Football School Blog Tour

Football School Season 3

Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton

Walker Books

The Football School series has a new edition! This critically-acclaimed set (Book 1 shortlisted for Blue Peter Book Awards, Book 2 shortlisted for #Lollies2018), brings football facts, figures and bizarre insights to the fore. Noah (aged 11) has been able to enjoy the books at his own leisure, devouring the mysteries over the Jules Rimet Trophies, and the mathematical facts about tallest players, goal averages and circadian rhythms (yes, we have discussed this at the breakfast table!). Meanwhile Kit (aged 6) has enjoyed dipping into the book to pull out nuggets of information. With the help of Mum and Dad, he has been fascinated by the stories, science and trivia bursting from the pages. This really is a highly entertaining read; fast-paced, interesting and educational.

For many, football is a way to inspire children to read, and if you’ve seen any of the other blog posts, you will know that Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton are keen to emphasise the importance of reading for pleasure. On the Books for Topics blog, they say “What’s most important is that kids read the book – since reading anything brings benefits. But we also hope that the books make children curious about the world.” And on Booklover Jo’s blog, they say “We believed that one way to get kids reading was to provide them with a book on a subject they felt passionate about. Football School explains the world through the prism of football.”

Kit was delighted to put his questions to Alex and Ben (but disappointed that neither of them played Fifa 19).

 

Alex Bellos (on the left) and Ben Lyttleton

What are you reading at the moment?

Ben: I am reading a book about family and friendship called the Baltimore Boys but you’re probably more interested in what my children are reading. My eldest daughter is 9 and she is reading Death in the Spotlight by Robin Stevens. She loves these murder mysteries even if they are a bit gory! My youngest daughter is 7 and she is reading Daisy and the Trouble with Life. She also loves the Claude series by Alex T Smith. They have both read the Football School books and told me they liked them – I hope they weren’t just being polite! 

Could you tell us how you got into writing the Football School books?

Alex: Ben and I have been mates for ages and always wanted to work on a project together. We have both written football books for grown-ups, and thought that it would be really fun and worthwhile to write for younger readers. We were avid readers when we were kids, and we both know the advantages that reading brings.

Ben: We are passionate about getting children to enjoy reading – we know you already love it! – and we thought that writing books about football would help reluctant readers tap into their love of football and encourage them to develop a love of reading and a curiosity about the world. We have since been told by teachers and parents that the book has helped their children get into reading, which inspires us to work even harder!

Which football team/s do you support?

Alex: I grew up in Scotland and support Hearts (the Jam Tarts).

Ben: I support Spurs, because they were my local team when I grew up and my whole family supported them. I believe we should never boo any other teams, because supporting a team is often about family, community and being connected to a bigger group. I am proud of my team but also respect and appreciate other teams – especially if their nickname is a yummy food, like the Jam Tarts! 

Who’s the best footballer in the world right now? (Kit thinks it’s either Ronaldo or Rodriguez)

Ben: Good question. I watched Lionel Messi play for Barcelona against Spurs the other day and I haven’t seen many players play better than that and I’ve been going to matches for over 30 years.  I also really like Kylian Mbappe and think Raheem Sterling doesn’t get the credit he deserves. They are all great players.

Who are the best TV commentators?

Ben: There are lots of good ones but my favourite is Dave Farrar, because he is a friend of mine! His voice is wonderful, and he comes up with brilliant one-liners. I always remember when Greece beat France in Euro 2004, he said “And France lose! That’s Napoleon Blown-Apart!” It was a clever pun on Napoleon Bonaparte and he claims he thought of it on the spot! It still makes me chuckle…

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned when researching your books?

Alex: So many things! I love the fact that stadiums have vomitories, that eagles are the most popular mascot for football teams and that the coelacanth is a fish has limbs instead of fins! 

Ben: As a younger sibling, I liked learning that younger siblings are more likely to become professional footballers. That’s good news for Kit! Also that female players are less likely to be left-footed, that Iceland has 130 volcanoes, that paint is like a cake and that the Prime Minister of India once drank his own wee! 

Who is the best Welsh footballer?

