My Name Is River Blog Tour

My Name is River, the new novel from Emma Rea is published on Thursday 6th August by Firefly Press. Earlier this year, we hosted the cover reveal and Q and A with Emma – you can see that post by clicking here.

For the blog tour, we thought we’d ask Emma Rea for her favourite journey books seeing as main character Dylan journeys from Machynlleth to Brazil in this brilliant adventure. But first of all, let’s take a look at the story…

In My Name is River, 11 year old Dylan takes matters into his own hands when a pharmaceutical company plans to buy the family farm in Machynlleth. Dylan senses unfairness, injustice and there is more than a whiff of foul play so he sets off to the company headquarters in Brazil intent on uncovering the scandal.

This is a true adventure, probably unlike anything else you’re likely to read this year – My Name Is River is a dynamic ecological thriller with thought-provoking real world messaging. That may sound earnest – I promise it’s not – there’s plenty of action and adventure bursting through its pages, from speed boat chases to kidnappings and piles of peril in the Amazonian rainforest. This is James Bond with a conscience for 10 year olds.

What really makes the story though is the characters. Emma Rea kept Dylan from a previous book (Top Dog, published by Gwasg Gomer) and he’s likeable, determined and principled. However, it’s fair to say that the Brazilian characters steal the show. Lucia is a street child; a bold, resourceful and gutsy girl who has fought and found her own way. She is written with great warmth and humour by Emma who clearly has a soft spot for her. The relationship with Dylan is honest, caring, respectful and loyal – readers will love this demonstration of friendship.

If you’re looking for exciting and compelling entertainment it’s here in spades in this accomplished and thrilling novel.


Emma’s Favourite Journey Books

In My Name Is River, Dylan embarks on an incredible journey. We asked Emma to tell us about her choice of books that all contain journeys…

I absolutely love Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo, not only for the family voyage across the world’s seas, nor just for Michael’s long stop on an island before he can continue his journey home, but for the way Michael and Kensuke make friends very slowly, fall out badly, and manage to restore their faith in each other. I defy anyone to finish this book without needing six handkerchiefs.

I Am David by Anne Holm is unbeatable. Twelve-year-old David escapes from a concentration camp and travels alone across Europe, armed with nothing but a compass and a bar of soap. Crackling with tension and dotted with small kindnesses, this is a book with an emotional punch you never forget. More handkerchiefs needed.

Holes by Louis Sachar is full of eventful journeys: from Latvia to the US, all over Texas, across the desert and up to the top of a mountain that resembles ‘God’s Thumb’. The plot reaches back four generations, encompasses powerful themes, and is leavened with mystery, humour and several endearing nicknames: Armpit, Zero, Squid and Barf Bag to name a few.

What are your favourite journey books? Get involved and let us know in the conversation on Twitter.

You can buy My Name Is River by Emma Rea on the Firefly website or from your local independent bookshop. Follow Emma on Twitter, or visit her website.

Thank you to Fireflies Leonie and Megan for supporting us with materials and a proof copy of My Name Is River, given in exchange for the review. Lastly, thanks to Emma for her engagement and for writing such a brilliant book!

Sophie Anderson Wins Wales Book of The Year

Sophie with her Wales Book of the Year trophy and the winning book

On Friday July 31st, live on BBC Radio, Sophie Anderson was announced winner of the Children and Young People’s category for Wales Book of the Year 2020. Her book, The Girl Who Speaks Bear (Usborne) is a wildly imaginative and lyrical folk tale about finding yourself. Full of magic and hope, it is a skilfully written and rather brilliant adventure.

The Children & Young People category was added for 2020, designed to enthuse a new generation of readers, raise the profile of Wales’ talented authors, and establish that literature for children is on a par with that which is intended for adults. Readers of this blog will not need convincing that children’s books are full of hope, bravery, wit, empathy and love. Recognition of this is growing and quality examples from Wales are becoming far more widespread as demonstrated by the shortlist.

Children’s Laureate for Wales, Eloise Williams, says that the introduction of this category confirms children’s literature as an important artistic form. “I am so delighted to see Literature Wales recognising and celebrating children’s literature like this; we’ve got a wealth of children’s writers who are producing superb books – the quality is so high, engaging readers of all ages.”

In addition to the category win, The Girl Who Speaks Bear also won the People’s Choice Award decided by a public vote. Sophie sees this as a validation of the new category, “I am over the moon,” she told BBC Radio Wales, “Children’s books are books for everyone; they wrap up the big things we all feel, helping children to navigate the world.” Echoing the rather brilliant essay by Katherine Rundell, ‘Why you should read children’s books, even though you are so old and wise’, Sophie recently said, “I honestly believe some of the most important, most philosophical, and most enjoyable books are labelled for children.”

It’s important to note that the other two children’s books on the shortlist are worthwhile additions to any home. Butterflies for Grandpa Joe by Nicola Davies (Barrington Stoke) is about Ben’s attempt to engage and comfort his grieving grandfather. The story moved WBOTY judge Ken Wilson Max to proclaim it “a powerful, deeply sensitive story, beautifully told.” On Susie Day’s Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It, which was also nominated for this year’s Tir na n-Og Award for children’s books set in Wales, Eloise Williams said, “This is a humorous, touching, beautiful story about the metaphoric mountains that some young people have to climb.” Both books come highly recommended by Family Bookworms.

We’re really grateful to Sophie Anderson for agreeing to answer a few questions following her award, and we’re really pleased that Sophie has recommended some high-quality children’s books towards the bottom of the page.

