Wales Book of the Year Award winner, Zillah Bethell’s new novel is published with Usborne on 2 February 2023. We are delighted to present an exclusive reveal of the cover, illustrated by Saara Söderlund.
The Song Walker is an extraordinary new story of friendship, discovery and courage from Zillah Bethell, author of The Shark Caller which won the Wales Book of the Year and the Edward Stanford Children’s Travel Book of the Year 2022.
“There are three questions that I need to find the answers to: Where am I? What am I doing here? And… Who am I?”
When a young girl wakes up in the middle of the desert, she has no idea who she is. She’s wearing one shoe, a silky black dress, and she’s carrying a strange, heavy case.
She meets Tarni, who is on a mysterious quest of her own. Together, the two girls trek across the vast and ever-changing Australian Outback in search of answers. Except both are also hiding secrets…
Zillah told us, “As a child growing up in Papua New Guinea, I learnt about the songlines. I particularly liked how the melody and rhythm of the songs seemed to follow the contours of the land they passed over because it felt as if the land were being sung into existence; that the song created the land as much as the land created the song. The beauty and power of this idea seemed immeasurable to me as a child and it still does. I’m super thrilled that illustrator Saara Söderlund came on board again as the The Song Wallker is something of a companion piece to The Shark Caller. Saara has brilliantly articulated the blaze of the desert in colours that have huge symbolic resonance to both Papuan and First Country Australian communities, whilst managing to evoke a sense of infinite space and untethering by presenting spare and ever so slightly changing images to our gaze.”
Cover artist Saara Katariina Söderlund is a freelance illustrator. She paints with gouache, sometimes mixing coloured pencil or digital tools into the process. Her other covers include books by Sophie Anderson, Skye McKenna and Tom Avery. You can find out more about Saara’s work on her Instagram, @saarainfeathers or visit her website.
Zillah Bethell was born in the shadow of the volcano Mount Lamington in Papua New Guinea. She grew up without shoes, toys or technology. Consequently, she spent a lot of time in the sea swimming and in canoes. Zillah’s family returned to the UK when she was ten, and she now lives and walks in the hills of South Wales. A few of her favourite things include swimming in the rain, cheesy fridge magnets, Chopin, dancing and diphthongs.
Huge thanks to Fritha at Usborne for inviting us to host this reveal. Follow Zillah on Twitter and follow illustrator Saara’s work on her Instagram, @saarainfeathers or visit her website.
To preorder The Song Walker by Zillah Bethell, please ask at your local independent bookshop, or find out more at the Usborne website.
We are so pleased to be kicking off the Honesty and Lies Blog Tour. Eloise Williams is a true hero of ours and we absolutely adore her writing. As Wales’ first Children’s Laureate she worked her socks off to encourage a love of reading and writing for pleasure across the whole of the country. She is also the most amazing encourager and supporter of artists in Wales, raising the visibility of quality children’s literature on both sides of the River Severn. When we’ve met her, she has been kind, thoughtful, optimistic, funny and always willing to chat. As an editor of The Mab (with Matt Brown), she brought together an incredible assembly of talent to produce new versions of the Mabinogion stories for the children of the 21st Century.
Honesty and Lies is a truly brilliant novel. Set in Elizabethan times, in the court of the Queen, Honesty has fled West Wales for London. A chance meeting with Alice finds her working as a maid. Whilst Honesty is keen to make a name for herself, to escape the menial tasks and get closer to the Queen, Alice has a reason to stay hidden. She keeps her head down and aims to go unnoticed. The friendship between the two is put under the spotlight by Eloise, expertly aided by a dual narrative in the first person. You really feel a part of the secrets and lies – the frustrations, the claustrophobia, the anger and desperation of the teenagers. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read with a brilliant climax. Eloise’s best yet!
Another Eloise novel means another chance to ask her some questions! Thanks for indulging us once again Eloise!
What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished reading Fear Ground by Jennifer Killick which is a little bit creepy but absolutely hilarious and a definite must read. Balanced at the top of my teetering TBR pile is The Shadow Order by Rebecca F. John. I’m really looking forward to it.
Where and when do you write?
All over the place and at no specific time. It depends how busy I am with other things. Often, I’m dashing from school to school, so I only have time to write in the evening or make notes on scraps of paper throughout the day. If I’m at home, I sometimes write in my attic room which is very small and has a slanted ceiling so it’s easy to bump your head if you aren’t careful, but I can often be found writing in the garden, the kitchen, in the woods, or on the beach. Lots of my writing is done in my head before I ever put pen to paper, or fingertips to laptop keys.
What was the seed that began Honesty and Lies?
Honestly, I can’t remember what it was exactly. A mixture of things, I think. I’ve always loved London and am fascinated by its history. I recently took a trip to Greenwich and a boat back along the Thames to Southwark. I think that had a lot of influence as you get a very different perspective of London from the water. I’ve also been wanting to write something through two different points of view for a while and the contrast of rich versus poor, appearance versus reality, honesty versus lies seemed to fit perfectly into the court of Queen Elizabeth I.
This is your 6th novel. What do you know now that you wish you’d known before Elen’s Island?
That you should define what success is for you as a writer and not compare yourself with anyone else. It’s not a linear path and there are huge emotional ups and downs. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky and I’m very grateful, but I have had lots of times when writing has been hard for many different reasons. I now define my success as a writer by my dedication to telling the story in the best way I can. That’s the only thing I can control and really, it’s the most important part.
As Wales’ inaugural Children’s Laureate, you travelled the country inspiring hundreds of children to read and write. You must have learned some lessons yourself?
Absolutely. It reaffirmed my belief that stories connect generations. I also learned that young people are endlessly creative and courageous and that made me challenge myself more. They taught me to take risks and to laugh at myself when something failed. If you are failing, you are trying. They’ve also taught me about individuality and how it should be celebrated. One group of young people made me a thank you card which advised me to ‘stay weird’. It’s one of my favourite possessions.
What is your writing routine?
I laughed when I read this question. I’m not very good at routines. For a while, I tried to kid myself that I had a routine but really, I was just aspiring to be an organised writer. I’d keep reading about other writer’s routines and thinking, yes, that sounds like the right way to do it! Then I’d get up at the crack of dawn and write and think, yes, I am better at this time, until that pattern dwindled. Then I’d try writing late at night until that dwindled too. Eventually I just accepted that my writing routine is a bit haphazard, I’m afraid. I spend long periods of time thinking and then I’ll write something in bursts. It always seems like a minor miracle when I’ve managed to finish a story.
Honesty and Lies is brilliant, and totally brings into focus a relationship between two girls. Interplay between characters and particularly the development of friendships is a common theme for you. Did you enjoy writing these characters?
Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I loved creating Honesty and Alice. Creating different characters is one of my favourite parts of writing. These two were particularly fun because they are both flawed in different ways. I always give my characters a really hard time and I felt really guilty to put them through so much! That’s why their friendship was so important. Together they are strong. They are so real to me, and it was very difficult to leave them behind.
What is your favourite period in history? Why?
Ooh, I’m not sure. I loved writing about the Elizabethans, but I also loved writing Gaslight which is set in Victorian Cardiff. I’m a big fan of historical fiction so am reading lots about different periods of history at the moment. This is a tricky question. Can I go for the 1980s? My niece learned about the TV adverts from the Eighties as part of her homework once and it was so strange to think of my own childhood as ‘history’. That was a good lesson for me. It made me remember that people from history were real people. I mean, I knew it, but it brings it home every time I think about it.
What do you hope young readers will get out of Honesty and Lies?
I’m really hoping they’ll enjoy the story if they love historical fiction and that it will give them a taste for it if they haven’t read any before. There is so much wonderful historical fiction out there and if this book opens the door to the past for even one young reader, then my work is done!
Which of your characters is most like you?
That’s a really difficult question – I can see elements of me in both. I think probably Alice though. She keeps a lot on the inside and gets irritated easily because she is worrying. I’m a worrier too! She also chooses to be kind at every opportunity, and I hope that I do the same. Alice has a quiet nature and that’s one of the qualities I like most about her and about myself too.
What books can you recommend for fans of Honesty and Lies?
Flight and Safe by Vanessa Harbour are great historical reads. Anything by Emma Carroll, Lucy Strange, Lesley Parr, Catherine Johnson, Phil Earle or Kiran Millwood Hargrave.
If you want a pre-order I’m really looking forward to Rhian Tracey’s forthcoming book, ‘I. Spy’.
What are you excited about right now?
I may have some exciting book news on the way, but my lips are sealed!
How would your 10 year old self react to what you do now?
