Anticipated Reads of 2019

January

We’ve already had a number of exciting releases to devour in 2019. The Colour of Happy by Laura Baker and Angie Rozelaar (Hodder) is a beautiful exploration of feelings for young children – allowing them to interpret and acknowledge their own emotions and develop empathy for others.
The Girls (Caterpillar), by Lauren Ace & Jenny Lovlie is a celebration of individuality and friendship. It follows the journey of four girls who meet under an apple tree and they form a bond that lasts a lifetime. The girls grow and follow their individual paths but know that they always have the love and friendship to share the good times and get them through the bad.
Meet The Pirates and Meet The Greeks by James Davies (Big Picture Press) are superb non-fiction hardbacks that everyone needs. Filled with hi-res humour these are perfect for any age and should be in every school library in the land.

February

Three MG novels of real quality are on offer this month. The Train to Impossible Places by PG Bell (Usborne) gets a paperback release. It deserves your attention as it’s one of the most inventive books we’ve read recently. Suzie is a bold heroine seeking justice as she traverses the Impossible Places on a train piloted by trolls. We’d say it’s best suited to ages 8 to 11. Buy it, you won’t regret it.
The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis (OUP) manages to cover so much ground with an incredible deftness. Topics covered include refugees, votes for women and the ethical treatment of animals, making this book a feast for the mind (and a treasure-trove for teachers’ planning). It’s highly emotive, engaging and intelligently written – but then if you’ve read any of Gill’s other books, you’d be expecting that.
We’ve just received our copy of Storm Hound, the new novel from Claire Fayers (Macmillan) that has already received a collection of favourable first reviews. We’re looking forward to reading this funny and fast-paced story of the mythical young bloodhound who falls to earth. Claire does magical adventure extremely well so we can’t wait to get stuck in.

March

The Wonder of Trees is published in March. Non-fiction expert Nicola Davies explores the extraordinary diversity of trees and forests with illustrations by Lorna Scobie (Hodder). This is the same duo who produced The Variety of Life last year, a gorgeous large-format celebration of biodiversity that we often goggle at for hours at a time.
We are very excited about Lubna and Pebble, written by Wendy Meddour and illustrated by Daniel Egneus (OUP). A picture book addressing the refugee crisis, it follows the story of Lubna who’s best friend is a pebble she finds on the beach when she arrives in the night. It’s a story that celebrates the human spirit, hope and friendship. We know that Daniel Egneus is a quality illustrator – and the images promise to be both sensitive and skillful.
Walker is a new story from Shoo Rayner (Firefly) about a boy who can talk to dogs. Shoo’s well-loved firefly trilogy about Dragons came to a close in 2017, and we’re excited to read this new story aimed at 8-10 year olds.

April

Several Welsh picture book authors seem to have found a happy home with Little Tiger – and there are two being published in April.
We’re very lucky to have seen an early proof of Stefano the Squid, by Wendy Meddour and Duncan Beedie (Little Tiger). The illustrations are top-notch – bold and bright underwater scenes compliment Wendy’s funny and sensitive text about finding the heroic in the ordinary. Stefano lacks confidence in his own appearance – the other creatures seem far more interesting, colourful, amazing even. When disaster strikes, Stefano steps into the limelight.
The One Stop Story Shop by Tracey Corderoy and Tony Neal (Little Tiger) is a fun frolic through the magical world of storytelling. We don’t have much more information about this one at the moment, but it’s another quality pairing with a great track record.
Graffeg have a number of books scheduled for release in April – the brilliant country tales series from Nicola Davies and Cathy Fisher continues with Mountain Lamb (Graffeg); Ceri and Deri Build a Birdhouse in Max Low’s third installment of the vibrant duo’s adventures; and Helping Hedgehog Home, by Celestine and the Hare (Graffeg) is the 9th little book with a big heart featuring the Tribe. Grandpa Burdock and Granny Dandelion must help Hedgehog get home when a new fence traps her outside the garden.
The Sea House (Firefly) written by newsreader Lucy Owen has an intriguing and striking premise. Grieving nine-year old Coral cries so much, she fills her house with tears and wakes to find a magical underwater world. This fantasy story has a focus on the magic of being able to swim through your own house. Rebecca Harry’s illustrations (her 40th book!) make this a fantasy story with a big heart that will appeal to children aged 5+.
A Little House in a Big Place (Kids Can Press) by Alison Acheson is illustrated by French-born, Aberystwyth-based Valeriane Leblond. A nominee for last year’s Tir na-nOg Award with Tudur Dylan Jones, Valeriane’s images are compassionate, soulful and beautiful. The ‘big place’ in the title is the prairie, where a little girl stands in a window waving to the engineer on a passing train. Canadian author Alison Acheson has written a deceptively simple book which deals with growing up and what may lie beyond our own familiar surroundings.