What was your reaction on learning that you had won the Wales Book of the Year category?

Complete and utter disbelief! The news came via an e-mail from my publisher, Usborne, and I e-mailed back with the response: ‘Am I reading this right? Has BEAR won in the Children’s category?!’

Once the news was confirmed and had sunk in a little, I was over the moon of course, and ran outside to tell my husband and children, who are always so happy to celebrate with whoops of joy and plenty of hugs!

Is being Welsh important to you?

Absolutely. All the Welsh people I know, myself included, are proud of their Welshness and consider it an important part of their identity.

Since I moved away from Wales (when I was eighteen) my Welshness has only become more important to me. I still think of Wales as my home, and I believe I always will. It is where my family live, and some of my oldest and dearest friends. But it is much more than that too …

I feel Welshness as something in my soul. It’s difficult to define, but it relates to the landscapes, the cultures, and the people of Wales. I’d describe it almost as a lyricalness, a deep emotional connection, and I think if you’re Welsh (or have spent some of your life in Wales) then you understand this!

Does being Welsh have any influence on your writing?

Definitely. With my Welshness being part of my soul and identity, it is bound to come out in my writing. I think many Welsh creatives are deeply inspired by beautiful landscapes, ancient heritage, and poetic language, because these things are so important in Wales.

When I look at my own work, and the work of other Welsh authors, I often feel these strong connections to the land and to the tales of old, and also sense a deep passion and almost symphonious way of expressing thoughts, experiences and emotions.

You also won the public vote. How does that make you feel?
I desperately wanted one of the children’s books to win the public vote, so I was absolutely thrilled with this news. It feels like the most wonderful of celebrations for the new Children and Young People’s category of the award.

Knowing that so many adult readers took a children’s book into their hearts and took the time to vote for it really is such a wonderful thing, a brilliant reminder that children’s books are not just for children – they are exceptionally well-crafted stories that can deeply move readers of all ages.

You are no stranger to awards. Is this one any different?

This one feels like a celebration of both my Welshness and my writing, so it does feel very special – like a big warm hug from my motherland!

Different awards are judged in different ways; some recognise commercial success, others look at the technical quality of writing, and some look at popularity with readers (which you could argue is often a function of marketing and publicity!).

Wales Book of the Year is judged by a panel of talented and erudite judges. Knowing the quality and range of books they will have considered makes me feel honoured they chose BEAR. But it must be such an impossible decision – like picking one jewel in a treasure chest bursting with equally beautiful jewels!

Whilst it is wonderful to see BEAR with a crown of sorts, I think the really brilliant thing about awards like this is in the celebration of the longlists and the shortlists, because they present an opportunity to promote a wide selection of fantastic books to readers who might not have heard of them.

Seeing children’s books part of Wales Book of the Year for the first time has been a wonderful experience for this reason, and I truly hope it marks a jump forwards in celebrating and increasing the visibility of this beautiful sector of literature.

The quality of the shortlist was very high. Have you read the other nominees?

I read Max Kowalski when it was first published and adored it. I hadn’t heard of Butterflies for Grandpa Joe until the shortlisting, even though I am a huge fan of Nicola’s work, so this really highlights how important awards can be in terms of raising awareness of new titles. I’ve read Grandpa Joe now of course, and think it is a really beautiful, special book.

You will hopefully be contributing to The Mab – a collection of Britain’s oldest stories – with 10 other Welsh writers. Does it feel like you’re part of a Welsh writers’ club?

It really feels like I’m part of a family! Welsh children’s writers are so friendly and supportive of one another. I think because we all have some shared experiences, and also share this undefinable, lyrical Welshness, it does make us feel close to one another.

All of us work together to promote children’s literature in all its forms, celebrate each other’s books and recommend a wide range of titles. There is no competition between us, because we feel like we are on the same team – if we can create readers, then all of our books will be successful!

What other quality Welsh fiction can you recommend?

Now this is the hardest question because there is so much Welsh fiction that I adore, and so many Welsh authors who I deeply admire – Catherine Johnson, Zillah Bethell, Stephanie Burgis, Claire Fayers, P G Bell, and Jackie Morris just to name a few!

But onward to choosing a few titles …

The Quilt, written and illustrated by Valeriane Leblond is a breathtakingly beautiful picture book that stole my heart recently. It holds a moving story of migration, explores themes of home and hiraeth, has a gorgeous message of hope, and I loved the symbolism of the quilt.

Nest of Vipers by Catherine Johnson (around 9+) is a thrilling historical adventure with the most wonderful group of characters who I still miss long after reading! I would recommend any of Catherine’s books in a heartbeat, she is a huge talent and her books are massively important as they are some of the few books seeking to write lost and erased stories – such as the story of Matthew Henson, in her book Race to the Frozen North.

The Snow Spider trilogy by Jenny Nimmo is my third choice. Such beautiful stories, they really capture some of the Welshness I’ve talked about in this interview: the love of landscape, the nods to ancestry and heritage and the tales of old, and the stories have a dreamlike, magical quality that I always associate with Wales.

And one more shout-out! Even though you asked for fiction I’d like to highlight a non-fiction book: What is Masculinity? by Darren Chetty and Jeffrey Boakye is outstanding and deserves a place in every school and library (and if I had my way every home too!).

