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. 

The Clockwork Crow Cover Reveal

We are absolutely delighted to reveal the cover of Catherine Fisher’s new MG novel, The Clockwork Crow: a magical story of snow and stars. Published by Cardiff-based Firefly Press, and due out in October, this beautifully produced book will make a perfect Christmas gift.

The stunning cover, designed by Anne Glenn, is shown here in its full glory.

Catherine Fisher, author of the bestselling Snow-Walker trilogy, Incarceron and The Obsidian Mirror series, was the first Wales Young People’s Laureate and we were absolutely thrilled when we heard that Catherine and Firefly were working together – such an enchanting partnership. Catherine told us, “I’m very proud and pleased to be publishing a new story with Firefly. One of the best independent children’s publishers in the UK. And Welsh!”

Synopsis

When Seren Rhys is given a newspaper parcel by a stranger late at night in an empty train station, she has no idea what trouble it contains. She is on her way to a new life at the remote house of Plas-y-Fran in Wales, but when she gets there the happy family Christmas she had hoped for turns out to be an illusion. Because their son Tomos has been missing for a year and a day, and if the strange and dangerous Family have really taken him, who would be mad enough to try and get him back? 
Armed with a talking bird who might not be telling the truth, a magical snow-globe and her own indomitable courage, Seren sets off on a journey into a midnight world of snow and stars, to an ice palace unlocked only by a Door of Blood and Tears.

 

We also have an exclusive extract of the book, featuring Seren, the irresistible, headstrong protagonist.

The Clockwork Crow was lying on its side. One of its small bright eyes was looking straight at her. She snatched up the key, pushed it into the hole in the side of the bird and wound it up. The machinery grated, stiff and rusty. It was hard to get the key round more than a few turns. There was a loud whirr and clatter, and quite suddenly the Crow’s head moved. It creaked sideways. Its wings opened. It took one wobbly step. 
Then it looked at her with its shiny eye and opened its twisted beak. “Oil” it croaked. “I need oil.” 

 

The Clockwork Crow is a gripping Christmas tale of enchantment and belonging, set in a frost-bound mansion in snowy mid-Wales. It is due for publication on 4 October 2018, and will be available for pre-order on Firefly’s website or from your local independent bookshop.

 

We’d like to thank Firefly for inviting us to host this cover reveal for a very special and much-anticipated book from a master storyteller.

Welsh Legend in Susan Cooper’s The Grey King and Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider

A Guest Blog by Dr Dimitra Fimi

In my recent book, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) I explored children’s and young adult fantasies ranging from the 1960s to today, discussing their inspirations in “Celtic” myth, both Irish and Welsh. Among my chosen texts are two much-loved Tir na n-Og Award winners: Susan Cooper’s The Grey King (1976) and Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider (1987). In this post, I’d like to share some examples of Welsh legend and folklore that inspired central elements in both novels.

Susan Cooper’s The Grey King

Susan Cooper’s The Grey King (and, later, Silver on the Tree), offers us a vision of “the Arthur of the Welsh”. One of the texts I consider central for Cooper’s re-imagining of Arthur is the Latin Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) of c. 800, often attributed to Nennius. The “mirabilia,” a list of “wonders” of Britain appended to the main text of the Historia, give us a sense of the traditions of Arthur in medieval Welsh folklore. There are two main Arthurian references in the “mirabilia”: Arthur’s dog, Cafall, and Arthur’s son. Both became central ideas in The Grey King.

In the “mirabilia”, Arthur’s son’s name is Amr, while in another medieval text, the Welsh Triads, his name is Lachau or Lacheu. Not much is known about this shadowy figure, but Bromwich (whose book on the Triads Susan Cooper read) hypothesises that “Lacheu appears to have belonged to an early stratum of Arthurian tradition in Wales.” In making Bran Davies the son of Arthur, therefore, Cooper is not quite inventing a new tradition, as breathing new life into a very old one. 