May

Another exciting pairing of author and illustrator will be seen with the release of Hummingbird (Walker) by Nicola Davies and Jane Ray. This promises to be a spellbinding nature book. These tiny birds travel huge distances (from wintertime in Mexico to a spring nesting as far north as Alaska and Canada) and this book follow’s one bird’s migration. Jane Ray is a talented and distinctive illustrator, regularly shortlisted for major prizes – a worthy partner for the incredible Nicola Davies.

June

The hysterical Fables from the Stables get a new addition in Hayley the Hairy Horse, by Gavin Puckett and Tor Freeman (Faber & Faber). These rhyming tales are perfect for the 5 – 7 year olds who are after a chapter book of their own. We’ve loved every edition so far, and can’t wait for more.

July

Tracey Corderoy and Tony Neal release their second book of the year with Little Tiger entitled Sneaky Beak, a warning fable about materialism.
Ant Clancy Games Detective is new from Ruth Morgan (Firefly). Her last novel Alien Rain was nominated for the Tir na-nOg and was a sophisticated, well-crafted, compelling story, so we’re naturally including this new story in our ‘ones to watch’. Race-Chase is the new virtual reality game that everyone’s playing but gamers are starting to get hurt. Could the problem identified by the game’s creators turn out to be something deadlier? Ant Clancy and his friends set out to investigate.
Ariki and the Island of Wonders is the follow-up to last year’s Ariki and the Giant Shark by Nicola Davies and Nicola Kinnear (Walker). We loved this informative fiction – with descriptions of the reef, the wildlife and the geography of the pacific island featured – but it’s the feisty heroine who will get young readers hooked. It’s well-suited to 8 to 10 year olds, but the joy of nature will not be lost on any age.

And in the second half of the year…

There’s a lot more to come from the authors and illustrators of Wales in the second half of the year. News of the following publications is floating our boat at the moment:

Every Child a Song, Nicola Davies & Marc Martin; The Princess Who Flew with Dragons, Stephanie Burgis (Bloomsbury); Max Low publishes a book with Otter Barry; a second Grace-Ella story is due from Sharon Marie-Jones (Firefly); a third (and final?) Aubrey book from Horatio Clare (Firefly); there may be a new book from Wendy White, and new books from Dan Anthony and Ruth Morgan will be published with Gomer; a follow up to Through the Eyes of Me by Jon Robinson (Graffeg); Teach Your Cat Welsh and Find the Dragon from Lolfa; and a new Max the Detective book from Sarah Todd Taylor (Nosy Crow).

Firefly Review 2018

Firefly Press was launched in Cardiff in 2013. Spearheaded by publisher Penny Thomas and a team of editors, writers and enthusiasts, they develop around 10 books a year. At the time of launch, Janet Thomas, editor, was quoted as saying, “We aim to publish the best in storytelling, writing and design for a Welsh, UK and world market. Our stories may be funny, scary, magical, shocking, thrilling, sad or happy, but always aim to entertain and inspire.” (The Bookseller, 21 May 2013)

Anyone who’s read a Firefly-published book in 2018 would probably concur that those aims have been met, with aplomb. For us, it’s fabulous that Firefly publish books for children only, as this allows for an intensely focussed approach on successfully selling the authors and design. We’re really pleased that the design of the books receives due attention – with Firefly, you really can judge the book by its cover – and from what we’ve seen of the 2019 releases, this is going to continue, and rightly so.

We’ll draw your attention to a number of 2018 Firefly books here – not all by Welsh authors, but all deserving of universal recognition. (Writing in italics is directly from press information.)

Thrilling Series for Mature Readers

Two compelling Firefly trilogies came to a close in 2018 – both to be appreciated by readers of middle-grade, young adult and adult fiction. The Heart of Mars is the conclusion of a sci-fi thriller centered on protagonist Lora. After trekking the Martian deserts and battling against many dangers, Lora and Peter bravely set off to find the Ancient Heart of Mars and rescue Ma and Hannah. This acclaimed, inventive book delights its readers with scares and surprises – a brilliantly written fight for survival.