If you asked me about the future of Wales Book of the Year I would talk about my hopes for even more categories under a Children and Young People’s umbrella. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a children’s non-fiction award, and a children’s poetry award, like there is for the adult books? And also, an award that celebrates illustrators and illustrated books, as they are such a massively important part of children’s literature too!

Huge thanks to Sophie Anderson for indulging us with this blog post, and massive congratulations on your double win. If you haven’t yet read the prizewinning book, you can order it now from your local independent bookshop. Sophie’s next book, The Castle of Tangled Magic is due out in October, published by Usborne.

#TheMab

Earlier this week, a crowdfunding campaign was launched to finance a new version of The Mabinogion for young people. These are the earliest prose stories of Britain and have been hugely influential on storytelling across Europe. With contributions from 11 acclaimed Welsh writers for children, the new book promises to be an epic retelling for a new generation. Each tale will be written in English then translated into Welsh by Bethan Gwanas and will feature glorious illustrations from the incredible Max Low.

The book is being put together and edited by Children’s Laureate Wales, Eloise Williams and Matt Brown who will also contribute a story each. Matt posted this video to explain more about The Mab.

The book, which is not yet a reality, is seeking publication through Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher. Readers choose a reward – everything from a signed copy of the book to author virtual visits – pledge their money, and wait for the project to be 100% funded.

At Family Bookworms we are giving this project our full support and backing and would encourage you all to visit the unbound website to donate if you can. As one of our worms says:

“The Mabinogion is part of our cultural heritage and to have these amazing contemporary authors, representative of the very best in children’s writing from Wales, is a real coup. It promises to be an essential and important volume for a new generation.” 

Simon Fisher, Family Bookworms

Eloise Williams, Children’s Laureate Wales and author of 4 novels set in Wales, told us, “As far as we know, there isn’t another collection like it! We have so many amazing people working on the project and we are so excited to bring the stories to everyone.”

So let’s take a look at the amazing cast of contributors and hear directly about their involvement, their excitement and their motivations…

I am overjoyed to be collaborating on this magical project with a group of writers that are inspirational, artful and delicate in their gathering of words. As a poet, this opportunity opens up the page and offers me space to dreaming, space to unravel, unfold and stretch my ideas – and I’ll be listening to the whispers, to the mutterings of the old tales.

Alex wharton

I am delighted to have been invited to contribute to this project, especially as I have moved to Pembrokeshire where so much of the action of the Mabinogion takes place. The stories are so strange, like something translated with a slightly dodgy Rosetta stone; but what I love about them is the echos they carry of a long lost world where wolves howled on the Welsh hills and the landscape was populated not with humans but with wild species in abundance. Immersing myself in that world with its priorities so very different from our own, is going to be a deep pleasure.

nicola davies

I remember my primary school teacher reading the Mabinogion to us in class. The Owl Service (inspired by the story of Gronw and Blodeuwedd) was one of my favourite books growing up. I rediscovered my love for these tireless tales in adulthood, so much so I gifted my son with the middle name Lleu. I am honoured and excited to work on this project and weave myself even more closely to the legacy of these fascinating stories.

Hanan issa

We dream in myths and they in us. They are a society’s safety valve. All our taboos, our deepest fears and desires are played out through the symbolic language of myth and thereby rendered to some extent harmless.

zillah bethell

I’m relishing the opportunity to work on these historic stories with such a fantastic group of writers. Eloise has been doing wonderful things as Children’s Laureate Wales – so I was delighted when she asked me to be part of this.

darren chetty

My mother used to tell my brothers and I all kinds of stories when we were young, but the stories from the Mabinogion always felt extra special, because we knew they were stories from Wales, our home. To be invited to be part of this wonderful project is honestly a dream come true. I believe it is hugely important to preserve the stories from the past, because they are full of wisdom and magic and adventures that speak to our souls. But to preserve these tales, we need to keep retelling them in ways that ignite the interest of readers today. The talent and passion of the creatives working on this project is going to make this a very special book that I know will be treasured by generations of readers to come.

sophie anderson

I didn’t discover the stories from the Mabinogion until embarrassingly late in life, despite having grown up a stone’s throw from Caerleon, where Arthur holds court in many of the tales. For whatever reason, the Mabinogion just didn’t seem to feature in my cultural landscape at the time. That’s why I’m so happy to be part of this fantastic group of artists that Eloise and Matt have assembled. I can’t wait to help share all the magic and strangeness, the adventure and humour with a new generation of readers across Wales and beyond.

P g bell

This is my copy of The Mab from around 1976, maybe earlier. It’s got Olwen on the cover and it’s so floppy and old (although not as much as me) it’s losing pages. I loved it: Welshness was an important part of my identity growing up in London and this book with its weird weighty words is hardwired into my heart. I always always wanted to write something that used the bones of these stories and this is a brilliant brilliant opportunity.

catherine johnson

I’ve spent the past year immersed in Welsh folklore for my own books, so I’m tremendously excited to be a part of this project. What I love most about these ancient tales are the gaps – events that are never properly explained, threads of stories that are left dangling. It’s like seeing a landscape through mist, and it gives tremendous scope to interpret and reimagine. The stories of the Mabinogi explore everything that’s human, from family and friendship to cruelty and murder. Best of all is the sense that the Otherworld of magic is never far away. I’m looking forward to seeing these stories brought to life in a new way for today’s readers.

claire fayers

These stories are part of our heritage and should be in every classroom and every home. By crowdfunding the book we’re making it part of everyone who helps get it made.

matt brown

The Mab is an amazing new book retelling all 11 stories for young people. They are the oldest British stories and #TheMab will help new generations of children fall in love with them. But we need your help – please visit the Unbound page to pledge your support.

eloise williams

The Mab will feature illustrations by Max Low.