I think I’d be very surprised! It took me a long time to realise that I’m at my happiest when I’m allowed to be quiet. For a long time, I thought that I had to be loud and outgoing to be interesting. I think that being loud is often confused with having something to say and with being a success. I love that I can now accept myself for being the quiet person I was always meant to be.
What is next for Eloise Williams?
I’m working on a few writing things in my own haphazard way but am mostly looking forward to spending some time with my family. Autumn is my favourite season so there’ll be lots of dog walks, warm jumpers, pumpkin soup and ghost stories involved.
If you weren’t an author what would you be?
A detective. I like to think I could be the next Miss Marple!
Huge thanks to Eloise for putting up with our questions, and to Karen for organising the blog tour. Honesty and Lies is available to buy now. Order direct from Firefly Press.
We are delighted to conclude the blog tour for Rebecca F. John’s first novel for children, The Shadow Order. The book has been hotly anticipated and most definitely does not disappoint. Beginning with a unique premise, that shadows begin to show people’s real character rather than an outline of their shape, this is a book that has many curious twists and turns. Those in power ban citizens from going out in the daytime, thus passing ‘The Shadow Order’. From the outset it is pacey and intriguing – the fantasy world is built with care and skill, and the characters are immediately believable and totally likeable. There is a threat that hangs over the characters throughout and these ingredients make for a thrilling and edgy pageturner – authored by a writer with serious talent. Whilst there are pertinent central messages about government control and confinement, the power of rebellion and the will for change, there is an overriding sense of hope. It’s a brilliant read, and we’d say that even if we weren’t in the blog tour.
As with all #TheShadowOrder blog tour posts, we have some exclusive content from Rebecca. First, in a series of posts about the world of Copperwell, we get to know one of the alleys of this fantasy world. (Do visit the other stops on the blog tour to find out more about this wonderfully realised world).
Judge Marlow’s Way Before it was renamed, Judge Marlow’s Way was called Runaway Alley. It was where all the petty criminals of Copperwell lived, stacked together in houses where nothing was safe. Men and women tricked and stole from one another, and no law-abiding citizen dared to set foot there… Except for Judge Marlow, who strode onto the alley one rainy autumn day and declared that from then on Runaway Alley would be made honest, Judge Marlow’s way. Betsy was only a tiny bit of a girl that day, but, cowering in a doorway, she had laughed at Judge Marlow’s declaration. People could not be changed so easily, she’d thought. But that was before the Shadow Order, before she met Teddy and Effie, and before she understood that people really can be changed entirely.
We are also very pleased to bring you this Q and A with author, editor and publisher, Rebecca F. John. Thanks so much to Rebecca for answering our questions with such care – a lot of work goes into organising a blog tour and we are extremely grateful to Rebecca and to Karen at Firefly Press.
What are you reading at the moment?
As usual, I’m reading more than one book. My work as an editor means that I’m always reading several as-yet-unpublished books, in various stages of the editing process. But beyond that, I tend to be partway through two or three published books simultaneously. At the moment, those books are Liz Hyder’s middle-grade novel Bearmouth (which I’m really excited about as I ADORED Liz’s adult novel, The Gifts), and a proof of a novel called The Circus Train, by Amita Parikh, which is due to publish in the UK in 2023 but which I think has been a bestseller elsewhere in the world. I’ve only just started reading both, but I’m equally entranced by the two completely different stories.
Where and when do you write?
Anywhere and everywhere. I’m busier than I ever have been: I started working as an editor for Firefly Press very recently; I set up my own publisher, Aderyn Press, last year; I have published three of my own books this year, and I’m currently working on edits for another which will publish next year; and I had a baby four months ago. So at the moment, I write in bed for about ten minutes between the time when the baby falls asleep and I do! I’ve always felt able to write just about anywhere, though, luckily: at a desk in my study preferably, yes, but also in doctors’ waiting rooms, or in car parks, or hotel rooms, or at the beach. Once I’m writing, it’s very easy to tune out from the rest of the world and exist instead within the one I’m creating.
What was the seed that began The Shadow Order?
As I wrote The Shadow Order, it became apparent that it was being shaped by a number of different ideas, memories, books and more. There was a specific moment, though, when the concept for the central idea – the shifted shadows – came to me. I was walking my dogs, Betsy, Teddy, and Effie, along the beach one early morning. It was cold, just after sunrise, and I noticed that our shadows were very clearly cast across the sand, but also that they were quite distorted: stretched long. With that observation came the inciting incident for The Shadow Order – what would happen, I wondered, if our shadows suddenly started revealing our secret feelings? – and also the characters. It was the presence of the dogs as I had this thought, I suppose, which caused them to become integral to the idea in my mind. Or versions of them, at least. I didn’t start writing the novel for another year or two, but that idea stuck with me, and the world of Copperwell started to build around it, so I knew I had to write it.
You have written for adults and this is your first book for children. Was The Shadow Order always a children’s book?
I never really thought about writing for children, though I’ve long stated that it was a children’s book that made me decide to become a writer. When I read Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, aged roughly ten, I was so blown away by the characters, the world, (and jealous, of course, of the animal daemons), that I decided immediately that I would become a writer. For some reason, I always imagined I’d be a novelist for adult readers – and I have been and will continue to be. But when the idea for The Shadow Order came to me, I knew it was supposed to be a children’s book. I never questioned that. The concept and the characters came to me quite completely, and, as with all my best story ideas, my task was then to transcribe what was already so well realised in my mind. I ‘see’ my stories in that way: like films, almost; as though they already exist. I was fairly nervous about writing for children. I thought of them as a tougher audience – I still do. But the story existed for me by the time I finished that beach walk, and so I had to tell it.
In terms of the writing process, was writing ‘The Shadow Order’ different to your other
Not really in terms of process. I’m not a great planner and I’m not a great plotter (though I’m a better one now, having written a children’s book!). The story tends to play for me like a film – though not as neatly of course – which I desperately try to get down on paper. I think most writers will say, however, that none of it is ever as good, as vivid, as it is in your mind by the time is reaches the page… I suppose I’m quite a simple writer in that sense, though. I start at the beginning and write to the end, stopping to research when I reach a sticky point. What did feel slightly different was the editing process, which was often focussing on not holding the young reader up, through description, but also through punctuation, for instance. That was a learning curve for me.
Do you have a writing routine?
Absolutely not. I wish I did, but I genuinely don’t have the time. I snatch writing minutes or hours whenever I can. Perhaps if I were a full-time writer, I might develop a routine, but I’m not sure that would suit me particularly. I think those aspects of routine which, by necessity, I lack, are made up for with industriousness. I work incredibly hard, whenever I’m able. And I LOVE the time I spend writing, so I’m always looking forward to it. One of my favourite things to do is get up very early and write while everyone else in the house (dogs included) is still asleep… I suppose there is one aspect of my life which is routine driven, and which certainly feeds into my writing, and that’s my daily walk. I start almost every day with a dog walk and, like many writers, I find that the act of walking allows my ideas to grow and settle in ways I might never have expected. I don’t know whether it’s something to do with the rhythm of footsteps, or being out exploring and experiencing nature, but whatever it is, I don’t feel that I’d be the same writer if I wasn’t able to walk along the coast or amongst trees.
The Shadow Order has a very unique, almost sci-fi idea at its core which is to do with
space, time and horology. Is this something that interests you? (and how on earth did you
come up with it!?)
It does now! Really the idea grew from that one moment I described on the beach. As I wrote further into the novel, the world obviously needed to be more and more realised, it needed to have its own set of rules – a fantasy novel can’t work otherwise. And as the world grew, so too did these ideas around space, time, and horology. I soon realised that Betsy was a keen amateur astronomer and that added another layer to those developing ideas. I won’t pretend to know very much about any of it. I was learning along with the characters. But it certainly was fascinating to write… As for how I came up with it… Who knows? Writing is so often exploration of a question or an idea the writer wants to know more about, and probably that’s what I was doing with this novel – exploring and musing on the human relationship with the natural world and all that we cannot control.
The main characters of the book are inspired by your dogs, not just in name but in
personality too. Did this lead to any confusion for you?
It actually helped me to develop the characters. Oftentimes, characters begin as a true blank slate. But with Betsy, Teddy, and Effie, I had their funny little ways to refer to, to flesh out the characters which would, inevitably, grow apart from their canine counterparts as human concerns increasingly shaped their thoughts and actions. Still, the characters have retained the essence of Betsy, Teddy, and Effie’s personalities, I think. Betsy remains the apparent leader of the pack, but with a need to lean on her friends for support. Teddy still lacks confidence compared to the others, but is loyal and true. And Effie’s mature and more sensible nature reflects that of the real Effie-cocker-spaniel. It was a lot of fun to humanise them in that way.
The world you have created is fantastically realised. What is the key to making it so tangible?
