Q and A: Sharon Marie Jones

Sharon Marie Jones, author of Grace-Ella: Spells for Beginners and Grace Ella: Witch Camp has kindly answered our questions as part of the Witch Camp Blog Tour. She grew up in North Wales and now lives near Aberystwyth with her family, close to the sea and countryside. Having worked as a Primary School Teacher for 13 years, Sharon is now a full time author.

What are you reading at the moment?
I’m currently reading ‘The Girl who Speaks Bear’ by Sophie Anderson. I loved her first book, ‘The House with Chicken Legs’, so I couldn’t wait to start this one and it definitely doesn’t disappoint! It’s a magical mix of folklore and adventure, friendship and being true to yourself; utterly enchanting.

Could you tell us how you got into writing?
It has always been my dream to become an author, from a very young age. I loved writing stories and spent much of my early childhood living in my imagination! In Secondary School, I won the school’s R S Thomas prize for creative writing.

But once I decided on a career as a teacher, my job and life in general took over and writing was pushed to the back of my mind – but it was always there, lingering, never completely gone.

I was on my second maternity leave when I decided that I would chase that dream of being a writer. I sat down determined to write. I wrote a short story, which was placed second in a competition and published in Writers’ Forum magazine. This was a huge boost to my confidence. I then had a further seven short stories make the shortlist.

I was enjoying writing short stories but knew that my real passion was to write a book for children. I had just returned to my teaching job by then, and as was driving to work one morning, when the name Grace-Ella popped into my head. I pulled into a lay-by and started to scribble frantically in my notebook.

The following morning I set my alarm for 4.30am and I started to write my first Grace-Ella story. I continued like this, writing for a couple of hours every morning, before real life had to take over. It took me a year, by the end of which I was exhausted, but I had finished writing my first ever book. I sent it to Firefly Press with no expectation at all of hearing back from them … but after three months an email pinged into my inbox and my journey with Grace-Ella truly began.

Why writing for children?
I think you just know if you want to write for children. It’s something intrinsic. I wanted to dive back into that imaginary world that I would escape to as a child. I wanted to let my imagination take over again and lead me on a magical journey.

Because children’s books are just that – they’re magical. I loved reading aloud to my class when I was a teacher; looking at the children mesmerised by the words, and loving the, ‘Oh, please just one more chapter’ chorus at the end of a reading session.

I knew once I started to write that my heart lay with children’s fiction. Seeing a child engrossed in a book is so wonderful and to think that a child could pick up a book that I have written and become lost between its pages is an amazing feeling.

Where and when do you write?
I write at home, in my office. I’ve decorated the room so that it feels relaxing and peaceful, a room that I enjoy being in. I can only concentrate fully on my writing when the house is empty and silent, so my writing time happens when my boys are at school.

Sharon’s Office

Now that I write full time, I don’t set my alarm for 4.30am! But my writing is at its best in the mornings, so I aim to be at my desk by 10am, after dropping my boys off at school and doing a quick tidy up of the house. I can usually ‘write’ for 3-4 hours – I say ‘write’ because I don’t necessarily mean I’m typing away continuously for 3-4 hours. There’s a lot of staring out of the window, allowing ideas to brew and scribbling notes in a notebook. It’s all part of the process of ‘writing’.

On days where the words are hiding from me and I know I won’t add anything to a story I’m working on, I’ll settle down to read a book and allow another author’s words to carry me away. Some days I need this break and find that I’m ready to get going again with my own story, the following day.

Who are your favourite authors for children?
As a child, my favourite author was Enid Blyton. I devoured her books. My favourite being ‘The Enchanted Wood’ and ‘The Faraway Tree’, which I read over and over.

Now … there are so many! There is such a wealth of children’s authors writing today, which is wonderful. I strongly believe that there is a book out there for every young reader. I have far too many authors I currently love, so I’ll choose the ones who I know for definite that I’ll always rush out to buy their next book:

  • Eloise Williams – her writing is so beautifully atmospheric, I feel like I’m in the story with her characters
  • Sophie Anderson – I love folktales and her books bring a new twist to old folktales and are utterly charming
  • Lisa Thompson – she’s a master at tackling difficult issues, weaving them into a sparkling plot that always keep me gripped till the end
  • Onjali Q Rauf – again, she tackles real-life issues perfectly, with wonderfully believable and relatable characters.