I’m really chuffed to be illustrating this wicked update to the legendary Welsh tales from The Mabinogion.

max low

It’s been a real pleasure to be involved in #TheMab launch. Please head over to Unbound to donate if you can. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the funding target over the coming months.

Thanks to all the authors and illustrator for giving us some exclusive content. While we wait for The Mab, and if you have any money left after donating on Unbound, you can head over to your local bookshop and buy a book by one of the contributors. Here’s our recommendations*:

*Firefly Press will publish Daydreams and Jellybeans by Alex Wharton in Spring 2021.

**Images on this page (the author profiles) were made by EW Graphic Designs and are not to be reproduced without permission.

Wales Book of the Year 2020

Which of the three shortlisted books for children gets your vote? We ask 3 bloggers to fight their corner.

We invited Anne Thompson (A Library Lady), Caroline Fielding (Teen Librarian) and Lilyfae (Lily and the Fae) to have their say.

Wales Book of the Year is Wales’ national book prize from Literature Wales, celebrating “outstanding literary talent from Wales across various genres in both English and Welsh.” For the first time, books for children and young people are celebrated amongst the shortlisted titles which features additional categories for Poetry, Fiction and Creative Non-fiction for adults. 

The shortlisted books in the children’s category are:

  • Butterflies for Grandpa Joe by Nicola Davies (Barrington Stoke)
  • The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson (Usborne)
  • Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day (Puffin)

The winners of each category, chosen by a judging panel, will be announced on 31 July and there will also be an overall winner. At the same time, a public vote is taking place to choose a popular favourite.

But who should you vote for? Well, our answer would be “all of them”, so we decided to enlist the help of three excellent bloggers as a supporter for each book.

Butterflies for Grandpa Joe by Nicola Davies

Butterflies for Grandpa Joe, written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Mike Byrne was published by Barrington Stoke in October 2019.


Synopsis


Grandpa Joe has always loved butterflies. There used to be nothing he enjoyed more than heading off to search for the flutter of brightly coloured wings and snap some photos for his collection.
But since Ben’s granny passed away, Grandpa Joe has changed. He doesn’t want to go outside, and nothing Ben says or does makes him smile. It feels like Grandpa Joe is slipping away too. So there’s only one thing left to try – if Grandpa Joe won’t come searching for butterflies, Ben will bring the butterflies to him …

Nicola Davies lives in Pembrokeshire, having recently moved from the Powys hills. She is the author of over 60 books published mostly by Walker, Hachette and Welsh publisher Graffeg – most of which draw on Nicola’s zoological knowledge. In September she publishes the first book to feature her own illustrations – Last, with Tiny Owl.

Championing Butterflies for Grandpa Joe is experienced school and public librarian and all-round children’s book enthusiast, Anne Thompson (@Alibrarylady).

“Sometimes children’s fiction can do more than entertain; it can comfort, enlighten and educate. Butterflies for Grandpa Joe does all of these things and in an accessible format. A lovely children’s book that well deserves this recognition.”

Anne Thompson, @Alibrarylady

In her blog, alibrarylady.blog, Anne sings the praises of this gentle story, which “conveys how love across the generations and the healing power of nature can soothe the heartache of grief and give hope for the future.” She goes on to say that “this lovely book deserves a place in every primary school library and classroom.” To read Anne’s full review follow this link.

Familybookworms say: Butterflies for Grandpa Joe is a gorgeous story that will pull at your heartstrings. Nicola is a master of empathy and this book had us in tears. A really special book.

Watch Nicola speak about the book in her official shortlisting video for Lit Wales here.

The Girl who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson

The Girl who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson with illustrations by Kathrin Honesta was published by Usborne in September 2019.


Synopsis


Found abandoned in a bear cave as a baby, Yanka has always wondered about where she is from. She tries to ignore the strange whispers and looks from the villagers, wishing she was as strong on the inside as she is on the outside. But, when she has to flee her house, looking for answers about who she really is, a journey far beyond one that she ever imagined begins: from icy rivers to smouldering mountains meeting an ever-growing herd of extraordinary friends along the way.

Sophie Anderson was born and raised in Swansea. Her first novel, The House with Chicken Legs, won several awards and was shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, the Blue Peter Book Award and the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize amongst others. This autumn she publishes her 3rd adventure, The Castle of Tangled Magic.

Championing The Girl Who Speaks Bear is Lilyfae, blogger at lilyandthefae.wordpress.com who blogs on Children’s books and reading for pleasure with her two girls and tweets from @faeryartemis.

“Sophie’s writing is a rich tapestry, weaving family, folklore, history and mythology with her own vivid imagination. The Girl Who Speaks Bear is a powerful exploration of finding oneself, embracing your differences and finding your pride. It’s a thrilling adventure exquisitely told. Sophie is a modern day bard.”

Lilyfae, @faeryartemis

In her blog, lilyandthefae.wordpress.com, Lily says, “This is a wonderful book full of hope, strength and warmth that will appeal across the ages and generations. I’ve been reading this aloud with my daughters, and this style of narrative interspersed with short folk tales has been a real experience. The bitesize folkish interjections give both relief and colour to the story and their ancient rhythms and themes reach a timeless place within the reader, and speaks truths that even the youngest can understand.” To read Lily’s full review follow this link.