Thank you… Practise! World building is just another facet of writing – like character development or description – and hopefully, the more we do it, the better we get at it. There are techniques, of course: writing the senses, moving your characters with attention through the space, allowing yourself to develop aspects of that world that will never belong on the page, so that you can know and feel them. But really what I’m saying is you have to believe in it. You need to be able to envisage what your characters might do off the page. Just knowing those things, even if they never leave your mind, will enable you to write more convincingly.
You are a keen walker. How important is walking to your writing process – if at all?
Ah, I touched on this earlier! I think it’s hugely important. So many writers walk, and that can’t be coincidental. There might be something to the rhythm of just putting one foot in front of the other which, I don’t know, encourages ideas to … solidify, almost. Perhaps being in nature nurtures creativity. Maybe it is simply that doing something physical, as opposed to sitting still with your thoughts, helps to shape them. I really don’t know; it’s probably all of those things. What I do know, though, is if I don’t walk, I experience the same feeling I get if I can’t write: an itchy, uncomfortable, discontent which can’t be assuaged by any other means.
What do you hope young readers will get out of The Shadow Order? Particularly, what do
you hope they might learn from Betsy, Teddy and Effie’s journey?
I hope The Shadow Order will encourage young readers to explore and adore the natural world, to challenge the systems they live within, and to nurture their true talents, whatever they might be. Those ideas are central to this novel for me. I hope, too, that they will learn to accept themselves, as Betsy, Teddy, and Effie do. That is something I came to later, after I turned thirty, and something which I think we could talk to young people about more, rather than expecting them to figure it out by themselves. Self-acceptance is not necessarily something we all just arrive at over time.
Which of your characters is most like you?
Betsy, probably. She’s the one who reveals the least of herself, and I think that’s one of my traits. I’m very self-contained. I like to be perceived as always calm, always capable, and so does Betsy. I think, though, that we are forever mining different parts of ourselves for characters. They are perhaps all variations on who the writer is or might be.
Tell us about working with Firefly Press.
Working with Firefly Press has been amazing. Penny Thomas is an incredible editor: experienced, wise, and sensitive. She’s taught me a lot about writing for children and in a completely unobtrusive way. I’ve admired Firefly’s books for a long, long time, so when I had the idea for The Shadow Order, I knew exactly where I wanted it to be published. I’m so pleased the Firefly team were willing to take a chance on me as a first-time children’s writer.
You recently set up Aderyn Press. Why did you feel there was a need and will there be
Aderyn is dedicated to adult books – specifically spooky, historical, and speculative stories. There were a lot of reasons for setting up Aderyn. I wanted to help prove that books of wonderful quality, with global appeal, can be produced in Wales. I wanted to offer a home to those stories which ought to be told, but perhaps don’t quite fit within the parameters of big-five publishing. I wanted to be a female business owner. I wanted to publish first-time authors and really support them through the process. I could go on… I decided, though, that this big project needed to have quite a narrow focus for it to work, so I came to the conclusion that I should publish the kind of books I most like to read. ‘Spooky, historical, and speculative’ best summed that up. Aderyn will publish only three titles a year, since I’m going it alone and there really is SO MUCH involved in publishing a book. I’m scheduled up to the end of 2023 with novels which are completely different which all tell compelling, intricate, and heart-breaking and/or hopeful stories.
What books can you recommend for fans of The Shadow Order?
Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Anything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: The Way Past Winter is a favourite of mine. Eloise Williams’ Gaslight. Catherine Fisher’s The Clockwork Crow. October October by Katya Balen. I loved all of these books.
What are you excited about right now?
So much! The Shadow Order publishing, of course. The book I’m publishing next year being announced. The new ideas I have that I want to write. The huge stack of books I have yet to read. Winter – I LOVE the winter. And planning what comes next. I’m not much of a planner when it comes to narrative, but I love planning for life: little excursions; big ambitions. I try to make the most of every minute.
How would your 10 year old self react to what you do now?
My ten-year-old self would be seeing her dream come true! And actually, I think that’s really important to reflect on every now and then. It’s incredibly easy in this industry to always be comparing yourself to someone else and finding yourself lacking. I published a book, but why didn’t a bigger publisher want it? Or… I sold a book, but not in a big auction. Or… why didn’t my book win a major prize? I’m pretty sure everyone falls into those traps now and then, and I definitely include myself in that. But I do try to remind myself that I have fulfilled my ten-year-old self’s dream. I have published books. They exist in the world for people to pick up and read and find their own dreams or comfort or hope in. My ten-year-old self would be ecstatic about that!
Will there be more books for children?
I hope so. I would like The Shadow Order to become a trilogy, as I don’t think Betsy, Teddy, and Effie have finished with me yet, and I do have an idea for their next adventure. But we’ll see!
If you weren’t an author what would you be?
My first dream was to become a tennis player. I was a very practical child, however, and I soon realised that I really wasn’t very good at tennis. Still, I love to watch it and, in my heart of hearts, I can still quite easily envisage myself on centre court at Wimbledon. Ha! I’m a good dreamer, aren’t I? … Like many writers, there are a hundred things I’d like to be. Perhaps that’s part of the reason we’re writers. I’d like to be a historian, a psychologist, an artist. But at the top of the list is a desire to work with animals. I’d love to offer a retirement home to elderly unwanted dogs – as many of them as possible – and see them live out their days happy.
Thanks again to Rebecca for the content and to Karen for organising. The Shadow Order is available to buy now from your local bookshop or direct from Firefly Press.
Carnegie Medal nominee and Tir na n-Og Award winner, Elen Caldecott’s new novel is published with Andersen Press on 2 June. We are delighted to present an exclusive reveal of the cover, illustrated by Rachael Dean.
Cassie’s older brother Byron has fallen in with the wrong crowd – it’s soon clear these boys are wild, reckless and not human at all. They are tylwyth teg – Fair Folk, who tempt humans down into the dark places of the world. And Byron is tempted.
When he goes missing, Cassie and her cousin, Siân, follow his trail to an old abandoned railway tunnel which goes down and down into Annwn, the underworld. Here they find that the tylwyth teg are restless – and angry. Their leader, Gwenhidw, wants to protect Annwn from the damage humans are doing to the world. Byron is part of her plan. Cassie won’t let her big brother be part of anyone’s plan. But can rescuing him really be that easy?
Andersen says the book is suitable for age 9+, and there seems no doubt that this is going to become one of our favourite Middle Grade adventures in 2022. Anticipation levels are heightened!
Author, Elen Caldecott, told us, “When I was a child, my sister and I would beg Mum to read to us from her collection of Welsh Folk Tales – both of us had been named after characters in the book (I’d got off lightly with Elen, my poor sister, not so much). We’d listen, enthralled, to stories of the tylwyth teg, the magical creatures who were easily angered, who beguiled careless humans and led them astray. As an adult, I wanted to return to these stories. But now, I wondered, what would the tylwyth teg make of post-industrial Wales? What would they make of council estates, of children on tablets and smart phones, of chapels converted into flats or boarded-up completely? What would these creatures of legend make of the Wales of today? In The Blackthorn Branch, the past and the present, the myth and the reality, come together in one story. It was a joy to write, and I hope that young readers find just as much to love about it as my sister and I found in those old tales.”
Cover artist Rachael Dean lives in a seaside village just north of Liverpool. Her work is traditionally and digitally painted, and she loves to illustrate natural scenery. She recently became the new illustrator for Dame Jacqueline Wilson and has also illustrated covers for Sally Nicholls, Aisha Bushby, Lauren St John and Bali Rae.
On illustrating The Blackthorn Branch, Rachael told us, “I thoroughly enjoyed delving into the world of welsh folklore for The Blackthorn Branch cover. It was a wonderful story to illustrate and I absolutely loved working on the decorative elements!”
Elen Caldecott grew up in North Wales. After her Welsh language education she studied archaeology and then creative writing, graduating with an MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. Her debut novel, How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant, was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and longlisted for the Carnegie Medal.
What’s the strangest thing to be sent through the post? Well, after a few hours down several internet rabbit holes, I can tell you that there are no limits to the things that people have attempted to send through our beloved Royal Mail. Pets, children, suffragettes, bricks, shepherd’s pie (warm), game (just a label around the neck will do) and a severed ear have all been wrapped and sent in the history of the international postal service. “Mail artists” have sought to push the envelope (thank you very much) and write addresses on unwrapped items such as leaves, apples, potatoes and a piece of toast.