Ben: Right now, or of all time? In both cases I would say Gareth Bale! An incredible player who has always shown how much Wales means to him. There is an exciting new generation of players coming through as well, so keep an eye on Harry Wilson and Ethan Ampadu – it’s a really exciting time for Welsh football.  

How many keepy-ups can you do?

Ben: I have got up to 96, but always lose my concentration as I get close to 100. Annoying! 

Alex: Not as many as Ben!

Apart from your books, what other books about football would you recommend?

Alex: My favourite football books are anything by Simon Kuper, Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby and Twelve Yards by Ben Lyttleton!

Ben: Alex is so nice! I would say Futebol by this guy called Alex Bellos, it’s all about Brazilian football and it’s Brazilliant!  

What’s next for Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton?

Alex: We have two new Football School books out next year: Football School Star Players out in the Spring, which has the stories of 50 inspirational players, and Football School Season 4 out in the Autumn, and there will be two more in the year following that too.

Ben: It’s really exciting! We also have our youtube channel which is youtube.com/FootballSchoolFacts and we upload new videos all the time so please check it out and subscribe!

 

Thank you to Alex and Ben for answering the questions and to Walker for sending us a review copy of the book. You can follow Alex and Ben on Twitter or visit the Football School website.

Author Q and A: Peter Bell

We are delighted to be part of The Train to Impossible Places blog tour and so pleased that Peter was able to answer our questions. The Train to Impossible Places was highly anticipated by the Worms and instantly cemented itself into Noah’s favourite books when he read it a few months back. It is a great story and, as Noah’s review implies, everything you could possibly want from a book – a thrilling fast-paced adventure with quirks that twist and reshape the fantasy genre. Read Noah’s review here. Now over to Peter…

What are you reading at the moment?

Orphan, Monster, Spy by Matt Killeen, and it’s every bit as good as I’d heard – tense, brutal and moving. I really can’t wait to see what Matt does next. I’m also working my way through the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, which are tremendous fun. He’s coming to Cardiff in November, and I want to be up to date before he gets here.

What are your favourite children’s books?

Too many to list here, but off the top of my head:

Pretty much the whole Roald Dahl cannon, especially The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr Fox. I loved them when I was young, and my son is now a big fan too. He dressed as a Vermicious Knid for World Book Day last year!

The Worst Witch books by Jill Murphy. Such a great and accessible fantasy series – the Harry Potter of its day. It’s so good to know it’s still going strong.

Murder Mystery is a genre that’s largely passed me by, but I’ve absolutely loved the Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens. She re-purposes all the tropes so cleverly, while keeping the stories grounded in character. I look forward to reading the new one.

The Accidental Pirates books by Claire Fayers are everything fantasy adventure stories should be – inventive, exciting and funny. Her most recent books, Mirror Magic and Stormhound are equally good, but I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for an end to the Pirates trilogy one day.

And finally, anything with Diana Wynne Jones’s name on the cover!

Where and when do you write?

I mostly write in the mornings after dropping the kids off at school. I’ve got a small study at the back of the house, and I’ll get a few hours done there before lunch, with maybe another hour or so in the evening after the kids have gone to bed. My favourite mornings are the ones when Claire Fayers and I meet up at a local coffee shop and sit in silence for two and a half hours, typing away. They serve coffee in pint mugs, which endears the place to me greatly, and they’ve got to know us so well that they know our orders off by heart. 

We know that The Train To Impossible Places began as a bedtime story for your children. Is the finished version much different? What didn’t make the final cut?

Pretty much everything that was in the bedtime story ended up in the book, albeit in a much more polished form. The only thing that didn’t survive the jump was a flying visit to a supermarket, so the crew of the train could stock up on bananas. Every other change I made was adding material, rather than taking away – the whole sub plot of Captain Neoma, the observatory and Lord Meridian grew out of the editing process. The finished book is almost 15,000 words longer than my first draft.

How do you choose names for your characters?

I try to make their names reflect their nature or status in some way. So the Lady Crepuscula comes from the word “crepuscular”, which is an adjective describing anything to do with twilight. Her opposite number, Lord Meridian, takes his name from the point at which the sun is at its highest, suggesting enlightenment. He is a librarian, after all!