Cafall is the name of Arthur’s dog not only in the “mirabilia” section of the Historia Brittonum, but also in the tale of “Culhwch and Olwen” found in the Mabinogion. In both texts, Cafall takes part in the hunting of the legendary boar Troyt/Twrch Trwyth by Arthur and his men. Inside Craig yr Aderyn, when Will, Bran and Cafall stand before the Three Lords, the true identity of one of the Lords is revealed because he exclaims his recognition of the dog:

The lord in the sea-blue robe leaned forward a little from his throne; they glimpsed a keen, strong face and a pointed grey beard. He said, astonishingly, ‘Cafall?’
At Bran’s side the white dog stood erect and quivering. He did not move an inch forward, as if obeying some inner instruction that told him his place, but his tail waved furiously from side to side as it never waved for anyone but Bran. He gave a soft, small whine.
White teeth glinted in the hooded face. ‘He is well named. Well named.

Whether Cafall is Arthur’s own dog reborn, or he just senses the presence of his modern master’s father, is left deliberately ambiguous in this extract. Nevertheless, Bran’s persona here as a modern incarnation of Arthur, the hero who will defend Britain against the Dark once more, is strengthened by the presence of Cafall.

Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider

In Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider young Gwyn discovers he is a magician. As Gwyn turns nine, his Nain reveals a secret ancestry and points to a new destiny for him:

‘Time to find out if you are a magician, Gwydion Gwyn!’ said Nain… ‘Time to remember your ancestors: Math, Lord of Gwynedd, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy!’

Nain’s words usher characters from Mabinogion into the text. Math is the King of Gwynedd in one of the earliest tales, the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, while Gwydion and Gilfaethwy are his nephews. Nimmo’s portrayal of Gwydion erases the most disturbing elements of his mythical character, thus turning him into a benign supernatural ancestor-figure. Indeed, Gwyn soon finds out that his real name is Gwydion, and that Gwyn serves as a sort of diminutive. 

Nain enables the first flowering of Gwyn’s magical powers by offering him five unusual gifts for his birthday, which he is encouraged to “give to the wind” and get a magical response, for good or ill. Three of these gifts, a tin whistle, a piece of seaweed, and a broken horse, provide direct links with the Mabinogion. 

When Gwyn offers the tin whistle to the wind, he receives a silver pipe. When Arianwen, the eponymous snow spider, spins a cobweb image of a snow-covered city, inhabited by pale-faced children, Gwyn realises that he can hear the bells of the city and the voices of the children through the pipe. Nain exclaims: “Even when men whispered, Math could hear them; he could hear voices beyond any mortal ear! The pipe is from him!” Indeed, in the Mabinogion Math has a “special attribute,” “whatever whispering goes on between people – no matter how quiet – once the wind catches hold of it then Math will know about it.”

The next gift, and the vision Gwyn receives in return, also come directly from the Fourth Branch. Just like Gwydion fashions a ship out of seaweed, Gwyn’s piece of seaweed brings an enormous silver ship, engraved with strange shapes and floating in the sky. 

Nain’s fifth gift to Gwyn, the broken horse, introduces the tragic tale of Branwen from the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, which later becomes the central structure of the third book in the series, The Chestnut Soldier. The broken horse is described as having no ears and tail, and bearing a tiny label around its neck that reads “Dim hon!” (“Not this!”). Despite Nain’s warning, Gwyn carelessly lets the horse be taken by the wind and a terrible power of chaos is let loose. Gwyn eventually realises that the horse has released a “demon” from the same Mabinogion tale: he turns out to be Efnisien, Branwen’s half-brother, whose outrageous act of maiming Matholwch’s horses is reflected in the state of the toy horse: “Then he went for the horses, and cut their lips to the teeth, and their ears down to their heads, and their tails to their backs; and where he could get a grip on the eyelids, he cut them to the bone.” In a way, this is the moment of “recognition” in this fantasy novel. Gwyn now knows that he needs to capture Efnisien’s demonic spirit and imprison him again, safely in the toy horse, before any further damage is done. He succeeds in taming the legendary past, and at the same time in controlling his own power and in maturing as a young boy and a magician.