It appears Holly Rivers was inspired by these tales to write The Boy in The Post (charming and funny with a golden heart), her second novel with Chicken House. The book features children mailing themselves to New York in order to solve their problem. You see, the Shalloo siblings have taken on a job for the summer holidays. Their mum is too wrapped up in her second-hand car business to give them her attention and so they answer the call of Grandy Brock to help him establish a new kind of postal service. The kind of postal service that has animals delivering the mail. Animails. Yes that’s right – Grandy Brock has a menagerie of feathers and furs (as well as a rather impressive number of his own children) and is trying to get his new business venture off the ground.
Taber, the youngest of the Shalloo siblings, is responsible for training Geronimo, a pelican, to find it’s way home. Using inbuilt navigation systems, this all goes rather swimmingly (soaringly?) and the bird becomes the best homing pelican you can imagine. However, following an international flight, the bird fails to return home and Taber holds himself responsible. The young boy takes off in the middle of the night, posting himself with a shipment to New York. Taber’s brother and sister become very concerned for him and crate themselves off in a similar manner, embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.
The book has a very classic, vintage feel. The characters are brilliant – written with so much joy you can’t fail to fall in love with them. Grandy Brock is a favourite. He’s eccentric and peculiar but has “a mischievous twinkle in his eyes that hinted at adventure and excitement and fun.” He’s warm and generous and shows kindness that the Shalloo siblings have rarely seen. The book is also laden with some of the best postal-related puns you are ever likely to feast on (it’s all in the delivery!) Now that’s definitely something to write home about.
We’re delighted to be able to share this Q and A with Holly Rivers which delves a bit further into the inspiration behind the book:
Tell us a little about your new novel, The Boy in the Post
The Boy in the Post is a postal-themed adventure story set across land, sea and sky! It follows the Shalloo siblings — adventurous twelve year old Orinthia; nature-loving five year old Taber; and sensible middle child Séafra.
During the summer holidays the three siblings accept a summer job from an eccentric old man called Grandy Brock who lives in a tumbledown windmill. He and his five adopted children are opening a very special postal service called The Mailbox Menagerie, which is to be staffed entirely by animals and birds! The Shalloo siblings become especially fond of Geronimo, a homing pelican. But when the big bird fails to return from a delivery to New York, the Shalloo siblings have no choice but to post themselves across the Atlantic to find her…
What inspired the story?
The story was inspired by a fascinating article published by The Smithsonian Institute, about children who were sent through the mail in the 1900s. Yes, back then it was legal to send your kids through the post! The first child delivered by the U.S. parcel post service was a boy in Ohio, in 1913 — his parents paid 15 cents for the stamps and insured their son for $50, who was then delivered to his Grandmother’s house a few miles away. Even though these children weren’t technically stuffed into mailbags (and instead travelled in the mail vans of trusted postmen) I couldn’t help but start imagining prospective characters being wrapped in brown paper and stamps being stuck to their foreheads; and the idea for The Boy in the Post was born!
What was your favourite piece of information that you uncovered in your research?
I loved reading about loads of other weird and wonderful things that have been sent through the post and intercepted over the years — a turnip with the recipient’s address carved into its flesh; a hive of live bees; false teeth; jars of scorpions; prosthetic limbs; a pair of underpants with an address scrawled across the crotch; a first edition copy of Ulysses deemed ‘obscene’; a brace of game birds; a tree trunk; a building’s worth of bricks; and two suffragettes hoping to get to Herbert Asquith! The bizarre and eccentric side of humanity never fails to inspire and entertain me!
Who were your favourite characters to write?
I had a hoot (excuse the pun) coming up with ideas for my animails — the animals and birds that work at The Mailbox Menagerie. I really let my imagination run wild and ended up penning a homing pelican who gets paid in sardines; a fruit bat who will only work the night shift; a pair of Sphynx cats in charge of licking stamps; an octopus who can deliver 8 parcels at a time; and snakes who cane spell out postcodes with their bodies. All the while I had my own pet chihuahua, Silver snuggled up on my lap — whose snores and farts and woofs made the experience all the richer! She even turns up in the last chapter of the book…..
What do you think the key message is to take away from the book?
I hope that the story inspires readers to embrace more old-school ways of communicating in their post-pandemic lives. During lockdown — a time dominated by zoom calls and emails — sending and receiving letters from family and friends during brought me so much joy; and there was nothing lovelier than hearing the postman coming up the garden path. I hope the book inspires children to switch off their screens, go buy some stamps and put pen to paper. I’m always open to receiving letters from new pen-pals!
You wrote the book during lockdown, how was that as an experience compared to writing your first novel Demelza and the Spectre Detectors?
When I was working on Demelza I was able to take my laptop to so many different locations to write — libraries, cosy pubs, cafes, parks, the northbound Piccadilly line, number 91 bus! But because of lockdown and the fact that all of our worlds had suddenly become a lot smaller, the entirety of The Boy in The Post was written at an antique desk gifted to me by Grandma. I was surprisingly focused and motivated during lockdown and managed to write the first draft of the book fairly quickly. Penning an epic transatlantic adventure also meant that I could travel the world and go on a journey even though I wasn’t allowed to leave the house — it felt like a real tonic!
You work as a children’s workshop facilitator, does this help to inform your writing?
As you can see from the acknowledgments sections of both Demelza and The Boy In The Post, the children I work with are a huge inspiration to me and my writing. They buoy me with their ideas, energy, humour, warmth and imagination, and I’m always jotting down the unusual and funny things they come out with! Being around children so much reminds me to remain playful, and they stop me from turning into too much of a grumpy old grown-up!
Thank you to Holly and Laura for the Q and A and for allowing us to host today’s post on the Blog Tour. The Boy in The Post is available now to buy in your local independent bookshop, published by Chicken House. You can follow Holly on Twitter.
We are very happy to be part of the blog tour for His Royal Hopeless, the debut novel from Chloë Perrin, published by Chicken House. We heard that Chloë had been brought up in North Wales so were keen to support them and find out more.
His Royal Hopeless is funny, tender and wise, centering on Robbie – the heir to the Sinistevils – the most wicked dynasty in the world. He can’t wait to pledge his heart to the menacing power of the family Sceptre and embark on his bloodthirsty future. The thing is, Robbie is … well … nice. And when he discovers his heart has been swapped for clockwork, he’s incapable of believing Mother had dark intentions. Instead, he embarks on a quest to retrieve his heart, claim his wicked destiny, and secure Mother’s pride at last. But Mother has other ideas …
Billed as ‘Despicable Me’ meets ‘The Descendants’, this is a fun and absorbing fairy tale from a new voice in middle-grade fiction.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading The Peculiar Tale of the Tentacle Boy by Richard Pickard at the moment – it’s an offbeat adventure about a girl and a mysterious boy with tentacles for hair and crab claws for hands. It’s really heartfelt, funny and wonderfully twisted (all my favourite things in a book).
What are your favourite books?
I absolutely LOVE Terry Pratchett and the Discworld
series, his “fantasy-gone-wrong” tone really influenced me as a writer! I also
love Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, for the wonderful and
hilarious characters but also for the complete Welsh-ness of it all.
Where and when do you write? Do you have a routine?
My writing routine is woefully non-existent!! I tend
to end up writing in any spare moment I have, usually late at night fuelled by
dangerous amounts of coffee and toast (would not recommend).
What was your journey to publication?
My journey to publication was quite a fun one. I
entered His Royal Hopeless in the Times Chicken House competition
in 2019 and was longlisted, which was amazing! However, when I didn’t make the
shortlist I assumed HRH’s journey was over for the time being- until I got a
phone call from Chicken House saying that while HRH wasn’t right for the
competition they still wanted to have a chat about it. A coffee-shop meeting
and several panicked emails to my university lecturers with the subject header
“what do I do what do I do???” later, and HRH was on its way to publication!
You are a “North Walian writer who currently lives in London”. Tell us about your Welsh upbringing.
I grew up in the tourist town of Llandudno and lived there for most of my life. Llandudno isn’t such a rural area but there’s still mountains whichever way you look, castle ruins down the road and wild goats wandering the streets completely nonplussed by the people. And, of course, there’s Snowdon, Yr Wyddfa, less than an hour away. I love the history you see walking around London, but nothing will beat the wildness of North Wales for me.
Does Wales or coming from Wales, have any influence on your writing?
I think all the things I mentioned about North Wales
in the previous question pretty much set me up to write fantasy-adventure
stories. The fact that Robbie and Layla need to traverse through deep forests
and treacherous mountains is a very Welsh influence on HRH. I also used to work
as a storyteller, which involved reciting Welsh folklore by heart, and the
constant practice of retelling exciting and often frightening stories about
castles and magic and devious villains really moulded what I’d eventually end
up writing down.
In His Royal Hopeless, there is an optimistic message for readers about forging your own path and accepting yourself for who you are. How deliberate and planned was this?