Familybookworms say: The Girl Who Speaks Bear is a brilliant and beautiful adventure by one of our favourite writers. It’s a thrilling and spellbinding tale that has brought us a lot of joy.

Watch Sophie talk about the book in her official shortlisting video for Lit Wales here:

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It was published by Puffin in September 2019.


Synopsis


Max wants to be just like his dad – fun, loud and strong.
Instead, he always seems to be accidentally getting into fights and breaking things.
But when his dad starts bringing home mysterious boxes, even more mysterious wads of cash starts turning up.
Then Dad disappears. And it’s up to Max to look after his sisters until he comes home.
When they run away to a remote village in Wales, he’s convinced that no one will find them.
He’s Max Kowalski. Of course he can look after three kids with no grownups around!
Although, he can’t stop thinking about where Dad really went. And the whispers of a golden dragon, asleep under the Welsh mountains…

Susie Day was born and raised in Penarth. She is responsible for the Pea series and the Secrets series as well as recently contributing a short story to a Doctor Who anthology. Max Kowalski was also on the shortlist for the recent Tir na-nOg Award.

Championing Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It is Caroline Fielding, past judge for the Carnegie Kate Greenaway and a chartered school librarian. She blogs at teenlibrarian.co.uk and tweets @CazApr1.

“Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It deserves all the prizes for tackling toxic masculinity with such a light touch. It is full of warmth, humour and wonderful descriptions of the Welsh mountains.”

Caroline Fielding, @CazApr1

In the blog, teenlibrarian.co.uk, Caroline speaks of seeing Louie Stowell’s ingenious review, “If Jacqueline Wilson ganged up with Alan Garner and remixed A Monster Calls, with dragons. Powerful and deep.” She goes on to say that Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It is everything it promises to be – brilliant, warm and funny featuring “fabulous characters in pretty dire but totally believable circumstances.” Caroline features an interview with Susie Day on the teen librarian website.

Familybookworms say: Max Kowalski is a fantastically original and heartfelt tale about growing up, dealing with siblings and inner dragons. This witty and emotional book shows middle grade readers that empathy and stories make for a better world.

Watch Susie talk about her shortlisting in this official video from Literature Wales:

Huge thanks to Anne, Caroline and Lily for allowing us to quote and link to their reviews. Follow them on Twitter and subscribe to their blogs! Do head over to the public vote too, run by Wales Arts Review to place your vote for one of these brilliant books. And if you’re concerned about not having read one of them, you can put that right this summer…

Valériane Leblond

Popular illustrator and artist Valériane Leblond has written her first book for children, as well as painting the images that bring the story to life. Valeriane was brought up in Angers, France but moved to Wales in 2007 and now lives in a farmhouse near Aberystwyth. Valeriane speaks French, English and Welsh.

The Quilt (Y Lolfa) is a beautifully illustrated hardback offering a message of hope and hiraeth. The picturebook pages are captivating taking us from rural Wales at the turn of the 20th century to the New World via Liverpool. We love the colour palette and how this changes as the family enter America (reminiscent of Kyffin Williams’ tone in his Patagonian paintings) and the buzz of Liverpool is Lowry-esque in it’s industrious hustle and bustle. This truly is a stunning book and we felt compelled to get in touch with Valériane to find out more.

Could you tell us how you became an artist?

I’ve always enjoyed drawing, painting and being creative in general, so it happened quite naturally. I had another job for a few years before being able to go full time though.

What was your own journey to settling near Aberystwyth?

I had a Welsh boyfriend that I met at University in Brittany and I followed him home here to Ceredigion. I didn’t know much about Wales at the time, but I felt welcomed here, and I fell in love with the place and its people. Now I’ve got three sons who were born here, I’ve learnt the language and I feel that I can make a contribution through my art.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m reading a novel called Le Principe by Jérôme Ferrari about the physicist Heisenberg. It’s sometimes a bit too clever for me!

The Quilt is an incredible achievement. How long did it take to complete?

Thank you! It must have taken 6 to 8 months to write, and about 3 months to illustrate. I was working on other projects while writing, but I worked full time on the illustrations.

What attracted you to the story?

I always wanted to illustrate a story about a Welsh quilt, I think it is a fascinating craft, visually and historically. And I’ve always been interested in movements of people, especially to North America as my father was from there.

What are your methods of illustration?

I have several techniques, and I love varying and experimenting. I always use a sketchbook to draw roughly the silhouettes and plan the compositions. For The Quilt, I worked with gouache and coloured pencils on paper, and to obtain the muted palette and the sepia overall tone I dyed the paper with brown ink before painting. 

The story absolutely suits your illustration style – particularly the period and lifestyle – is this just coincidence?

No, it’s not just coincidence. Being both the author and illustrator has been a very interesting experience: the text has been feeding the illustrations, the illustrations have been modelling the text too. There are pictures that I just wanted to paint for a book some day, like the double page with a small ship in the big ocean, and this was the perfect opportunity. 

Did it involve a lot of research?

Yes, there was a lot of research involved. I got help from the historian Menna Morgan in the National Library, and from quilt expert Jen Jones of the Welsh Quilt Centre and I used pictures and paintings  from different archives as references for the illustrations.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from your research on The Quilt?

I loved learning about anything food-related : what people ate on the ship, the ‘discovery’ of different food like watermelons, pumpkins, sweetcorn in North America. I would love to explore further the relations between food, home, and place in the future, in a book or in my art.