Some names, like Fletch and Wilmot, just came to me out of the blue and I’ve no idea why. But they stuck immediately.

We think the book has hints of The Magic Faraway Tree. What else has influenced the storyline?

Thank you for saying so! The Magic Faraway Tree books are the very first stories I remember from my childhood, and they’ve shaped all my reading ever since, so I guess it’s inevitable that there would be a dose of that in my writing.

I drew pretty heavily on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, but only in terms of tone – I like to think that Suzy and the trolls would feel at home making deliveries to Ankh Morpork. Because each of the Impossible Places is different, I can effectively make each one a genre – or at least a collection of genre tropes – unto itself. So the Obsidian Tower has strong echoes of Tolkien, while the Topaz Narrows are every pirate adventure story you’ve ever read.

Are we right in thinking you’d love to write an episode of Doctor Who?

Let’s just say that if they ever ask me, I wouldn’t refuse.

How important is a sense of place to your writing? In particular, has living in Wales any influence on your writing?

A sense of place is always important, especially if your characters are travelling from place to place, as mine are. I want the reader to get excited about exploring these strange new worlds, so I always try and include a few details to help ground them. Trollville is probably the most fully-realised world in the book, as we spend quite a bit of time there (and we’ll see even more of it in the sequel!) Its post-industrial feel is definitely informed by my childhood in south Wales. It was everywhere – in the architecture and the street layouts, in the art and in the chimneys of the Llanwern Steelworks, which was still active at the time. And you never had to go far to meet a retired miner.

Our school caretaker was an old man who had gone down the pits at the age of 11. I remember one day he showed our class his missing fingers and recounted each of the accidents that had claimed them. He was the basis of the Old Guard – the retired Posties who spend their time comparing tales of daring and disaster.

The Train To Impossible Places is the first in a series, called A Cursed Delivery. What is the appeal in writing a number of books rather than a single story?

It’s a tremendous privilege to be given the chance to tell more stories with these characters. It’s allowed me to think of new directions to take them in, and new and interesting parts of the Impossible Places to explore. It’s also allowed me to become a full time professional writer for the first time in my life, which is a childhood dream come true.

The finished hardback is delightfully illustrated by Flavia Sorrentino. Should we judge your book by its cover and how important was it for you to have some internal illustration?

You should definitely judge the book by BOTH its covers, because they’re gorgeous. My favourite is the hidden cover underneath the dust jacket – my editors at Usborne presented me with a framed print of it at the launch party, and it’s now got pride of place in my study. 

Usborne made the decision very early on to include interior illustrations, and I was very happy to go along with the plan – I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want a few illustrations with their text if given the chance. And Flavia’s work is just gorgeous. I love her expressionist style, and she’s absolutely nailed the characters.

What question have we forgotten to ask you?

You haven’t asked me who the best Doctor Who is. And the correct answer is: all of them. Although Sylvester McCoy is the best of the best.

 

There have been some really excellent blog posts as part of this tour. Why not check out some of the other hosts?

#Lollies2018 Blog Tour: Joe Berger

Lollies 2018 Blog Tour: Joe Berger

The Pudding Problem by Joe Berger is nominated for the #Lollies2018 in the age 6-8 category. Kit (6), Nina (9) and Noah (11) have all read this hilarious graphic novel and enjoyed it very very much! They got caught up in the misadventures of Sam Lyttle, a boy who keeps getting into trouble though it has nothing to do with lying (honest)! The eponymous ‘Pudding’ is Sam’s cat – and the ingenious story of how Pudding came to be the family pet and get her name is worth the entry fee alone. Noah picked up on the subtle humour in the illustrations – sometimes it’s unmitigated ‘out there’ humour, which had Kit and Nina in fits of giggles and outbursts of belly-laughs, and sometimes it’s just in a ‘look’ or more understated reference in the brilliant drawings. There’s something in this book for everyone, adults included, so the age 6-8 tag is a bit misleading. Either way, all five worms loved The Pudding Problem and its follow-up The Stinky Truth. Here’s the book trailer from Joe’s website:

Joe Berger lives in Bristol with his wife, three daughters, cat and dog. He regularly collaborates with Pascal Wyse, as Berger & Wyse on a weekly cartoon published in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine. He says “telling jokes in cartoon form remains one of my favourite things ever”. He has written two Lyttle Lies books and illustrated many more. We were delighted that he agreed to answer the Worms’ questions, so here are his answers…

What are you reading at the moment?

At the moment I’m reading Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle vol 1 – it’s a grown-up book but I’d recommend it once you’re older. Also reading some comics, including Greatest Ever Marlys by Lynda Barry, which is brilliant.

Could you tell us how you got into writing and drawing?

When I was little my mum used to read fashion magazines like Vogue, and she would sometimes show me an illustration she liked and ask me to make her a version of it. So I learned a huge amount from copying other people’s drawings and techniques – it’s a brilliant way to learn, to unpick how drawings and paintings are made. From a young age I was also obsessed with comics, and always wanted to do my own comic strip. In 2002 my friend and I landed a job of doing a 4 panel comic in the Guardian newspaper – and co-writing that each week gave me the confidence to write children’s books, which was a long-held ambition. Although the 4 panel strip stopped in 2009, we continue to do a single panel cartoon in the Guardian every week – so far that’s nearly 900 cartoons!

Where and when do you work?

I work in my studio, which is a 20 minute walk from home, in the centre of Bristol. It’s a lovely room with lots of natural light, and room to play the VERY OCCASIONAL board game, which is my big hobby when I’m not making books and cartoons. I usually work 9-5 Monday to Friday, as I find keeping regular hours helps me organise my time. Many mornings I’ll spend an hour or so dreaming up cartoon ideas, and then switch to writing or book illustration later in the day.

Can you tell us about your methods?

All my work starts with drawing on paper. I usually do rough drawings in pencil, and then final drawing in brush pen and ink on a clean sheet of paper  which is just thin enough to see a bit of the rough drawing underneath. But for cartoons I like to draw straight in ink, and see where the drawing goes. It’s harder to be that spontaneous with drawing for children’s books because there are often a lot of changes to make.

What advice would you give to budding young illustrators?

Copy the stuff you love! I don’t mean trace it, that wouldn’t teach you much – but copying really makes you focus on how the artist/illustrator was able to achieve what they did. It’s an invaluable way to learn – and of course, your own style will start to seep in to those drawings, and you’ll naturally start to create your own work.

Is it difficult to do funny some days?

Yes it is! It can be very frustrating if you don’t feel like you’re in the right mood. See next answer . . .

Is being funny a serious business?

It is serious and silly in equal amounts. It’s serious in that you have to be able to be funny on demand, even if you don’t feel like it. For this reason, I carry a small notebook wherever I go, to note down any funny ideas. So then when I need to be funny but don’t feel like it, can look in my notebooks for inspiration. These are not really sketchbooks, though I have those too. I have a collection of about 40 old notebooks which I am always looking in for thoughts and ideas I might not have used yet. But I have to keep writing in new ones too!

How do you choose names for your characters?

Hmmm, that’s a good question – names for characters are so important. Sam in the Lyttle Lies books was originally called Joe, because the stories are loosely based on my misadventures as a boy. But I wanted to distance the character from me because other bits are totally made up. I have a friend called Sam, and Sam seems like a similar name to Joe – one syllable, 3 letters etc. So that’s how Sam was named. Pudding is called Pudding because of what happens in the story – I wish I could remember how or when I came up with that idea. But I can’t.

Which books, authors and illustrators inspire you?

I love Just William stories, and Petit Nicolas stories too, which are kind of a French version of Just William, with drawings by one of my favourite artists, Sempé. I find other cartoonists very inspiring too – Charles Shultz who made Peanuts (Snoopy and Charlie Brown) every day for 50 years – as well as other single panel cartoonists like Charles Addams and Edward Steed.

Ever been to Wales?

Yes, I love WALES! I live in Bristol, so not far from South Wales, and we go at least once a year. We often stay in a place called Capel y Fin in the black mountains, which is an area I love, near Abergavenny. There’s a hill there called The Tumper which we love to climb.

