings have taken on a job for the summer holidays. Their mum is too wrapped up in her second-hand car business to give them her attention and so they answer the call of Grandy Brock to help him establish a new kind of postal service. The kind of postal service that has animals delivering the mail. Animails. Yes that’s right – Grandy Brock has a menagerie of feathers and furs (as well as a rather impressive number of his own children) and is trying to get his new business venture off the ground.
Taber, the youngest of the Shalloo siblings, is responsible for training Geronimo, a pelican, to find it’s way home. Using inbuilt navigation systems, this all goes rather swimmingly (soaringly?) and the bird becomes the best homing pelican you can imagine. However, following an international flight, the bird fails to return home and Taber holds himself responsible. The young boy takes off in the middle of the night, posting himself with a shipment to New York. Taber’s brother and sister become very concerned for him and crate themselves off in a similar manner, embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.
The book has a very classic, vintage feel. The characters are brilliant – written with so much joy you can’t fail to fall in love with them. Grandy Brock is a favourite. He’s eccentric and peculiar but has “a mischievous twinkle in his eyes that hinted at adventure and excitement and fun.” He’s warm and generous and shows kindness that the Shalloo siblings have rarely seen. The book is also laden with some of the best postal-related puns you are ever likely to feast on (it’s all in the delivery!) Now that’s definitely something to write home about.
We’re delighted to be able to share this Q and A with Holly Rivers which delves a bit further into the inspiration behind the book:
Tell us a little about your new novel, The Boy in the Post
The Boy in the Post is a postal-themed adventure story set across land, sea and sky! It follows the Shalloo siblings — adventurous twelve year old Orinthia; nature-loving five year old Taber; and sensible middle child Séafra.
During the summer holidays the three siblings accept a summer job from an eccentric old man called Grandy Brock who lives in a tumbledown windmill. He and his five adopted children are opening a very special postal service called The Mailbox Menagerie, which is to be staffed entirely by animals and birds! The Shalloo siblings become especially fond of Geronimo, a homing pelican. But when the big bird fails to return from a delivery to New York, the Shalloo siblings have no choice but to post themselves across the Atlantic to find her…
What inspired the story?
The story was inspired by a fascinating article published by The Smithsonian Institute, about children who were sent through the mail in the 1900s. Yes, back then it was legal to send your kids through the post! The first child delivered by the U.S. parcel post service was a boy in Ohio, in 1913 — his parents paid 15 cents for the stamps and insured their son for $50, who was then delivered to his Grandmother’s house a few miles away. Even though these children weren’t technically stuffed into mailbags (and instead travelled in the mail vans of trusted postmen) I couldn’t help but start imagining prospective characters being wrapped in brown paper and stamps being stuck to their foreheads; and the idea for The Boy in the Post was born!
What was your favourite piece of information that you uncovered in your research?
I loved reading about loads of other weird and wonderful things that have been sent through the post and intercepted over the years — a turnip with the recipient’s address carved into its flesh; a hive of live bees; false teeth; jars of scorpions; prosthetic limbs; a pair of underpants with an address scrawled across the crotch; a first edition copy of Ulysses deemed ‘obscene’; a brace of game birds; a tree trunk; a building’s worth of bricks; and two suffragettes hoping to get to Herbert Asquith! The bizarre and eccentric side of humanity never fails to inspire and entertain me!
Who were your favourite characters to write?
I had a hoot (excuse the pun) coming up with ideas for my animails — the animals and birds that work at The Mailbox Menagerie. I really let my imagination run wild and ended up penning a homing pelican who gets paid in sardines; a fruit bat who will only work the night shift; a pair of Sphynx cats in charge of licking stamps; an octopus who can deliver 8 parcels at a time; and snakes who cane spell out postcodes with their bodies. All the while I had my own pet chihuahua, Silver snuggled up on my lap — whose snores and farts and woofs made the experience all the richer! She even turns up in the last chapter of the book…..
What do you think the key message is to take away from the book?
I hope that the story inspires readers to embrace more old-school ways of communicating in their post-pandemic lives. During lockdown — a time dominated by zoom calls and emails — sending and receiving letters from family and friends during brought me so much joy; and there was nothing lovelier than hearing the postman coming up the garden path. I hope the book inspires children to switch off their screens, go buy some stamps and put pen to paper. I’m always open to receiving letters from new pen-pals!
You wrote the book during lockdown, how was that as an experience compared to writing your first novel Demelza and the Spectre Detectors?
When I was working on Demelza I was able to take my laptop to so many different locations to write — libraries, cosy pubs, cafes, parks, the northbound Piccadilly line, number 91 bus! But because of lockdown and the fact that all of our worlds had suddenly become a lot smaller, the entirety of The Boy in The Post was written at an antique desk gifted to me by Grandma. I was surprisingly focused and motivated during lockdown and managed to write the first draft of the book fairly quickly. Penning an epic transatlantic adventure also meant that I could travel the world and go on a journey even though I wasn’t allowed to leave the house — it felt like a real tonic!
You work as a children’s workshop facilitator, does this help to inform your writing?
As you can see from the acknowledgments sections of both Demelza and The Boy In The Post, the children I work with are a huge inspiration to me and my writing. They buoy me with their ideas, energy, humour, warmth and imagination, and I’m always jotting down the unusual and funny things they come out with! Being around children so much reminds me to remain playful, and they stop me from turning into too much of a grumpy old grown-up!
Thank you to Holly and Laura for the Q and A and for allowing us to host today’s post on the Blog Tour. The Boy in The Post is available now to buy in your local independent bookshop, published by Chicken House. You can follow Holly on Twitter.
It’s a totally bonkers feeling that we get to celebrate the publication day of Thimble and the Girl from Mars with you. An honour and a pleasure to be kicking off this blog tour.
We first met Thimble, the anarchic Monkey Superstar, around 4 years ago. The debut was a fresh and funny madcap adventure full of hilarious slapstick episodes. Plenty of toilet humour and unbelievable escapades, with the parents (particularly Douglas, the dad) ending up as the ‘butt’ of the joke. Our children have laughed out loud with Thimble and Jams and have grown up loving this favourite series.
That first book was rightly nominated for the Lollies Laugh Out Loud Award, at which point Jon Blake wrote us a rather wonderful blog introducing Thimble to the nation. Do check it out.
Subsequent books, Holiday Havoc and Wonga Bonkers, continued to thrill new generations of the Bookworms family and even inspired one to commit an outrageous act in a branch of IKEA.
All this brings us to Thimble and the Girl from Mars, the newly published installment featuring an extremely unlikeable girl who wants to claim Thimble as her own. This feisty and intelligent foster child, with fantastic football skills, is a mean match for Jams as she manipulates his family and charms his primate pal. Jams needs to use all his wits to keep Thimble on his side. Just like the rest of the series, this is great fun, fast-paced, light-hearted and ever so slightly unhinged!
Jon Blake has written over 60 books for children (and many more radio scripts and books for adults). He is well used to questions, having regularly carried out school visits. Indeed he answered our Q and A back in 2017. But “What are the best questions that children have asked Jon Blake?” we hear you call through the Internet. Here is some exclusive Blog Tour content:
We are very grateful to Jon for sharing this video with us and look forward to finishing Thimble and the Girl from Mars as our current bedtime read. The book is out now and you can buy signed copies from Jon here.Follow Jon and illustrator Martin on Twitter, and check out Jon’s website because there is plenty to explore!