Worthy Tir na n-Og Winners

Both Susan Cooper and Jenny Nimmo engage with Welsh traditions and folklore. They don’t just “borrow”, they re-invent, re-shape, and adapt. They make medieval Welsh legend relevant and enchanting for new generations of children, and – in the process – succeed in creating that all-important “authentic Welsh background” that has made them worthy winners of the Tir na n-Og Award. 

We’d like to say a big thank you to Dr Dimitra Fimi for taking the time to contribute this guest blog. We are in awe.

Dr Dimitra Fimi is a Senior Lecturer in English at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Her first monograph, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies. She co-edited the first critical edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “A Secret Vice”, in which Tolkien theorizes his language invention (A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages, HarperCollins, 2016). The book won the Tolkien Society Award for Best Book. Her latest monograph, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), was runner up for the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award. She has published widely in journals and edited collections. She lectures on fantasy literature, science fiction, children’s literature, and medievalism. She contributes regularly to radio and TV programmes (BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio Wales, History Channel, BBC4). You can find out more on her website.

Readers of this blog may also be interested to note that Dr Fimi will be tutoring a course at Ty Newydd with Catherine Fisher entitled ‘(Re)telling traditional narratives:myth, legend, fairy tale’ on the weekend of Friday 20 July.

Jon Blake Introduces Thimble…

An exclusive article by author Jon Blake to mark our first ever blog tour (#Lollies2017)
Jon Blake with his son

I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce Thimble Monkey Superstar to those who haven’t yet read it and after this introduction possibly never will.

Thimble Monkey Superstar is set in a bungalow.  This is important because ‘bungalow’ is one of my favourite words and also the type of house in which I grew up.  There were three bedrooms at one end of our bungalow and a kitchen and lounge at the other, joined by a brief hall.  My dad was a big man and if he took up a strategic position in this hall he was inescapable.  And believe me, there were times when we needed to escape.  Psychologists have theorised that children’s writers often suffer from arrested development due to their own bad experiences in childhood, and I can –  

I’m sorry, I’ve gone completely off the point.  Yes, Thimble is set in a bungalow, inhabited by failed children’s author Douglas Dawson, who is under the illusion he lives in a castle complete with portcullis and dancing bears.  Douglas is a kind of cross between Alan Partridge and Martin Amis.  He has a disabled son, Jams, who is a kind of cross between sunshine and Spongebob.  Jams is loosely based on my own son and chief cuddling partner, Jordi.  Last but not least there is Nora, Jams’ mum, on whose income as a green energy something-or-other they all depend.  How Nora became Douglas’s partner is a considerable mystery, but once Thimble arrives there is no doubt whose company she prefers.  Thimble, as you may have guessed from the title, is the star of the show, a kind of cross between a capuchin and Harpo Marx.

Douglas Dawson is less than happy playing second fiddle to a monkey and keen to remove him by any means necessary.  Jams, having the best friend he always dreamed of, is not.  Therein lies the basis of the tale, which features (among other things) nits, tarantulas, mechanical diggers, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, monkey charades and a near-death experience.  There is only one poo joke and I would modestly suggest it’s quite a good one.

Thimble Monkey Superstar is illustrated by the legendary Martin Chatterton and published by Welsh indie publishers Firefly Press. I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank them for rescuing my long career as a children’s writer from oblivion. In my own mind it’s a little bit like Heaven 17 resurrecting Tina Turner back in the 80s. Then again, my own mind is a little bit like Douglas Dawson’s: no stranger to fantasy.  

Find out more about Thimble Monkey Superstar here

Read our full Q and A with Jon Blake here

Follow Jon on Twitter @jonblakeauthor

Follow Firefly on Twitter @fireflypress