What was the inspiration for the design and colours of the quilt itself?

I needed a quilt design that would be realistic for the period. After talking to Jen Jones I realised that a bold black and red flannel quilt would suit the story, and I used an existing quilt from her collection.

There is a symmetry between the family’s new life in America and the life they leave in Wales. How did you go about making these connections? 

I wanted to show that places have a lot in common rather than insist on the differences. I’m interested in the idea of “home”, and it is a universal theme we can all relate to, whether we are grown-up or not, wherever we live or come from. 

Do you consider yourself an artist or an illustrator?

It’s difficult to answer, but I would say both. When I work with another author, I am definitively an illustrator, but for The Quilt, I might tend towards being an artist!

The Quilt is a fine example of a picturebook where the images give as much information as the words. Do you have any favourite picturebooks?

My all-time favourite is The Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall and Barbara Cooney. The text is beautifully written and works by itself, and Barbara Cooney’s pictures are extraordinary. I also love Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. When pictures go beyond the text it literally creates a new dimension.

The book was published in Welsh first then English. Are there any differences between the two versions? Which language did you originally write it in?

I wrote it in French, my mother’s tongue, first. Then I re-wrote it in English, and finally in Welsh. I also worked on the pictures before finishing the text, so it’s difficult to say what is the original version! I think the Welsh text might be more poetic, but it might be down to the language itself!

Can you tell us something about your next book/idea/future plans?

I’m currently working on a language book with Rily Publications, which involves thousands of small pictures, and I’m also about to start on a very exciting book about Siani Pob Man, an eccentric woman who lived on the beach near New Quay in the 1900s’.

If you weren’t an author/illustrator what would you do?

Maybe a teacher? Or a researcher of some kind? There are a lot of things I would enjoy doing I think!

Thank you / diolch / merci Valériane for answering our questions. The Quilt by Valériane Leblond (£5.99, Y Lolfa) is available now from your local independent bookshop. You could also order it direct from Y Lolfa.

Follow Valériane on Twitter and visit her website.

Tir na nOg Award Data

The Tir na nOg Award winner for 2020 will be announced on Friday 3rd July. The award is given to the best children’s book with an authentic Welsh setting. Winners since the inaugural award in 1976 include The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo, The Grey King by Susan Cooper, Arthur The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland and The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher.

We decided to look into the statistics behind the award to see if there is any indication of who is most likely to win…

It seems that if you want to win the Tir na nOg Award, your best bet is to be a female author named Jenny Lewis published by Pont/Gomer. The title of your book should be ‘The Tale of the Welsh King of the Sea’. And if you want the best shot at the trophy, then you’d need to go back to 1981 when there were 17 books shortlisted.

Gender. Female authors outnumber the men significantly, both in terms of receiving nominations and overall winners.

Individual Winners. Frances Thomas has won the title four times. First in 1981 then subsequently in 1986, 1992 and 2008. There are several authors who have won twice. Jackie Morris has won once as author and once as illustrator.

Nominations. Jenny Sullivan leads the nominations with 7 in total.

Publishers. One publisher has, far and away, published more shortlisted books than any other. Pont, an imprint of Gwasg Gomer, has published 54 of the titles. Gomer accounts for one third of all shortlisted titles.

Winners of the award have been published by…

We’ve analysed the names of all nominees to see which were the most popular:

Keywords. The most popular words in nominated titles…

The award has been withheld on 8 occasions, though not since 2003, so fingers crossed!

So what does this all mean for this year’s nominees? Er, probably not very much. However – we have to say that the shortlist is very strong and any of these would be worthy winners. We look forward to celebrating the 2020 winner very soon…

My Name is River

We are delighted to reveal the cover to a new novel from Emma Rea to be published by Firefly Press in June 2020.

My Name is River is an exciting new adventure story with evocative locations and a powerful ecological theme.

Emma Rea lives in London. She lived in mid-Wales for many years and considers it home. Her father was a naval officer so she grew up all over the place but was inspired by a holiday to Wales and brought her children up in Powys. Emma has worked as a tractor driver and grain-lorry driver, a magazine editor, a journalist, a trader in Russian newsprint and cardboard and a festival organiser before she started writing.

Her new story takes Dylan, the protagonist from her first book, Top Dog (Gomer), and projects him into an audacious and intrepid adventure in the heart of South America.


Book Synopsis

Dylan’s mum thinks he’s with his friends on a residential geography trip.
His geography teacher thinks he’s at home with flu.
In fact, Dylan is 33,000 feet above the ocean on his way to Brazil...

When Dylan overhears his dad say that their farm has been sold to a global pharmaceutical company, he decides he has to make them change their minds. In Brazil, things don’t go at all to plan. Only when Lucia – a street child armed with a puppy and a thesaurus – saves his life, do they start to uncover the shocking truth about what the company is up to, and Dylan’s home problems suddenly seem dangerously far away.


We are completely thrilled to exclusively reveal the cover below. The image has been illustrated and designed by Brittany E Lakin.

Shortlisted for the Templar Illustration Prize, Brittany E. Lakin is an illustrator who draws inspiration from folk tales, and elements of nature. Emma told us,

“I love the excitement and danger Brittany has captured, using perspective and light brilliantly to draw the reader in to the Amazonian rainforest. My writing is accessible but the story has depth, and I think Brittany’s design, with the broad appeal of Dylan and Lucia looking out at the reader, and the rich colours and complexity of the background, reflects both these aspects of My Name is River.”