Grace-Ella is a witch in training. What drew you to her story?
I think it’s because it’s the kind of story I would have loved as a child. I was entranced by Enid Blyton’s magic, and discovered that I had my very own fairy door on the trunk of the crab apple tree at the bottom of our garden. If I closed my eyes and tapped on the tiny door three times, I would be transported to the kingdom of the Crabble Fairies.
I was always mixing up my own ‘potions’ in the garden – mixing wildflowers and berries with water in empty jam jars. I would line them up on the outside kitchen windowsill.

So once the name Grace-Ella popped into my head, I knew that she was going to be a magical character. Her story began to flow once I started to write the words. I didn’t plot the story, I let the story take me where it wanted to go. Grace-Ella is the girl I would have loved to have had as a friend when I was 9 years old.

Did you ever go to camp as a child?
No, I never went to a Camp as such. I was a painfully shy child and had low self-esteem and confidence. I loved school and was happy playing with my friends, but away from that security, I always stayed close to home.

I was a Brownie, and they went to Camp every year, but I was always too nervous to go. I do remember us going to Brown Owl’s home one evening where we toasted marshmallows on an open-fire. I remember it feeling magical – being wrapped up warm in the dusky darkness, the smell of smoke floating in the air and the sweet taste of the sticky marshmallows.

I spent a lot of time outdoors as a child. I loved pressing wildflowers after going for a walk in the woods with my dad. These memories came flooding back as I wrote ‘Witch Camp’.

Will there be more Grace-Ella?
I hope so! I still have plenty of adventures for her to go on, so fingers crossed…

How does Wales inspire you?
The first thing I loved about Firefly Press was that they were looking for stories for children aged 7-9 years, specifically based in Wales. Wales is rich in stories. As a child, I listened in wide-eyed wonderment to folktales about giants and the tylwyth teg.

The Arch at Devil’s Bridge

The landscape is a constant source of inspiration. There are so many wonderfully wild places to walk, where stories whisper in the rustle of leaves. The setting for ‘Witch Camp’ is very much based on places I have visited. The map of ‘Witch Camp’ at the start of the book shows ‘The Old Stone Archway’, which is based on ‘The Arch’ at Devil’s Bridge, just outside Aberystwyth.

I often read about authors travelling the world on magnificent adventures, which then feed into their writing. For me, Wales is such a beautiful country and is full of inspiration for stories, I don’t feel the need to stray far. T Llew Jones, Wales’ most famous Welsh children’s writer, wrote stories based in Wales for over half a century!

I feel strongly that stories based in Wales should reach young audiences far and wide. Every child should experience the magic and wonder of this beautiful country, and one way for them to do that, is by reading stories from Wales.

One of your own mottos, as signalled on your website is “be proud of your achievements”. This comes across in Grace-Ella: Witch Camp. Was it a conscious decision to allow these messages to filter through your writing and Grace-Ella’s character?
I hadn’t even thought about that so no, it hasn’t been a conscious decision. I’m a perfectionist and my own worst critic in everything I do. As a child, I never felt quite good enough, even though I was often ‘top of the class’ in terms of my work. I’ve also taught children who found it difficult to feel a sense of achievement, often comparing themselves to others and in their minds, finding themselves lacking.

With Grace-Ella, I wanted her to be able to shine at something. She struggles a little with schoolwork and worries that she won’t be able to do her work well, so I wanted to give her something new that she would be good at.

I’ll always remember a young girl I taught, who felt her schoolwork wasn’t good enough and would get herself into a worried mess when having to do tests. She would compare herself to her sister and friends and feel that she wasn’t as good as them. I wanted to help her find that something that she sparkled at. It came when the class were put into groups to work on creating a stall for the school’s Summer Fair. One of the items her group decided to make was bunting. Once this girl started sewing, there was no stopping her! The other three members of the group worked on other items whilst she developed her sewing talent and made all the bunting herself. On her last day of school, she gave me a handmade cushion which was perfect in every way.

We all have the ability to shine at something, it’s just a matter of finding what that is.

What else should we ask you?
Can I do magic? Yes! I can make a coin disappear…

What comes next for Sharon Marie Jones?
Lots of published books I hope! I have stories other than ‘Grace-Ella’ that I want to write, and it would be wonderful for some of them to become published books.