Without giving anything away, I always wanted HRH to
be a book about understanding yourself in spite of what the world around you is
telling you to be, so it was very deliberate. The optimism, I went back and
forth on- I appreciate children’s books that give layers of reality to the
lessons they teach, and I definitely didn’t want to completely sugar coat the
ending of HRH. Hopefully I struck the right balance, but we’ll see what people
What are your hopes for His Royal Hopeless?
I hope that HRH will give perspective to people who
may be in Robbie’s situation without realising it. It’s SO easy for us to get
stuck trying to be something that’s actually harming us, and no one is immune
to Robbie’s level of obliviousness. But honestly, I’ll just be happy if the
readers laugh at the jokes!
What’s the best piece of writing advice you have received?
Have projects ready. They don’t need to be polished,
but when competitions start calling for submissions you don’t want to be stuck
with only a third of a first draft to hand.
The book is brilliantly illustrated by George Ermos, including some internal illustrations. What were your thoughts when you first saw them?
I ADORED them!! My biggest anxiety around HRH wasn’t
“what if people don’t like it?”, but “what if it has a bad cover?” The moment I
was told George Ermos was designing it, however, I never had that worry again.
I was honestly stunned by the final design. George Ermos has done an absolutely
amazing job. And Robbie’s crown! I very much want that crown.
Could you recommend any other books for those who enjoy His Royal Hopeless?
The books I mentioned before – any of Pratchett’s middle grade work or Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle. I wouldn’t dare put myself on their level but we do share a “this is fantasy but not quite how you remember it” tone I know children will love. Also, they’re hilarious.
Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
A few little things, but I’ll also be starting my
Creative Writing MA at Brunel University London this year so I’m going to be
busy either way!
What question have we forgotten to ask you?
What my favourite sweet is, and it’s
Terry’s Chocolate Oranges. And yes, if you see me in the street you should definitely hand me one and I will graciously
HIS ROYAL HOPELESS by Chloë Perrin is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House), available from all good bookshops including your local independent store.
Thank you to Chloë for answering our questions. Follow Chloë on Instagram @chloeperrin_author and Twitter @ChloePerrinUK
The Song That Sings Us is an exhilarating new novel from Nicola Davies to be published in October by Firefly Press. We feel hugely privileged to be asked to reveal the cover which features stunning artwork by Jackie Morris.
The Song That Sings Us is the story of twins Ash and Xeno, and their older sister Harlon, who has been raised to protect her younger siblings because they have siardw: a power to communicate with animals that is outlawed by the state. But when the ruling sinister Automators attack their mountain home, they are forced to flee for their lives. It is an immediately gripping edge-of-the-seat first chapter, which sees the siblings escape on snowboards down a dangerous gully.
The thrilling and dangerous adventure continues as each must journey alone through the ice fields, forests and oceans of Rumyc to try to rescue the others and fulfil a mysterious promise about a lost island made to their mother.
Nicola told us: “The Song that Sings Us is rooted in all that I really know about animals; their ability to think, to feel and to communicate. But it is not set in the real world; it is a fantasy adventure with chases and escapes, fights and mysteries, death and miraculous life. It contains magic, but that part of the story is real – the real magic of nature with which every human has deep need to connect.
“I hope that, in travelling to this fantasy world, readers will see the truth of ours.”
The book has a touching dedication to Jackie Morris, Cathy Fisher and Molly Howell, and whilst Jackie Morris and Nicola Davies have been friends for years, this is the first time they have worked together. As well as the cover illustration, Jackie has created beautiful artwork for the chapter headings.
Jackie Morris said, “When you love a book so much it is the hardest thing to work on the cover. I try to give everything to every piece of work I do, but in this case there was the long friendship I have with Nicola Davies, a person I both love and admire, AND the fact that the story is amazing.
“Trying to do the words justice is always the problem. For this cover I worked on clapboard, a medium new to me, but one that made the colours of the starling really sing. They are such beautiful birds. And it was so important that the image sings, in every way possible. Finding the image for the book, that’s another problem, but somehow that little starling, so full of its own power, she is what sang out from the text.
“I heard this book first. Nicola and I often would call each other when we’d done the first drafts of a work, and read to each other. Restrictions had eased and Nicola, Cathy Fisher and I were a bubble, and Nicola would come around every week with the next ‘instalment’. How utterly amazing. It made images dance in my mind’s eye. It was an honour and a privilege to work on this cover. For now it’s the best it can be, and my hope is it’s the beginning of a series. I cannot wait for the next one.”
Special proof copies of The Song That Sings Us are landing on doormats this week. A limited edition deluxe gift hardback, is available to pre-order now and will be published on 14th October 2021. Visit the Firefly Press website to place your order.
Follow Nicola and Jackie and Firefly on Twitter for more updates. You can listen to Nicola read the first chapter of The Song That Sings Us below.
We are absolutely thrilled to be taking part in this Blog Tour for Swansea-based author and illustrator, Helen and Thomas Docherty. They really are the perfect picturebook pairing and have just published yet another playful, engaging and colourful story that will entertain by the bucketload.
The Snaffle has arrived in the city and she just wants to play – but everyone is distracted by phones, tablets and devices. They don’t seem to have time for each other. So the Snaffle becomes The Screen Thief and embarks on a mission to change the city into a more playful and more caring place. Ultimately, eating screens doesn’t do this for her, and leaves her feeling lonely, but a wonderful friend called Max is kind and caring and together they put things right.
Clearly ‘screen time’ is a huge issue for parents and teachers and striking a balance is important in all our lives, so this book will appeal to everyone looking to provide more than a subtle dose of encouragement to adopt healthier habits.
Helen’s joyous rhyming text is funny and great fun to read aloud. Thomas’ illustrations are so vibrant and full of detail – we’ve been poring over them over several bedtimes, reading the emotions of the characters and looking how they change through the story.
It’s totally apt therefore that Thomas joins us on this blog tour to give an insight into the illustration process.
Creating the Snaffle: Thomas Docherty on illustrating THE SCREEN THIEF
Throughout the story, the Snaffle
goes through a whole range of emotions, so above all she had to be expressive. At
the same time she gets up to plenty of mischief, so she needed to be dynamic. I
also had to make sure that she was loveable. After all, she acts with the
innocent impulses of a small child and that vulnerability comes through at the
end of the story.
As always, she went through many
versions before we decided on the final design. From the start, her general
body shape remained more or less the same. The hard part was solving the
question of how to resolve her face and head.
In the end I found that the long ears helped to make her very expressive
and the trunk was fun and surprising. It was also good for sniffing and tasting
It mentions in the text that the
Snaffle is small and blue. I was going to be painting the illustrations by hand
and I wanted the Snaffle to stand out. I found a bottle of blue ink that I
particularly liked, renamed it SNAFFLE BLUE and used it only for painting the
I had a lot of fun hiding the Snaffle
in the library, the cinema and the TV shop and I hope children will enjoy
looking for her in the illustrations. My favourite moment where she eats a
screen is when she is walking away with the ice cream sign from outside the
When I’m creating a book, lots of the
ideas never get included. If there was one set of pictures I would have liked
to keep, it was of the Snaffle reacting to the different tastes and textures of
the screens. In the end there just wasn’t room for everything.
One early idea that I’m glad was
taken out was a moment where the Snaffle is arrested by the police for eating
everyone’s screens. It’s just too sad!
The city is full of so many other
characters. Originally I imagined these as made up creatures but in the end we
went for animals, which made the Snaffle stand out more.
I had so much fun drawing them all
glued to their screens, oblivious to everything around them.
Of course the Snaffle wants to join
Creating The City
One of the fun things about
illustrating The Screen Thief was
that it is set in a city. I hadn’t drawn a city before in a picture book and I
was excited about all the visual opportunities that this presented. It also
meant a huge amount of work as I had to plan the city from scratch.
At the beginning, I tried a slightly
futuristic city with rounded buildings and bubble cars. However, in the end we
decided that it would be more relatable to children if it was set in the
The most complicated image to compose
was the first page when the Snaffle arrives in the city. I tried lots of
options including a train station and coming out of a subway. In the end I
wanted to show all the main locations in the story on this page, so I went for
a roof top view of a square. You can see Max’s house, the Library, the cinema
and the park.
I even drew myself a map to make sure
I knew where all the other places the Snaffle visits made sense.
The city is full of shops selling all
sorts of things (I actually walked past a cactus shop just like this recently!).
Of course the Snaffle is only interested in the TV shop…
As always, some of my rough ideas
didn’t make it into the book. I did some sketches of inside the animal’s homes
and some other locations which would have been fun to include.
Although cities are full of life, the
Snaffle soon discovers that they can be lonely places too. There is a moment in
the story where despite all the screens the Snaffle has gobbled, she still
feels empty inside. What’s missing? Nothing that a screen can give her, what
the Snaffle needs is a friend. Setting this scene in a deserted ally seemed to
fit the Snaffle’s mood.