To mark this very special unveiling, we were given the opportunity to ask Emma a few questions. We started by asking her what she was reading right now.

I’m reading Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord to make sure my next book, set in Venice, doesn’t overlap with anything she’s written. And for the enormous pleasure of it.

Where and when do you write? 
I don’t have to look as though I’m working, so I can write on the sofa with my legs up. This means my arms don’t ache – endless typing at a desk wrecked one of them for a while. The sofa position, punctuated by quick walks round the park, seems to suit both arms and legs. I write all morning and part of the afternoon, but put writing second to my family, friends, jobs, dog etc, who provide me with plenty of welcome distraction.

Who or what inspires you?
When I’m in the zone, in the middle of editing a story, everything is inspiration. It’s as if the whole world is reflecting bits of my story back to me. When I’m not in the zone, it’s odd remarks, chance meetings, moments when someone says something surprising. Anecdotes from family history.

What are your favourite books for children? 
At the moment I prefer reality to fantasy – I find the real world difficult enough to navigate and I lose my footing in imagined worlds. I love Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, all of Eva Ibbotson’s books for their intricate plotting, but especially Journey to the River Sea, all of Geraldine McCaughrean’s books, The Airman by Eoin Colfer, Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot by Horatio Clare. When I was younger I loved E Nesbitt’s The Wouldbegoods (though I’ve never found anyone else who’s read it) and Five Children and It. 

Your new book, My Name is River, features a pharmaceutical company, a Machynlleth farm and a Brazilian street child. What more can you tell us? 
It features two rivers – a tributary of the Dovey River in Wales and the Amazon River in Brazil. These two rivers are tenuously,  mysteriously and indefinably connected by the world’s water cycle. Similarly, Dylan and Tochi, the indigenous boy he meets in the rainforest, are connected, by their love of treehouses and spending their time outdoors, independent of adults. Dylan sees himself in Tochi – though this is not overtly stated. Dylan has an epiphany while gazing out over the Amazon, which changes his world view entirely. 

My Name is River has the same character as your previous book, Top Dog. Is this part of a series? 
At present I don’t have plans to write another Dylan book, but if an idea surfaces I’ll go with it. I love Dylan and felt I’d only got him started in Top Dog. I wanted to explore whether his difficulties, and eventual peace, with Floyd at the end of Top Dog turned into a real friendship in My Name is River. If I wrote another Dylan book, I think I’d want Lucia to be in it too.

In the book, Lucia is “armed with a thesaurus”. Is a thesaurus an important part of your arsenal? 
In fact it’s not! Much as I love words generally, I prefer to use simple words. In My Name is River, Dylan and Lucia play a ‘word off’ game, in which he wins the battle because he knows slang. But she is open-minded to slang, so she wins the war in the end, as she learns both ends of the spectrum. 

Which of your own characters is most like you? 
Dylan is how I would have liked to be as a child – living with masses of freedom, often outside with a bunch of friends, getting muddy, building bike tracks and treehouses. I moved home every two years because of my dad’s work, so I’m curious about children who live in the same place for their entire childhood. But I admire Lucia’s drive and vision.

Dylan very much takes things into his own hands in the book and is passionate about affecting a change. Does he get this from you? What do you feel strongly about? 
I feel strongly that there is always a way forwards, and I wanted the book to offer this idea to children. It might not be easy and it might not be exactly the way forwards you expected, but like the river, Dylan doesn’t give up when he comes to an obstacle – he finds a way around, over or under it. I feel strongly that plans can change but that it’s important always to have a plan of some sort.

Can you tell us about your Welsh connections? 
My grandmother grew up in Mumbles in south Wales and this gave me a fondness for Wales. When our children were about to start primary school we moved near Machynlleth. I loved the community spirit as illustrated by the lantern procession, and the Centre for Alternative Technology nearby and the space and beauty of the whole area.  

Machynlleth Lantern Parade

Can you tell us something about your next book/idea/future plans? 
I’ve got three other children’s books in mind – two already written to first draft and one just scribbled notes. The one I’m working on is about a boy called Aled from Aberdovey who accidentally goes on an art trip to Venice during the Carnival and becomes embroiled in a family of wicked Venetians, obsessed with their own status. The next one is very different – a historical story about two girls in Portugal in the ‘50s, whose friendship is pulled apart by their families and political developments.

If you weren’t an author what would you do? 
I’d be a tractor driver. I worked on a farm for two summers as a tractor driver, and loved the physical exhaustion after a day’s work, living in rough clothes and being outside all day (it was an old tractor with no doors and no radio and one idle thought would keep me going for hours). These days I teach creative writing to children and I work as a proofreader – in order to be an author I’ve burnt all my bridges to a proper career, which at times has felt insane. It’s taken me all my life to get here – it’s always been this or nothing. 

Thank you so much to Emma for answering our questions, and thank you to Firefly Press for asking us to host this cover reveal. Do click on the hyperlinks to follow them on Twitter.

My Name is River is out on 25 June 2020, and you will be able to pre-order your copy from the Firefly Press website soon. We can’t wait to get our hands on a copy!

The Shark Caller

A new novel from Zillah Bethell to be published by Usborne in July 2020.

The Shark Caller is Zillah Bethell’s remarkable new book that leaves you completely stunned and totally in awe of the wonderful storytelling.

Inspired by Bethell’s childhood, The Shark Caller is set against the backdrop of the islands of the South Pacific, and their traditional practice of shark-calling. Zillah was born in the shadow of the volcano Mount Lamington in Papua New Guinea. She grew up without shoes, toys or technology, and consequently spent a lot of time swimming and canoeing in the sea. Zillah’s family returned to the UK when she was ten, she went on to study at Oxford University and now lives in South Wales, but vivid memories of Oceania stayed with her.

Such a stunning book deserves a glorious cover and we are absolutely delighted to exclusively reveal the image below. The cover has been illustrated by Saara Katariina Söderlund, and designed by Katharine Millichope.

Saara Katariina Söderlund is a freelance illustrator. She paints with gouache, sometimes mixing coloured pencil or digital tools into the process. Her own paintings often focus on her love of nature – so for a book set in Papua New Guinea, she was a perfect choice. Saara told us, “I absolutely loved working on this cover. The book has such a special mood and I think it really takes you to the island. I truly enjoyed interpreting that feeling for the cover – and painting all the colourful fish of course!” Saara has also recently illustrated The House of One Hundred Clocks by A M Howell.

Zillah says, “Saara Söderlund has given the greatest gift of allowing me to reinhabit the landscape I left when I was ten. Papua New Guinea in all its fierce, mercurial, quixotic beauty. And I am so very grateful to her.”

You can find out more about Saara’s work on her Instagram, @saarainfeathers or visit her website.


Book Synopsis

The sea is always there,” I say. “It always has been. It always will be. People are born and people die. All the taim they are being born and dying, and all the taim in between, the sea is moving up and down, up and down. All the taim. It never ever stops. Never in all taim.”

Blue Wing lives with her guardian Siringen, a shark-caller, on the outskirts of her village. She’s desperate to become a shark-caller herself to avenge the death of her parents, who were killed by a notorious shark, Xok. But it’s against tradition for a girl to become one, and Siringen believes Blue Wing still harbours too much anger in her heart.

When two Americans arrive on the island – Professor Atlas Hamelin and his daughter Maple – Blue Wing is charged with looking after the prickly and infuriating Maple. But, slowly, Blue Wing finds that Maple might be the one person who can understand what she’s going through, having recently lost her own mother. And when they discover that Professor Hamelin is secretly searching for an ancient treasure, they find themselves on a journey to the depths of the ocean, where Xok lies waiting…


Review

The Shark Caller is really something! My first impression after reading the book was to sit, jaw dropped in stunned silence. The book touches the heart, and speaks to the soul.

https://twitter.com/lamerch/status/1213949228424318976

Let me lay my cards on the table. I am a big Zillah Bethell fan. The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare, her last book, is one of my absolute favourite novels of all time. I am a sucker for good storytelling, the best of which, for my money comes from Katherine Rundell, Gill Lewis, Kiran Millwood-Hargrave, Catherine Johnson, SF Said and Sophie Anderson. I’d put Zillah in this list. These are authors who have a magical ability to craft their stories. Before you read the review, know that I loved it and want you to love it too.

The story is set in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea where Blue Wing and her guardian Siringen are charged with caring for a visiting professor and his daughter. The girls take an instant dislike to each other, but slowly realise they have things in common and a voyage of both self-discovery and learning the ways of friendship begins.

The landscape is beautifully portrayed and we are given a real sense of the geography of the country. A vista of small towns and mines is painted alongside the mountains, forests and shimmering Pacific seas. The flora and fauna of the island is an integral part of the book, not least the sharks, whales and dolphins that swim alongside Blue Wing and The Shark Caller.

The novel is a technicolour, cinematic delight. There are highly vivid, intense scenes; wide-screen viewing in 4D could not be more impactful. Yet this is the joy of reading and particularly the joy of Zillah’s writing – she somehow makes us feel the expansiveness of the landscapes alongside the intimate thoughts and deep emotions of the characters close-up.

There is a juxtaposition between the traditional island ways and the Westernisation of the culture. The ‘Bigman’ (village chief) is a symbol of this: swigging Coca Cola, disowning his heritage and admonishing those who take the remedies of the village witch doctor. His incompatibility and ineptitude with the old ways is often depicted with humour particularly in the awkwardness with which he wears his ceremonial dress.

Bethell’s narration inhabits the character Blue Wing, bringing life and love to her thoughts, actions and talk. Throughout, there is huge wisdom. I particularly like this:

People are like rocks on the shore. The sea will slam into the rocks day after day after day. Hour after hour after hour. Oltaim. But the rocks still look like rocks, they do not become something else. There might be a few scars and parts of the rock might crumble like dust into the sea.But they are still almost the way they were when they were created by Moroa.

The same is with people. There is nothing that can happen on this world that will stop a person being who they are. We are all born a certain way, and we all die a certain way.

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This is an astonishing book. An exceptional story from an incredibly talented writer. Read it open-mouthed in wonder at the storytelling, revel in the wisdom, the sage and salient thoughts of Blue Wing, the remarkable sensitivity and deftness of touch on essential human themes of life, death, love, family and friendship. More than anything, just read it.

Thank you to Usborne, Zillah Bethell and Stevie Hopwood for choosing us to reveal the cover and for gifting a proof copy of the book. Follow Zillah and Usborne on Twitter and seek out Saara Katariina Söderlund on instagram.

Review: The Comet and the Thief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruth Morgan: “My Writer’s Routine”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Blog from Julie Pike

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

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

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

Penlan Farm, on Drumau Mountain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Julie on Twitter or visit her website.