But right now, what comes next for me is a cup of coffee and diving back into writing Grace-Ella Book 3…

Thanks again to Sharon for answering our questions! You can follow her on Twitter and should visit her website.

To read a full review of Grace-Ella: Witch Camp, click here.

Review: The Comet and the Thief

We are delighted, enthralled and completely enraptured to be taking part in The Comet and the Thief Blog Tour. We are pleased because The Comet and the Thief was written by Ruth Morgan, one of our favourite authors. We are pleased because today is launch day for The Comet and the Thief. And we are pleased because the book is really rather good.

So before we get to the blog tour extras, let’s tell you about the book. I, Daddy Worm, was given an early digital copy of the book by publishers Gomer and I absolutely loved it.

The story centres on Kit, the eponymous Georgian thief, who finds a mysterious and magical medieval book which connects him to the inhabitants of a cursed village 300 years in the past. Evil Lord Colwich is also after the book, having initially hired Kit to steal it for him, and a tense chase ensues.

It’s an intriguing and engrossing adventure as Kit flees London and affiliates with Saroni, a travelling puppeteer in Bath; which proves to be a decent hiding place if only for a short amount of time. It gives Kit some breathing space to be able to explore the book and the villagers who each have their own page. Kit strikes a bond with Zannah and ultimately works out a way to go through the book and into the village. Colwich is no quitter though and he is determined to find the book. Will Kit work out how to save the villagers or will Colwich catch him before he can?

If you are familiar with Ruth Morgan’s other recent release, Ant Clancy Games Detective (Firefly Press) then you will know that it is a brilliantly fun and immediate fantasy adventure – perfect for 9-12 year olds. The Comet and the Thief is quite different; aimed at a slightly older audience (11 to YA?), it’s sophisticated storytelling and intricately weaved plot lines exploring trust, friendship and witchcraft are an absolute joy, forcing the reader to surrender to the thrill of Ruth’s virtuosity.

What the two books have in common is that they are both extremely well crafted, with inventive worldbuilding and insightful commentaries on their subjects. This book surely cements Ruth’s reputation as a writer of real quality and ambition, who should be revered as one of the best in Wales right now.

The Comet and the Thief is a vividly imagined, pullman-esque page turner. It is a totally compelling and brilliantly written novel, perfect for fans of Julie Pike, Frances Hardinge and Kiran Millwood-Hargrave.

Thanks so much to Gwasg Gomer for providing a digital copy of the book in exchange for this review. If you’d like to buy your own copy, visit GWales or Hive or your local independent bookshop.

And now to the blog tour extras… Ruth Morgan has very kindly written this exclusive content about her writing routine…

Ruth Morgan: “My Writer’s Routine”

A couple of years ago, I visited an exhibition about ‘Queen of Crime’ Agatha Christie at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and one exhibit in particular grabbed my attention: her well-travelled typewriter.  Agatha wrote many of her detective novels whilst accompanying her archaeologist husband Max on his expeditions to the Middle East and I found it touching and reassuring to discover that she got on with the task of writing wherever she went and whatever the conditions.  I must admit, I still occasionally dream of my perfect writer’s retreat: an uncluttered desk, a view of the sea and uninterrupted hours during which the words flow effortlessly onto my laptop screen. It will always remain a dream but that shouldn’t really matter. The fact is, if setting up her modest typewriter on whatever she could balance it on that day was good enough for Agatha, it’s good enough for me!

I have got my own routine when I write, and it has evolved to fit into a busy life with the everyday demands of family and also my much-loved work as a part-time teacher in a local primary school. I have been teaching for thirty years and writing for children seriously for about twenty but that’s covered everything from picture books, poetry and non-fiction to scripts for animation and radio. I am one of those writers who does as little planning as possible because I love the adventure of not knowing where the story’s going to take me. There are real thrills to be had along the way, as more and more of the story reveals itself. That’s why I only ever begin a longer novel with the vaguest idea of a plot, although I have to keep feeling an excitement and belief in the ideas at the heart of the story, in order to know it’s worth carrying on.  In the day-to-day business of writing, I tend to think in scenes and particularly love writing dialogue. 