The park is not mentioned in the text,
but it seemed the perfect place to develop the key message of the story. At the
beginning, the Snaffle comes across children in the playground. They are so
absorbed in their screens that they are not even playing. However, by the end
of the story the park has been transformed into a magical space full of activity.
Max and the Snaffle have managed to bring everyone together.
Huge thanks to Thomas Docherty for preparing this blog and sharing his insight and these amazing images.
The Tir na n-Og Award is an annual award for children’s books with an authentic Welsh context. Sponsored by CILIP in Wales and organised by Books Council Wales, the 2021 shortlist, announced in March, features three brilliant books:
The winner of the award will be announced at the end of May. In the meantime, we are all encouraged to shadow the awards and get to know these books in more detail. At Family Bookworms HQ, we have been privileged to interview the three authors about their shortlisted book.
Jess Butterworth is well-known for her series of adventure books for ‘middle grade’ readers. Jess spent her childhood between the UK and India, and grew up hearing stories about the Himalayas from her Grandmother. As soon as she was old enough, she went on her own adventures in search of story ideas. Jess studied a creative writing masters at Bath Spa University and now lives between the USA and the UK.
Where The Wilderness Lives was Jess’s fourth novel, published in April 2020. Her fifth book, Into The Volcano, has just been released.
Where The Wilderness Lives is a brilliant adventure that weaves folklore, survival, friendship issues and family together to make a fantastically enjoyable read. From a canal boat in the West Country to the deepest wilds of Wales, Cara and her siblings escape a thief as they embark on a heart-stopping adventure to solve the mystery of a locked safe. Soon they’re in the wild forests of the Preseli Hills and are lost. Will they escape the wilderness? It’s thrilling stuff!
We were pleased to catch up with Jess and ask her a few questions.
Where The Wilderness Lives is packed full of adventure and action but also focuses on themes of courage and friendship. Was there an initial spark of an idea for the book? I’m interested in what came first.
For me, it’s always the setting and a sense of place that comes first with a story. After that I imagine the characters in the setting, what kind of adventures they go on and how they interact with their environment, and then, as I get to know the characters more, I build the themes and emotional threads.
I wrote Where the Wilderness Lives when I was living in the States and very much missing the UK and the places I love here. One part of the story was sparked by my time living on a narrowboat on the canal; I remember a section of canal was drained and all sorts of rusty bits and bobs were found in the empty bottom. Another part of the story was inspired by a visit to stay with family in Wales and the discovery that the forest I loved there was actually a Celtic temperate rainforest.
The landscapes and wildlife of the Preseli hills are vividly described. What advice do you have for creating such realistic descriptions?
Thank you! As you can probably tell, I love writing about nature. I always try and use all the senses to describe settings. I find writing about specific details in a setting really brings it alive too; things like naming an old oak tree rather than only stating that there’s a tree. I also like to weave descriptions into movement and action as well. For example; how does the ground feel underneath your feet as you step? Is it mossy, muddy, pebbly?
Which aspect of Welsh wildlife intrigues you the most?
I’m a huge fan of lichen, not just because of the weird and wonderful shapes and colours they are, but also because they’re symbiotic organisms and good indicators of air pollution. Wales actually has the highest diversity of lichen species!
I also love spotting seals off the Welsh coast, seeing bats at dusk, and searching for signs of dormice. Once I saw puffins during their breeding season from the Welsh cliffs, which I thought was amazing.
You mention in the author’s note at the back of the book that some of your family are from the area – are they far from Coed Ty Canol? How did they help with the research?
My cousins grew up and still live in south Ceredigion in the Teifi valley, quite close to Coed Ty Canol. As children, whenever I visited them, we would walk over the Preseli hills together and explore the coast and the ancient forests in the area. Their house always felt like a second home to me. When I mentioned I wanted to set a book in the Celtic rainforest they spent time looking at maps with me, and showing me other places in the area like the Pentre Ifan burial chamber and Nevern church, which ended up sparking lots more story ideas!
The story features a locked safe with Ogham symbols (an early medieval alphabet). Tell us about how you discovered the Ogham alphabet.
My younger cousin has always been very interested in it and would write secret messages using the Ogham alphabet which is how I first learnt about it. He also showed me a huge stone from the 5th century in Nevern church that has Ogham script carved into it which I found fascinating.
There is a folk tale threaded through the story – are you a fan of Welsh folklore?
I’m a huge fan of Welsh folklore. I’m really looking forward to reading Claire Fayers’ new book of Welsh Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends, and very excited about the publication of The Mab, a collection of retellings of the Mabinogion, edited by Matt Brown and Eloise Williams.
In Where the Wilderness Lives, I took parts from, and reimagined, two of my favourite Welsh folk tales, Gwion and the Witch and The Battle of the Trees. The latter inspired the title of the story too.
Sounds intriguing. Can you tell us more?
‘The Battle of the Trees’ or ‘Cad Goddeu’ is a medieval Welsh poem set during a war. In it, the magician Gwydion uses his staff to transform trees into warriors to help fight. I’ve always loved the imagery of trees coming to life in a human sense, like the Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and after reading a section of the poem as a child, it stayed with me.
How are your survival skills? Have they ever been tested?
My dad was a trek leader in the Himalayas and as a child I lived partly there in the mountains, so I grew up with the survival skills needed for trekking and being in the mountains, such as finding drinking water, and as an adult, I’ve been trained in first aid.
However … my skills were tested in a completely different climate; in the heat of the Australian desert when a snake fell on my head and bit my thumb as I swatted it away! I know what to do if you come across a bear or a leopard, but in my panic, I couldn’t remember what to do if you are bitten by a snake. Luckily, I was able to get someone’s attention and then I finally remembered that you’re supposed to lie down and stay still to stop any venom being pumped around your body, so I did that and someone bandaged my arm to stop the spread too. Then I was airlifted to the nearest hospital where the anti-venom was kept. It was definitely one of the scariest moments of my life!
I’m very grateful I didn’t have to worry about venomous snakes during my research in Wales!
The setting feels very authentic. How important is authenticity?
This is lovely to hear – thank you! I’m constantly in awe of the wonderful wild places that exist within our world and seek to represent this in my writing. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between people and places too, which is why I love to look at the mythology, folklore, culture, and history of a landscape, as well as its role as a setting.
Readers can learn a lot from Cara – she is a model of courage and determination. When her body gives up she recalls her mother’s mantra A camino largo, pass corto. There’s an important message about mindset in the book isn’t there?
Yes, definitely. The mantra means ‘one step at a time’ and it partly made it into the story because before I wrote the book I knew that I wanted to weave different story threads that all met at the end. I often felt overwhelmed with how much there was to do to make the story work, so I wrote this saying on a post-it note and stuck it to my laptop and it helped me write the book, one sentence at a time! With Cara, when she’s faced with the impossible task of trekking through the snow in freezing conditions, it’s this saying that helps her not give up: if she can keep going, one step at a time, then she has a chance of making it through the snow and helping her brother.
Do you think Cara is changed by her adventure?
Very much so. Being out in nature and overcoming the challenges of the wilderness gives Cara more self belief and confidence to be herself. She also considers the things that are important to her, what matters most, and who she is, and by the end she’s made a new friend and grown even closer with her siblings.
The book will be read in schools across Wales and beyond as a result of your Tir na n-Og Award shortlisting. What do you hope young readers will get out of the book?
I hope readers will enjoy this fast paced race for survival in the Welsh wilderness as they work out the mystery of the locked safe alongside the characters. I hope readers come away feeling excited about the Celtic rainforest, comforted by Cara’s journey to make friends, and feeling not alone in the world.
Many of your books have hazardous moments as part of the adventures. Some of them can shock and surprise. Do you temper your words for your audience?
I’ve always had a very wild imagination and one of the wonderful things about books is that readers can go on adventures from the safety of their own homes. Often the journeys my characters take can be dangerous and I try to reflect this with my writing. I do always think about my choice of language carefully, alongside considering the emotional connection between the reader and protagonist.
Could you recommend some other books that readers of Where The Wilderness Lives might like?
I’d love to! There are so many brilliant adventure stories that I love. A few of my favourites that readers of Where the Wilderness Lives might enjoy are:
Holes by Louis Sachar
Wilde by Eloise Williams
The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook
The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr
Storm Hound by Claire Fayers
Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce
The Last Bear by Hannah Gold
Amazingly, you’ve published a book every year since 2017. Into The Volcano, your fifth novel, has just hit the shops. What can you tell us about it and can we expect this publishing phenomenon to continue?