The Territory: Truth also grips the attention with its dystopian plotline and powerful characterisations. The year is 2059. Noa lives in what’s left of a Britain where flooding means land is scarce. Everyone must sit an exam at 15: if you pass you can stay in the Territory, if you fail you must go to the Wetlands. Will Noa, Jack and Raf be able to defeat the wall and the authorities and finally uncover the truth?

Critically acclaimed and award-winning, Sarah Govett has succeeded in delivering an accomplished, distinctive and contemporary series.

Middle Grade Masterpieces

Eloise Williams may well be regarded as one of Wales’ heavy-hitters, in terms of literary punch. 2017’s Gaslight struck a chord with readers all over the country keen on historical fiction, and it was ideal for teachers looking for something gritty and realistic to use in their Victorian planning. Since then, Eloise has received Literature Wales support, been one of the Hay Festival Writers at Work, had a nomination for the Tir na-nOg Award and been in the Western Mail! Seaglass, therefore, was always highly anticipated and does not disappoint.

It does, however, surprise. Seaglass stands out amongst the crop of 2018’s MG crowd as it is an eerie ghost story. Chilling, atmospheric, and cleverly focussed on building mood. Totally absorbing characters and wild, windy landscapes had us wholly gripped. Lark is brilliantly realistic and relatable; a strong yet complex heroine determined to resolve a serious family drama. And that means facing the supernatural. A totally captivating and satisfying read!

The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher may well be the jewel in the crown for Firefly. The nomination for the Blue Peter Award is surely the start of many shortlistings. There’s not a lot left to be said about this book, which has been met with praise from all quarters.

As an established writer from Wales, Catherine Fisher has always been held dear in the hearts of so many – even before her days as Young People’s Laureate. Her books for children have always tended to be best enjoyed by those of secondary age, but with Clockwork Crow she has reached a younger audience with a sophisticated narrative and sparkling prose. Catherine Fisher sits comfortably alongside Kiran Millwood-Hargrave and Abi Elphinstone as an essential author for 8-12 year olds.

For a full review of the book, click here.

Fart Gags and Funnybones

Firefly also sees the importance of making us giggle – whether it’s the quirky humour of Dog Town or Jennifer Killick’s Alex Sparrow series, they are serious about good quality humour. Alex Sparrow and the Furry Fury is a highly entertaining read, thoroughly enjoyed by Noah last year. Alex Sparrow is a super-agent in training. He’s also a human lie detector. Can he control his unexpectedly smelly superpowers and save his friends? In this second book of the series (the third is coming soon), Alex and Jess’s  turbulent friendship continues as they aim to solve a mystery centered on an animal sanctuary. Cue warmth and wisdom as well as wit in this pacey gem.

Originally published in Latvian, Dog Town is a heart-warming novel about Jacob Bird, who is fighting to save a run-down area of Riga from developers, with the help of the district’s very own gang of talking dogs. The book won The Annual Latvian Literature Prize for The Best Children’s Book 2014. Latvian National Radio has created a radio play version, and it is also currently being made into an animation film. Readers will approve of the excellent translation which retains a quirkiness and charm that delights and engages.

Like Furry Fury, Dog Town contains serious themes – friendship and community – showing that comedy is a great vehicle for encouraging thought and empathy.

You may have seen some of Firefly’s announcements about upcoming books in 2019. It continues to be an exciting time and we will be taking a look at our most anticipated reads in 2019 over the next few weeks. In the meantime, there’s plenty to enjoy from Firefly – all can be purchased directly through their website.

Gomer Review 2018

Gomer Press is the largest independent publisher in Wales and one of the oldest. Established in 1892 and still owned by the same family, it focusses on books with a distinctive Welsh identity and publishes books for adults and children in both languages.

We’ll focus on the books for children released during 2018 in English:

Three Tales by Cynan Jones (£5.99)

Award-winning and respected writer for adults, Cynan Jones turns his hand to three folk tales or fables for children.

Inspiring discussion, ideal for school assemblies or in-class debates, Malachy Doyle exclaims these are “treats of the imagination for child and adult alike.”

Mamgu’s Campervan, Wendy White; Helen Flook (£5.99)

Wendy White is a real favourite of Nina’s. Her previous volumes, Welsh Cakes and Custard and St. David’s Day is Cancelled are both adored in our house.

Mamgu’s Campervan is a short volume following the adventures of Betsi Wynn and Mamgu around a castle.

Mamgu and Betsi Wyn get the camper van out of hibernation but it doesn’t seem to be working properly! They finally get it going and take it out for a spin. This is a heartwarming adventure story that children in Year 2 and Year 3 will love.

Nina says “I really liked all the Welsh words that Wendy White used – castell, diolch, da iawn, Ych a fi! – it gave the book a definite Welsh feel! I also loved the pictures: Helen Flook’s illustrations made the story come to life – the colourful front cover is especially good.”

This book comes highly recommended and we are looking forward to more from Wendy White soon.

The Last Big One, Dan Anthony (£8.99)

The Last Big One is an emotive and gritty story for older readers from trusted and accomplished author, Dan Anthony.

It follows the story of Clint, a teenager whose life seems to go from bad to worse – a school expulsion, a mother grieving, feelings of guilt and injustice and not belonging. He runs away to Parchman Farm.

Here he has to find himself and learn who to trust. Daddy Worm thought this was a brilliant book from a talented writer.

Wil and the Welsh Black Cattle, Phil Okwedy (£5.99)

Wil and the Welsh Black Cattle weaves together six Welsh tales to tell the story of how Wil cheats death and finds true love – but not before losing his fortune twice. Interwoven is the story of Al Capone’s Welsh right-hand man, Murray the Hump. The story takes us from Wales to London and the USA, mixing the real lives of cattle drovers with fantastical fairy elements.

Bananabeeyumio by Laura Sheldon (£6.99)

Bananabeeyumio is a bit of a mouthful – and maybe that’s how it’s meant to be, as here is a story about a secret recipe for a secret sweet treat. Take a bite of bananabeeyumio and you suddenly become able to jump to Olympic standards. But here’s the rub: bananabeeyumio must remain a secret – only to be known by the residents of Cwmbach.

However, one day 11 year old Charlie is spotted by a talent scout for a sports academy and is unable to reveal the real reason for his extreme jumping abilities. The story follows Charlie as he is heralded as the “next big thing” in junior athletics. Clearly things don’t go to plan and there are lessons to be learned about being honest, trustworthy and respecting the hard work of others. Should keeping a secret get you into so much hot water?

Well, the secret is in danger of being revealed several times during the book, as there are more twists and turns in this story than there are on the roads to Cwmbach. An engaging and well-written tale.

The Inn of Waking Shadows, Karla Brading (£6.99)


Emlyn has always stood out at school, and living at the Skirrid Inn doesn’t help. Other kids live with siblings or pets – but Emlyn shares his home with ghosts! Or so they say.

Emlyn doesn’t believe the stories that his home is the most haunted inn in Wales – that is, until he rings a servant’s bell and accidentally summons Fanny Price. Fanny’s presence disturbs some of the Inn’s angrier residents – namely ‘Hanging’ Judge Jeffries, a much older and more powerful ghost who is determined to add Fanny to his collection of feeble spirits.

With flesh-and-blood bullies making his school life miserable, and a ghostly one making his home life down right dangerous, will Emlyn be strong enough to help Fanny move on? And if he does… will he have lost his only friend?

The Lonely Bwbach, Graham Howells (£5.99)

This short tale tells of a little creature from Welsh folklore – the bwbach, a little hobgoblin who would live with a family and care for the home, doing chores in return for a bowl of cream.

The bwbach in this tale has been left alone for years in the house as it was abandoned and fell into disrepair.

Ultimately the cottage was dismantled brick by brick and the bwbach is left distraught.

All is not lost however has he learns that his house has been relocated to St Ffagans and it is his duty to protect it so he sets off on a quest…

An unusual and absorbing tale with great illustrations.

Juliet Jones and the Ginger Pig, Sue Reardon-Smith (£5.99)

Aberteg is a little village in the west of Wales, tucked between the hills and the sea. If you were to go there yourself, you might see Mansel Roberts going up the mountain to look for owls. You could bump into the Bevan twins or come across Mostyn, watching a pair of otters in the river. And if you stayed by the sea, you may see Sian and Juliet playing rounders on the beach. You might even catch a glimpse of Dabby Davies.

In these stories are eight children for you to meet. All of them are different, but all of them are just a little bit like you, too. They will help you learn why friendship is special, how good it is to believe in yourself, and why you must always, always be kind.

All of these titles are available to purchase direct from Gomer online. We are extremely grateful to them for providing review copies of many of these books and would like to thank them for their continued support.

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