Here it is then: the innermost secrets of my writer’s routine. In the evening I’ll unwind by listening to music or some light reading, basically the aim is to feel happy and relaxed at bedtime. Then, when I’m in bed, I think around and about the scene I intend writing the next day, for example what the characters are going to say to one another or what’s going on in my hero’s mind, which will often be reflected in their surroundings. Crucially, I consider how that scene is going to drive the story on, but not in a stressy way: these pleasant thoughts simply drift around in my head as I drop off to sleep.  I will get up early the next day – a non-teaching day – and start by editing what I wrote the day before.  Then I’ll carry on writing the next scene and a lot of the groundwork will have been done already, although I still won’t know exactly what’s going to happen: that will emerge as I write.  If it’s a good day, I’ll complete at least half a chapter, 1,500 words or more before I have to go and do the shopping or organise some other family stuff to keep our home lives running smoothly.  On a not-so-productive day, I’ll only get as far as editing the last bit.  On a hopeless day, something else will happen and I’ll have to shelve my plans altogether. Most of the time, I manage to get something onto my screen. I am definitely a morning person when it comes to work, and if I can produce something I’m happy with by 9 a.m., the rest of the day’s looking good.

Not very exciting sounding, is it? No-one sees the thrills: those go on inside, but you have to work hard for them. However, there’s something else.  When you are really into a story and have got to know your characters well (which is vital, your number one job as a writer, really), it’s like having an alternative life you can dive into and daydream about at any boring moment.  In The Comet an the Thief, I especially enjoyed writing the theatrical scenes, where my hero Kit is learning his craft as a performer from his master, the puppeteer Saroni. Several times in the queue at the supermarket I floated off into a wonderful daydream and witnessed one of their marionette shows playing in some wayside tavern: 

Kit would peep from behind the stage and was amused to see the audience enthralled by his master’s performance, their expressions altering as he played with their feelings almost as though they were puppets too.  In some of the coaching inns, the crowds were squeezed in rows several deep along the balconies as well as down in the yard.

I realise all I’ve talked about here is me, me, me.  When I write, I am thinking about my young readers too, I promise! I hope that if I get excited about and engrossed in a story, that’s going to communicate itself to my readers. It also adds another dimension to my life and that’s a wonderful feeling, one I would lose were I stressing about when to find time to write or beating myself up over not having written enough that day. I think if you are like me and have lots of tasks to juggle, you have to find some routine of your own and accept that conditions and never going to be perfect. Anyway, when there’s a lot going on in real life, there’s plenty of inspiration to draw on. What would I write about at that uncluttered desk staring at the sea for hours on end?  My mind would be a blank!

THANK YOU SO MUCH RUTH FOR YOUR TIME AND COMMITMENT TO THIS BLOG!

Ruth has been writing for children and young adults for more than 20 years, everything from picture books to novels, plus many scripts for animation and radio series.  She is also a part-time teacher at a local primary school – a constant source of inspiration.  In the small amount of time that’s left, she loves to dance, play ukulele and stargaze.
You can follow Ruth on Twitter @alienruth and Instagram ruth.morgan.ant.clancy

Guest Blog from Julie Pike

We are delighted that Julie Pike has written this wonderful guest blog for us. Her debut book, The Last Spell Breather, came out in July and is a brilliant and magical fantasy adventure. Here, she tells us how the book was inspired by the land in which she was born and grew up.

When I set out to write The Last Spell Breather, I knew I wanted to create a spell-binding adventure. To bring the fantasy to life, I decided to set the story in a magical faraway land. But after I’d finished writing it, I realised the story was actually set in the place I grew up in Wales; a place where I’d had many adventures as a child, a place where – when it came to stories – anything seemed possible.

I grew up on a council estate called Longford, on the outskirts of Neath. It’s a wonderful spot, nestled between a stream, a hill, woodland, a river and a mountain. In my story, the hero, Rayne, grows up in a remote village. When I came to think up a name for her village, I wanted the place to feel like home. I grew up on a street called Heol Penderyn. So, it seemed natural to name her village Penderyn (which I later changed to Penderin, to make it sound more magical).

Penlan Farm, on Drumau Mountain.