I still can’t quite believe that Into the Volcano has made it into the world as it was written during lockdowns which meant a completely new way of writing for me (usually I spend lots of time outside). It’s an adventure set on top of a super volcano, and is a book about coming to terms with grief, letting go of anger at the world and finding hope and joy in the most unexpected of places. The story is told through a dual narrative which was really fun to write. It follows Seb from Colorado, and Vivi from London, whose lives collide after a tragic event and they end up on a journey in search of a rainbow pool in Yellowstone National Park. Along their way they meet wolves and bears, all the while dodging bubbling pools and steaming geysers.
My next middle grade book won’t be published until 2023 BUT I have a very exciting new illustrated series for readers aged 7 and up launching in July this year. The first book in The Adventure Club series is called Red Panda Rescue. Each story is filled with travelling the world, protecting endangered animals, and adventuring!
I am really grateful to Jess for her diligence and patience in answering these questions. Diolch Jess.
Buy yourself a copy of Where The Wilderness Lives from your local bookshop. You can follow Jess on Twitter or visit her website. The winner of the English Language Tir na n-Og Award for 2021 will be announced on the BBC Radio Wales Art Show on Friday 21 May.
The Tir na n-Og Award is an annual award for children’s books with an authentic Welsh context. The shortlist, announced in March, features three brilliant books:
The winner of the award will be announced at the end of May. In the meantime, we are all encouraged to shadow the awards and get to know these books in more detail. We are delighted to be bringing you interviews with the shortlisted authors, and our first is with Dr. Elen Caldecott, author of The Short Knife.
Elen was born and raised near Llangollen, where her family still lives. She has published many books for children; her debut novel, How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant, was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Prize and longlisted for the 2010 Carnegie Award. The Short Knife was written as part of her PhD in Creative Writing and was longlisted for the Carnegie. It is a story set in the early middle ages, 454, at a time when Welsh identity was just starting to emerge, when the Romans had left and the Britons and Saxons were battling to take hold of different territories. Young Mai and her sister, Haf, are suspicious of the Saxon soldiers arriving in their village. Proved rightly so by a brutal attack on their family home, the sisters must seek a new place to belong, encountering betrayal, love, and everything in between. This is a celebration of difference and finding your own way, when even speaking your mother tongue can be dangerous.
What was the seed that began The Short Knife?
I was curious about language, primarily. In an earlier book (Diamonds and Daggers), I had written a Polish character and the copyeditor had asked ‘Isn’t their English really good?’ and the answer was, ‘No, they’re speaking Polish to the other Polish characters.’ But, of course, the words on the page were English. So, I had a creative problem: How can you give the impression of one language when writing in another? It felt like a puzzle. I wanted to try to solve it. As I speak only two languages well enough to be able to write in them – Welsh and English – it was a puzzle I could only try to solve using those languages. Therefore, the voice and style of The Short Knife came first and the plot afterwards. It was great to turn that puzzle into a research question for my PhD as it gave me the time and space I needed to play.
You were an archaeologist – does this have any bearing on the way you approached the story?
Definitely. I studied Roman Britain as an undergraduate, and I’ve always been fascinated by the end of the empire. It would have been a very different experience, depending on where you lived (If you were in modern Turkey, for example, you might not even have noticed). Britain was probably the worst affected province. So, I knew it was a time of tumult, which is always good for a story. In a more practical sense, I was able to read site reports for excavations which had happened in the locations I was using, so I can justify some of the decisions I made – for example, having Gwrtheyrn resettle an Iron Age fort.
Were there any specific sites that provided inspiration or breakthrough moments?
Yes, absolutely. Even though it’s historical fiction, and there’s no 100% accurate way to know what life was like then, I found some approximations which were really inspirational. Leigh Woods in Bristol is woodland with a hill fort within it. I took my laptop and my dog up there a lot. We’d walk for an hour and I’d do my best to notice details of the landscape, then I’d write.
I also visited ‘reconstruction’ sites – St Fagans in Cardiff has a small village of roundhouses, and West Stow, near Peterborough has some Anglo-Saxon halls. It was genuinely amazing to visit these sites and talk to the people who worked there. My pen rushed over my notebook. I felt as though the sounds, smells and sensations were a way to get closer to my characters. I also visited Newport Wetlands and Cadbury Congresbury hill fort for more details about the landscape.
Where is the farm of Mai, Haf and Tad located and would they have considered themselves Welsh, British or something else?
Most readers have assumed that their farm is in
modern Wales, but it isn’t. It’s actually nearer to modern Bristol, (though
that city hasn’t been established at this time period). There are clues to the
location – for example they talk about walking to the Severn and the crossing
being dangerous. But I call the river by its Welsh name, the Hafren, and I
don’t think most people are familiar with that name. Its funny, really, you’d
think that two neighbouring countries would know what the other called the boundary
between them, but we don’t. It reflects the enormous power imbalance between
the languages, I suspect.
In terms of what Mai and her family would consider
themselves, they are British. However, there’s a generational divide between
what they mean by that. Tad, who was a boy at the end of empire, might think of
himself as a citizen of the Roman Province of Britannia, at least
nostalgically. Mai and Haf, on the other hand, have no such nostalgia.
They speak Brittonic, a language family that spread from Edinburgh to Exeter at
the time. Having said that, daily life was likely so disrupted, I doubt
there was any sense of a ‘national people’, the societies were likely much more
Do you see yourself as Welsh, British or something else?
Yes, I absolutely do think of myself as Welsh – that’s what I’d reply if someone asked me where I’m from. I haven’t lived there since I left to go to university, but my family is still there. I visit regularly (or did, you know, before). My PhD was part supervised at Aberystwyth University and I ended up working at Cardiff Uni for nearly two years afterwards. I rarely think of ‘British’ other than as a legal term – like on your passport or when applying for a job. It’s something I am, but it doesn’t hold quite the same resonance, in the way that watching a Lions tour isn’t quite the same as watching the Six Nations…
Whilst the landscape is beyond Wales, the book has Welsh influences and a strong Welsh current. This comes from the language you use.
Yes, absolutely. The language Mai speaks, and thinks in, is inspired by Welsh. I tried to give her a Welsh mindset (as much as one can, given that the book is set in an ancient past). So, the language is important, but there are other ideas about being bilingual, fitting in or standing out, being part of a community that can feel on the edge of things, on the edge of attention. There are also themes of betrayal in the book – about whether or not one should stick with a community one is born into, or whether there are things to be gained by leaving, which are also inspired by my own connection with Wales.
The language is exquisite. I understand you created a database of idioms directly translated from Welsh. How did you hit upon this idea and did you have any favourite phrases?
I’m not sure where the idea came from now. I think I was looking at ways
other writers have approached working between languages and I was listening to
talks by people like Xiaolu Guo and Nicholas Jose who work between languages.
The idea might have come from there. Once I’d had the idea I bought a copy of
‘A Dictionary of Welsh & English Idiomatic Phrases’ by Alun Cowrie and
translated it. There are thousands! Some really wonderful ones are ‘to grow
small bones’ and ‘to see your apron strings grow short’ for being pregnant. I
also really enjoy some of the euphemisms for death, like ‘to go and get your
answer’ or to ‘to go and sleep outside’.
How did you find Mai’s voice (and Welsh mindset)?
The technical limitations I set myself dictated her voice a lot – the idioms, for example, tend to be quite ‘earthy’ so she had to be someone close to the land. It was tricky to imagine what a teenager might have sounded like back then. I made her dad a storyteller, so that she could legitimately have more wider frames of reference (like history, religion etc) than an illiterate farmgirl might otherwise have had. After that, there are elements of the plot which I think push her closer to a ‘Welsh mindset’, so things like being bilingual, living close to more powerful communities, and worrying about betraying the community she came from by adapting to her new circumstance.
The problem of the power imbalance between English and Welsh is an interesting one, does the answer lie in education? Did a welsh-medium education give you a perspective on this?
There is definitely a power imbalance between the
languages. One is a World Language, the lingua franca of half the world. The
other is one of the oldest spoken languages, still clinging on at the edge of
There are a few things I’d like to see happen. The
first is that people stop trying to see them as equivalents. So often people
say, ‘What’s the point of learning Welsh? Why not learn a useful language like
Spanish?’ But, *if you already speak one World Language* then all bets are off.
English will serve you well anywhere you go; you’ve got your useful language.
So, your second (or third, etc) language should be anything that gives you
pleasure, be that Welsh or Klingon (or Spanish, sure!). And, connecting with a
language that stretches back thousands of years has got to be pretty
pleasurable. It’s like visiting a National Park, or a gallery or theatre, it
can just be a thing you do because you think it’s cool.