You’ve illustrated work for others – what’s been your favourite of these projects to work on?

Hmmm, it’s hard to pick favourites. One that stands out is the recent Chitty Chitty Bang Bang series I worked on with Frank Cottrell Boyce – I grew up watching the film in the 1970s, so it was a real thrill to get to work on the three new books. I was worried about it because I’m not good at drawing cars, but it helped me get better I think.

Are you an animal person?

Yes I am. We have a cat called Spooky (she’s white like a ghost) and a dog called Sybil. Sybil is a Cairn terrier, and she’s quite naughty – she loves to race out into the garden and bark at birds (and hot air balloons), which gets us in trouble with the neighbours.

What’s the weirdest doodle in your doodle book?

There are so many to choose from. I’m going to open a notebook at random and see what I find, ready? Here goes . . .

Hmmm,  a roll-mop herring driving a car? That’s pretty weird.

Let me try again . . . ok, a robot punching a sandwich, saying “I love you, sandwich”. There’s two weird ones right there.

What’s the biggest lie you’ve ever told?

The worst lie is too long to put here, but it might end up in a book one day :-/ But I stopped lying when I was about 12, so nothing too bad since. It’s a habit I learned to break, because it takes a lot of energy to stick to your story in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, and anyway you always end up getting in trouble twice – once for the thing you covered up by lying, and once for lying about it. It takes less energy, but more bravery, to tell the truth. In my case it also took a large box of Smarties, offered to me as an incentive to own up.

What’s next for Joe Berger?

I don’t know If I’ll get to write more Lyttle Lies books, but I want to tell more stories with cartoons, so I’m working on a couple of ideas. At the same time I’m still drawing my cartoons, and hope to find more places that are willing to publish them.

 

 

Thank you to Joe for answering the worms’ questions. We’re really grateful for the time he gave us and are thrilled with his answers. You can vote for the Pudding Problem in the #Lollies2018 here. You can follow Joe on Twitter or visit his website. Thanks to the #Lollies2018 team for inviting us to be part of the Blog Tour again. Check out the other posts:

Mirror Magic Blog Tour

We were delighted to be given the opportunity to travel to Cardiff to meet with Claire Fayers and talk with her about her enchanting new novel, Mirror Magic. Noah takes the lead in this video, with the rest of the worms joining in with a ‘Would You Rather?’ section near the end. Thank you very very much to Claire for being such a great sport and taking the time to film with us.

Why not check out Noah’s written review of Mirror Magic here.

Empathy Day Blog Tour: Gill Lewis

To mark Empathy Day on June 12th, we are delighted to be participating in the Empathy Lab Blog Tour and even more delighted to be hosting one of our favourite authors, Gill Lewis. Empathy Day calls us all to READ – because reading in itself can make us more empathetic; SHARE – because sharing perspectives through books can connect us in new ways; and DO – put empathy into action and make a difference in your community.

Gill is previously on record as saying “Books are more important now than ever for us to understand other people’s lives. They allow us to hear the whole story and to walk in someone else’s shoes. Books can help us understand others and the world around us. Ultimately, they allow us to understand ourselves.” (A Day in the Life of Gill Lewis, retrieved from inkpellet.co.uk). In this blog, she explores having empathy for someone whose views you do not necessarily agree with.

Empathy… A Bridge Across the Divide

A Guest Blog by Gill Lewis

When I was researching for my book, Sky Dancer, a story about the environmental conflict surrounding driven grouse shooting in our uplands, I came across many distressing videos and images of persecuted birds of prey; poisoned eagles, shot hen harriers, bludgeoned buzzards and goshawks. The list went on and on.

I was appalled.

Why would anyone do such a thing?

We often use a rhetorical question to express our disgust and contempt. It entrenches us in our own viewpoint and alienates us from the other.

However, if we ask a genuine question: Why would anyone do such a thing? Why? Then we begin to put ourselves in a position to understand someone’s actions. Empathy is an important skill and the basis of understanding the motives of others. You don’t have to agree with someone or tolerate their views but you can attempt to understand why they have those views. Making the first step towards understanding does not mean you compromise your own beliefs, but that you are willing to listen. Listening is the first step towards dialogue, which can lead to potential resolution of a conflict or the changing of bigoted views or unjust practices.

A writer uses empathy all the time to understand each character’s viewpoint. A writer has to know, for example, why one character might hold racist beliefs. Most prejudice is born from fear; fear of losing power or control. It’s a survival mechanism to protect one’s own interests. Dialogue and understanding can reduce the fear and in doing so be pivotal in changing bigoted attitudes.

For Sky Dancer I wanted to understand why a gamekeeper might shoot a hen harrier, one of our wonderful iconic birds of prey. Why destroy something so beautiful, a part of nature? Why risk breaking the law in doing so?

Well, the answer lies in the driven grouse shooting industry. The Joint Raptor Study concluded that a driven grouse moor cannot be economically viable unless hen harriers are killed. Birds of prey are persecuted on many grouse moors to ensure the red grouse numbers are high enough for a shoot.

The gamekeepers’ job is in the name. It is to keep game in plentiful supply for a shoot. Many gamekeepers have long traditional family associations with the land and with the owner of a grouse moor. It’s a way of life. There is fierce pride in the job. Killing wildlife that preys on red grouse goes back to Victorian times. It’s a cultural norm. Many species such as crows, foxes, magpies, and weasels are now legally killed, and many, many birds of prey are illegally killed too.

If gamekeepers allow red grouse numbers to fall due to predation, they are at risk of losing their livelihood and way of life. To lose a way of life is to lose your identity and your sense of belonging in the world. No wonder it is something people would be fearful of and fight against. No wonder a gamekeeper wants to do his job well and maximize game. No wonder there is fierce resistance to those who want to ban driven grouse shooting.

Similarly, many grouse moor owners do not welcome hen harriers because their business is dependent upon high grouse numbers. Land ownership in the uplands is a complicated mix of tradition, class, wealth and politics. A landowner may fear loss of power and control, not only of the land, but also of their own status.

In Sky Dancer, I wanted to cross the bridge from my own viewpoint, one that sees persecution as abhorrent, and try to understand the stance of a gamekeeper involved in the shooting of a bird of prey. Joe, a gamekeeper’s son, narrates the story and through him we see his father’s and the wealthy landowner’s views, and we also see how Joe is challenged to think another way by a newcomer.

Aimee Nicholson, of the RSPB Hen Harrier LIFE Project with Gill Lewis on a school book tour in support of Sky Dancer last year.

By trying to understand both perspectives, I wanted to build up the arguments for driven grouse shooting and then tear them all down and show that driven grouse shooting is an outdated Victorian sport that has no place in conservation today.

Yet, in this story, I wanted to show that there is a viable alternative to driven grouse shooting that would benefit all. At the moment we, as taxpayers, pay vast subsidies to landowners to intensively manage the land via burning to produce swathes of heather for grouse. Much of our upland landscape of treeless, fire-scorched hillsides has been defined by it.  This land management is bad for the environment; it is detrimental to carbon capture, water and air quality and biodiversity. An alternative would be to re-wild our upland with mixed habitats of deciduous native woodland, blanket bog and heath. I’d prefer my taxes to pay for restoration of the natural world. Gamekeepers’ livelihoods needn’t be at risk either, as re-wilding would require wildlife rangers to protect wildlife and wild space, and not destroy it.

My opinion is that re-wilding is the viable option to break away from damaging Victorian practices. It would provide eco-tourism, mitigate flood risk and benefit carbon capture, water and air quality and achieve a biodiversity of such richness that which we can now only dream.

Empathy can build bridges and initiate dialogue.

Whether or not someone with an opposing opinion wants to meet you on that bridge is their choice. But by understanding another viewpoint, it allows you to reassess your own, clarify your own beliefs, sharpen your argument and give courage of your convictions to keep on fighting for what you believe.

 

Thank you to Gill Lewis for this thoughtful and thought-provoking blog. You can read our review of Sky Dancer here. You may also be interested in her latest book with Barrington Stoke, Run Wild, which also has a re-wilding theme. 