In the story, Penderin is nestled under a mountain, just like Longford is nestled under Drumau Mountain. It was up there that my friends and I had many adventures growing up. I cooked bacon and eggs on an open fire on its slopes as a Guide. At the very top, there was a rundown farmhouse, with its roof caved in. The house was completely empty, save for a mysterious pile of old medicine bottles made of thick glass, which wouldn’t smash even when I foolishly threw them against a wall. Those glass bottles came home with me and stayed on my shelf and in my imagination. Later they wormed their way into my story.

Neath has a fine Victorian Library. Its many books are one of the reasons I grew up to be a keen bookworm. As a child, Mam would take me there every week, regular as clockwork – both of us heading home on the bus with a pile of books each. In my story, Rayne’s mother goes missing. It didn’t take me long to work out where Rayne might find her. Yes, you’ve guessed it – she finds her at the library. But not just any library, she finds her at the Great Library. I’ve come to learn that libraries are places of magical possibility, their words have the power to transport you on amazing adventures. And that’s exactly what happens to Rayne when she finds Mam.

Me and my friends on St David’s Day. You can see the slope of Drumau Mountain behind.

Thinking about it now, my story has other similarities to my childhood too – not just the setting. I grew up in the 1980s. Back then people hardly seemed to worry about whether children playing outside unchaperoned would be safe. I remember spending long summer days outside having adventures. In the evening, Mam would stand on the street, calling me and my brother home for tea. I’m sure a small part of her worried where we were and if we were okay, but I’m also sure the bigger part was more concerned we weren’t home when we said we’d be, and the tea would spoil. Looking back, even though we were playing away from the house, Mam made it easy for us to believe the whole estate and surrounding land was a safe place. If she’d been worried, we would have been too, and we’d have stuck to the house and garden. Thinking about my story now, it’s no surprise to me that in Penderin, Rayne’s Mam creates – magically creates – a safe place for her daughter. In fact, the whole story is based on this, and what happens when she finds out that her home is no longer safe.

Perhaps I did after all set The Last Spell Breather in a magical land. Just not a faraway land. I set the story in Wales because my home (and now Rayne’s home) is, and always has been, a land of magic.

Thanks to Julie Pike for taking the time to write this exclusive blog for us. You can read our review of The Last Spell Breather here.

Follow Julie on Twitter or visit her website.

Author Q & A: Helen Lipscombe

We are delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for Helen Lipscombe’s debut novel, Peril en Pointe. Helen grew up in Wales, studied at Exeter College of Art and Design and went on to work in agencies in London, Singapore and the Caribbean. She obtained an MA in Creative Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University and now lives in the Cotswolds with her family.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve got four books on the go . . . The Dragon in the Library by Louie Stowell, Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, The House of Light by Julia Green and No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton. I’ve just finished Normal People by Sally Rooney, The Last Spell Breather by Julia Pike and The Middler by Kirsty Applebaum. All wonderful books. I wish I could read faster. Got a very lovely, but slightly wobbly tbr pile.

Could you tell us how you got into writing?

When I was little, I used to turn my favourite Ladybird Books into plays so I could act them out in front of anyone within a five-mile radius. Such a show-off! 

We understand you trained to be a graphic designer. Did you work on any books?

The majority of my design work has been for charities like The British Red Cross and Salvation Army. Although I LOVED creating a storyboard of ideas for Peril En Pointe’s cover, the designer Helen Crawford-White did a much better job than I could have ever done.

Where and when do you work?

I’m rubbish at any kind of routine. I have a desk in a study off the kitchen, but I only tend to use it when I’m in the thick of rewriting. My ideas flow better when I’m out walking the dog or staring out of a train window. I’m not really a morning person either, so I try to get all my admin done before lunch and focus on the creative stuff later. 

Why writing for children?

I think it’s because I didn’t start writing seriously until after my sons were born. Reading children’s books again sparked my imagination and I rediscovered my inner child. When I started to write, that’s who came out!

Who are your favourite writers for children?

That’s a hard one to answer – there are so many, and the list is growing as more and more brilliant new voices are published. As a child, I loved C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome. As a parent, I loved reading Janet and Allan Ahlberg, and Roald Dahl. As a writer, I appreciate strong voices – Louise Rennison, Sally Nicholls, Patrick Ness, Meg Rosoff; and great plotters – J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins and Philip Pullman. And thanks to Peril En Pointe, I’ve just discovered Noel Streatfeild.