The second thing I’d like to see is for everyone to
worry less about ‘fluency’ (including myself!). The ability to speak a language
is a spectrum; no-one knows all the words of a language. So, if all you know is
‘diolch’ and ‘bore da’, then use those and feel fine about saying ‘I’m a
beginner’. Or, if you get tangled up with mutations, power through, knowing
you’ll be understood just fine. Perfection is the enemy of done, after all.
I don’t think I thought very much about these
things when I was at school. A Welsh medium education was just, you know, my
life. It was only when I was older that I realised that my parents had made
something of a political choice with the school they chose.
How important is authenticity and how far should a writer go to achieve this?
It’s important that your reader believes in
the world you’ve created. It’s actually half the battle – if a reader 100%
believes the setting, then they will suspend their disbelief for the rest of
the story/characters. The easiest way to write a believable setting is to do
good research and simply describe whatever it is you’ve found out. If there are
obvious anachronisms, then the reader might notice it’s *all* made up. Having
said that, it can be really interesting to deliberately use anachronisms in
historical fiction – I’m thinking of something like Alex Wheatle’s ‘Cane
Warriors’ which uses current London vernacular in an 18th century West Indies
setting; it does this – I think – to highlight that we just don’t know what the
‘authentic’ voices would have sounded like; they have been erased. So the
‘inauthenticity’ points to the violence that was done. At the end of the day,
the duty of the writer is to the needs of the book they are writing, not to
The split narrative creates real mystery and intrigue. Were there any difficulties in composing a non-chronological narrative and what spurred you to write it in this way?
It was actually just a really practical solution to a writing problem.
The finale of the story is based on a traditional legend called ‘The Treachery
of the Long Knives’. The legend is a very male story. If I’d ended the book
with that legend, it would have taken the spotlight off Mai, which I didn’t
want at all. BUT, it’s such a dramatic story, it would have been weird to put
it in the middle of the book. My solution was to write a really long epilogue
and spread it out through the book. The reader moves between
before-the-treachery and after-the-treachery with the actual moment of
treachery where you would expect it to be, at the end. I don’t know if I’ve
explained it well, but it wasn’t that I set out to compose a non-chronological
narrative per se. The narrative was actually a solution to a
different problem I had.
Is the legend of Gwrtheyrn something you were aware of from school?
To be honest, I couldn’t tell you when I first
heard about it. We definitely read all kinds of Welsh legends while I was in
school. I learned to read using a reading scheme called ‘stori a chwedl’ which
was jam-packed with quite gory stuff (the horse’s eyelids story from Branwen
was particularly disturbing when I was in primary school). I was reminded of it
in conversation with Cathy Butler, a children’s writer who is also a lecturer
in Cardiff. She reminded me of the story when we were talking about the lack of
female characters in early medieval literature – though Gwrtheyrn is called
Vortigern in the version she knew. My version of him evolved to fit the
story. He’s the person I needed him to be, rather than me trying to capture a
So many brilliant books from Wales use a folk tale as a seed or even framework for their stories. The Snow Spider, The Owl Service, Cantre’r Gwaelod. Many people see folk tales as holding a mirror up to society so that our values and principles can be taught/preserved. Does The Short Knife hold a mirror up to Wales (and England) / Britain?
Oh and don’t forget The Grey King, I love that book! I really hope The Short Knife holds up a mirror, for sure. I want us to remember how much the kingdom has evolved over the centuries, and how much of what we consider as ‘English’ or ‘British’ are actually imported ideas. We are an island nation formed by the movement of people.
The book has many parallels to today – were these deliberately planned from the outset?
I’d say yes, and no. They weren’t planned right
from the outset, but early on during the writing, the Brexit vote happened, and
all the aftermath of that like the rise in reports of racists attacks. I
couldn’t help but think about the island’s relationship with the continent –
how we often think of ourselves as separate, but actually have a rich and
complex shared history. I also wanted to hold a mirror up to all the people I
heard saying rubbish like, ‘England for the English’ and remind people that the
English were once ‘invaders’ too (and I use that word very advisedly!).
It seems that you approached The Short Knife very differently to previous books. Has The Short Knife changed you as a writer?
I think so, yes. I’m working on a book just now, and I’m much more willing to write about Wales than I was. I’m also much more aware of language and playfulness of style, whereas I think in the past I thought plot was the most important thing. I’m more interested in seeing where exploration takes me, without worrying right from the beginning whether something is a good idea or not.
The book seems suited to a YA audience – was this audience in mind when you were writing and what do you hope young readers get out of it?
Yes, the themes of identity and community – as well
as betrayal, which is quite a big part of it – were just a bit too mature for
Middle Grade readers. Also, there’s a fair chance that the language would
alienate young readers. So, it was always intended as YA. Having said that, a
lot of adults have enjoyed it too. I’m certain that what we bring to a piece of
art (be it books, films, music etc) has a huge impact on what we get out of it.
So, I think that, for example, a young person who speaks one language at home
and a different one outside will get something from the book which is quite
different to what a monolingual speaker would get. But I hope that there are
ideas about not reaching for easy answers to complex problems in there. I also
hope that the wide range of female characters model female power in lots of
different ways – there isn’t just one way to use your voice. I hope young readers
see those ideas there, at least!
And what do you think your readers will learn from Mai?
For me, I think she comes to understand that the world is more complex than she thought at the beginning. Initially, everything is so black and white. But, over time, she sees that everyone can make stupid or thoughtless decisions; that even ‘villains’ can be loved by their families. That’s what I see in Mai’s development, and that’s what I’d like young people to take away from the book, really. Mai does come out of the trauma with a stronger sense of self, but she also has a better understanding of other people’s minds too.
The Short Knife was longlisted for the Carnegie and is now shortlisted for the Tir na n-Og. What is the significance of awards for you?
A writer friend of mine often plays a game: ‘Would you prefer tonnes of sales or good reviews – you can’t have both?’ It’s a brutal, but fun game. With some books I’d choose sales, with others reviews, it depends on what I was trying to do when I wrote the book. Good reviews, and, being nominated for awards like the Tir na n-Og, mean that people have read and reflected on your work – on whether it’s been bold and pushed at the boundaries of the field. I guess award nominations can validate risk taking.
So do you feel validated? And what was the biggest risk for you?
It’s a huge accolade for me, for sure. I grew up seeing books with ‘Tir na n-Og Winner’ stickers on their cover, so it feels really close to home. I’m thrilled about it. In terms of risk, there are lots of ways that The Short Knife was a risk. Two of the biggest are the language and the period. The rules I made for myself risk alienating a reader (and I know some readers have been alienated, I get that), it might simply be *too weird*. And the period is not one we study much. If you’re writing historical fiction, people are much more comfortable with the Tudors, or the second World War, and so on. the periods that are on the school curriculum. The 5th century was way leftfield, but *shrugs* it’s a time I’m really curious about.
Along with RS Thomas and Islwyn Ffowc Elis, you must be among the most renowned literary exports from North East Wales. Is your writing, and in particular The Short Knife, influenced by any Welsh writers?
Aw, my mum loves RS, so she’d be chuffed to hear you say that. There were three writers that were actually very influential. As I did this as a PhD I ended up writing a lot about them! Two are uncontroversial (and brilliant), G R Gemin and Catherine Johnson – I love the exploration of transnational identities in their own work. The third is much more controversial – Caradoc Evans. He wrote ‘My People’ in the early 20th century, which is a collection of short stories that do not reflect well on the Welsh. He was pretty much shunned thereafter, for airing Wales’ dirty laundry before an English public. For someone wanting to write in the space between Wales and England he was a guide – and a warning!
Tell me about the title. Was it always thus?
I *think* so. I can’t remember it ever having a different title. I think as soon as I knew the Treachery of the Long Knives was going to be a major component, I liked the idea of Mai being a ‘short knife’ in contrast to the men. Back then everyone would have had their own knife, worn on their belt, for all kinds of simple domestic tasks. I liked the idea of something innocuous coming to be significant.
I wonder if you could recommend other books. A kind of “If you enjoyed The Short Knife then you will love…”
Ooh, yes please! There are some amazing YA historical fiction writers working just now. The voice in ‘Cane Warriors’ by Alex Wheatle is just amazing. Everything Tanya Landman has ever written is fire. I also love Catherine Johnson’s work, especially ‘The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo’.
What’s next for Elen Caldecott?
I’m working on a novel for middle grade readers just now. It’s set in North Wales, but has a big dollop of fantasy in it, as well as the village life I saw as I grew up. I’m really enjoying bringing in more Wales into my writing than I ever have before.
This interview took place between Elen Caldecott and Simon Fisher over a number of months. I am really grateful to Elen for her patience (not least with my questions) and for her generous and thoughtful answers. Diolch Elen.