HwCL Blog Tour

Sadko (On the Power of Music)

Sophie Anderson

Number 6 in a series of blog posts to mark the publication of The House with Chicken Legs

‘In Novgorod, in famous Novgorod,

There lived Sadko…’

Sadko is the main character in a Russian medieval bylina (a narrative poem or song). Sadko’s only possession was his maple gusli (a stringed instrument), but he played it so beautifully he was invited to all of Novgorod’s feasts.

One day, Sadko played his gusli on the shores of Lake Ilmen, the water began to swirl, and the Sea Tsar rose from the surface and said,

‘I don’t know what I can reward you with

For my pleasure, for my great pleasure,

For your tender playing.

Perhaps with countless golden treasure?’

The Sea Tsar tells Sadko to make a wager with all the merchants in the city that he can catch a fish with golden fins. Sadko does this, casts a net into the lake, and catches three fish with golden fins. He wins three shops of the finest goods and begins to trade and make great profits. 

Sadko builds thirty scarlet ships and spends many years trading along the River Volkhov, Lake Ladoga, the Neva River, and across the blue sea. He earns barrels of gold and silver, but when he decides to return to Novgorod a storm forms in a cloudless sky and his ships stop in the middle of the sea. 

The Water Tsar Dances: Illustration from “The Russian Story Book” by Richard Wilson, illustrated by Frank C. Papé, 1916

Sadko realises it is time to make a tribute to the Sea Tsar and lowers a barrel of silver into the water, but the storm continues. He lowers a barrel of gold next, but still his ships won’t move. Sadko realises the Sea Tsar needs a living tribute and asks his crew to write their names on wooden lots and cast them into the sea. 

All the lots float, apart from the one with Sadko’s name on. So, Sadko takes his maple gusli and sits on a plank in the sea while his ships sail away. He falls asleep and wakes on the bottom of the sea, with the Sea Tsar’s palace before him.

The Sea Tsar asks Sadko to play his gusli as tribute, and when the music sounds the Sea Tsar begins to dance. For three days Sadko plays, unable to stop, and the Sea Tsar dances up a storm that, far above, on the surface of the sea, smashes ships and drowns sailors. 

Finally, Nikola Mozhaisky (the patron saint of sailors) touches Sadko on the shoulder and tells him to break his gusli strings, so Sadko plays a chord that breaks his strings, the Sea Tsar stops dancing, and the water calms. 

To reward him for his playing, the Sea Tsar asks Sadko if he would like to marry a beautiful mermaid. Under the guidance of the saint, Sadko lets hundreds of mermaids pass by, and chooses a maid at the back of the procession. Then Sadko does not sleep with her on their wedding night, as the saint tells him he will stay forever in the blue sea if he does. The next morning, Sadko wakes in his beloved city of Novgorod. 

I recognise several themes in the Sadko bylina, such as paying respect to those who help you, and love of home. But to me, the story of Sadko was always about the power of music.

When Sadko had nothing else, his music nourished him; both metaphorically and literally as he was welcomed at feasts. Music made the Sea Tsar rise from Lake Ilmen and reward Sadko with riches. 

Music took Sadko to the underwater realm, where he saw a great palace and many beautiful mermaids. And Sadko’s music was so powerful, it made the Sea Tsar dance up a storm. 

Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, composer of the Sadko opera

I have always loved music. Long before we can talk or understand speech, music provides an introduction to how we communicate, how we feel and express emotions, and how we use our imaginations to create and tell stories. Music is a powerful magic, a universal language of the human soul. 

And the story of Sadko has inspired more music! Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov composed a piece of orchestral music based on Sadko in 1867, and later developed this into an opera.

A version of Sadko can be found in Old Peter’s Russian Tales, written by Arthur Ransome, published by Puffin. 

Alexei Tolstoy wrote a poem, Sadko, but I have never found an English translation – so if you know of one, I’d love to hear from you! 

Do check out the rest of the blog tour (see graphic at the top) – Sophie has written 15 posts about Russian Fairy Tales and what they mean to her. You can read Noah Worm’s review of The House with Chicken Legs here, and Sophie has also answered our questions here.