Peril en Pointe is out now from Chicken House. Can you give us a flavour?

Absolutely. My heroine’s called Milly Kydd and more than anything, she wants to be a ballerina, just like her famous mum. The story starts as Milly’s about to dance in the biggest ballet competition of her life. It’s called the Scarlet Slipper Ballet Prize and it’s on telly like Britain’s Got Talent – only without Ant and Dec. But EVERYTHING goes wrong. Milly accidentally trips up the despicable Willow Perkins, and worse, her mum disappears into thin air. As a result, Milly’s kicked out of ballet school. Eight months later, her mum’s still missing when Milly’s invited to a mysterious ballet school. But when Millly arrives, she discovers that Swan House School of Ballet is no ordinary ballet school. It’s a school for SPIES.

Did you ever go to ballet?

Yes – when I was very young. I remember dancing in the Christmas show dressed as a little green pixie, which inspired one of the scenes in Peril En Pointe. (My lovely mum made my costume and I’ve still got it). Tragically, my ballet career was cut short when I broke my toes. I’d been watching Olga Korbut winning a gymnastic gold in the summer Olympics and thought, how hard can it be? Alas, my ‘beam’ was the side of the bath. I fell off and my toes got stuck in the plughole. They’ve never been the same since.

Is music important to you and what music inspired the book?

I’m so glad you asked me that! The answer is sort of connected with your next question. As a child, I sang in Eisteddfods and played the viola with the county youth orchestra. When I started learning the piano, my great auntie Lottie, (who I adored), gave me all of her old sheet music from the 1940’s. My favourite was ‘Jewels from the Ballet’ by Lawrence Wright. By the time I got to writing the last draft of Peril En Pointe, I needed a bit of a pick-me-up to keep me going so I made a playlist. There are pieces from Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet, but also Slow-Moving Millie, Family of the Year, Pink Martini, the Be Good Tanyas, Katy Perry and even U2’s theme from Mission Impossible! All the tracks represent a scene or character in the story.

Are you inspired by Wales?

Yes! My family live in South Wales and my eldest son goes to uni in Cardiff. I love the South Wales coastline and have spent time writing there. My first attempt at a novel was set in the Welsh valleys in the 1970’s on the night of a terrible storm. It had everything in it, from sheep farmers to tight-rope walkers to cat burglers. 

Your Twitter profile says that you love words, welsh cakes and waggy tails. But really, if you had to choose one – which would it be?

NOOO, don’t make me choose! Garghhh. It would have to be waggy tails. If I wasn’t walking my dog I wouldn’t come up with nearly as many words. Plus, I love her deeply.

What are your ambitions?

Gosh. Beyond meeting my next deadline? I always thought I’d like to write a musical one day (it’s not going to happen).

Anything else you’d like to declare?

OK.

Yes.

I admit it. 

It was me who ate all the Welsh cakes.

Not the dog. 

Sorry.

What comes next for Helen Lipscombe?

The sequel to Peril En Pointe is due out next year. Beyond that, I’ve got a few more imperiled heroines up my sleeve. I’ll keep you posted!

Thank you to Helen for taking the time to answer our questions. Peril en Pointe, by Helen Lipscombe is published by Chicken House and is available to buy in your local bookshop or online

The Blue Balloon:30 Years Blog Tour

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

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

The Blue Balloon Blog Tour on the Family Bookworms YouTube Channel

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

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

Storm Hound Blog Tour

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

The Wild Hunt

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

The dogs didn’t look very impressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ysgyryd Fawr or Skirrid Mountain near Abergavenny

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

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

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

More about Storm Hound…
Storm of Odin is the youngest stormhound of the Wild Hunt that haunts lightning-filled skies. He has longed for the time when he will be able to join his brothers and sisters but on his very first hunt he finds he can’t keep up and falls to earth, landing on the A40 just outside Abergavenny.
Enter 12-year-old Jessica Price, who finds and adopts a cute puppy from an animal rescue centre. And suddenly, a number of strange people seem very interested in her and her new pet, Storm. People who seem to know a lot about magic . . .
In Claire Fayers’ electrifying adventure Storm Hound, Jessica starts to see that there’s something different about her beloved dog and will need to work out which of her new friends she can trust.

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

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: