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.

Ceri & Deri

Build a Birdhouse / The Treasure Map

Max Low

Graffeg

“Ceri is a cat, and Deri is a dog. Ceri has stripes and Deri has spots. They live in a small town near a big hill and they do everything together. They are best friends.”

So begins each of the four Ceri and Deri books by Max Low – an opening reminiscent of the comforting familiarity of Lauren Child’s Charlie and Lola series. Across the four books, Max, a graduate of Hereford School of Art, ensures that friendship and fun is at the heart of the duo’s adventures. The latest two titles have just been published by Graffeg and they are beautifully produced.

There is an immediacy and vibrancy to Max’s illustrations that radiates so much joy and youthful energy I want to hang the pages on every wall in the house. It’s fresh and fun and I love the way Max plays with shape and line and limits his palette to shades of the same colours. He makes some bold choices too – a favourite page has to be the illustration of the sea in The Treasure Map.

https://twitter.com/bookwormswales/status/1124655984348102661

The stories have an educational edge too – not that these are text books, but reading these books with young children will support their understanding of directions (Treasure Map), time (No Time for Clocks), counting, sharing and design. The emphasis, though, is most definitely on fun.

In The Treasure Map, the two friends follow directions in search of pirate treasure, helped along the way by their companions. In Build a Birdhouse, we see Max at his imaginative and creative best as Ceri and Deri design a perfect (read: wacky and wonderfully weird) house for a homeless bird. It’s in this book that Max hits on a universal truth: “No one actually uses dining rooms do they? So let’s fill it full of balloons!”

Playful, engaging and full of humour, the Ceri and Deri books are fabulous picture books made for sharing. Max Low is an extremely talented illustrator and we can’t wait to see what comes next – which is another book, ‘My Friends’ due to be published by Otter Barry in July!

Photograph from Max’s Instagram

To buy the Ceri and Deri books, visit Graffeg’s website. You can follow Max on Twitter.

Helping Hedgehog Home

Celestine and the Hare

Graffeg

Helping Hedgehog Home is the ninth book in this wonderful series of tales about the felted creatures undertaking simple acts of kindness. In this installment, Hedgehog is locked out of her home when a fence is erected. In an attempt to make a return, she builds a hot-air balloon to sail over the garden obstacle. Unfortunately, she crash lands into Grandpa Burdock’s domain who then tries to ‘help her home’.

All of Celestine’s books overflow with kindness, but this one is extra special. I think it has something to do with the character of Grandpa Burdock – he is keen, talkative, enthusiastic and ever so lovable. Hedgehog is fed (freshly baked bramble biscuits and a cup of tea!) and taken care of while Grandpa thinks of ways to overcome the fence. Karin Celestine has a wicked sense of fun and mischief – seen in the inventive drawings of Grandpa’s suggestions. Hedgehog is naturally concerned when she hears of the ‘hedgehogapult’. Thankfully, Granny Burdock returns at the right moment with a far more sensible solution for returning Hedgehog to her home.

Helping Hedgehog Home made us giggle; it made us fall in love with Grandpa Burdock; it encourages us to show warmth and kindness to neighbours; it tells us of the importance of taking time to sit and stare; and, thanks to the informative pages at the back, taught us some groovy facts about hedgehogs.

Helping Hedgehog Home was enjoyed by the whole family and we were delighted to meet Karin at a workshop as part of the Cardiff Kids Literature Festival a few weeks ago. She kindly gave us some time to ask her some questions. We began by asking about the name ‘Celestine and the Hare’:

“Celestine was my great grandmother – I come from a line of strong Swedish women – Karin is my mother and her mother was also Karin, and her mother was Celestine. I have a bust of Celestine in my studio, which I inherited from my mum, and she’s always looked over me as a matriarch – reminding me of the line of strong, adventurous and very creative women. I was looking for a name for my business so Celestine appealed and I also like hares – they are magical and I particularly love the mythology associated with women shape-shifting into hares. I’d also made a hare which sits next to Celestine and it was as simple as that – Celestine and the hare.”

Karin also uses a pen name (we’re not quite sure what her real name is!), which came about by mistake. She explains, “I had been dithering over what to call myself and I went to an event where they had mistakenly made a name badge for me saying ‘Karin Celestine’ and I thought ‘That’s quite nice!’

The Karin Celestine books came about after Karin had been making the felt animals and selling them, but as she was making the characters she gave them backstories and invented silly narratives. “I did a calendar and cards for Graffeg and they asked if I had considered writing a story. I was also encouraged by Jackie (Morris) to have a go. It was strange because I had never been encouraged in school to write – in fact I was told I couldn’t write and was the worst at crafts! So I wrote ‘Paper Boat for Panda’ and cried as I submitted it.”

Whilst the felted creatures get up to all sorts of hijinks and tomfoolery (especially in the films and photos Karin shares on social media), the books turned out with added empathy, “I have a huge thing about kindness – it is so important; kindness and mischief – that’s my strapline and the books turned out gentler. And because I’d been a teacher there are messages – I’ve slipped things in that I know children need to hear.”

Nine books on, and Karin brings us her new story about Hedgehog. She told us, “There is more humour in this one, but still with an ecological message.”

“A lot of the environmental issues in the news can be too big and too frightening for young children – as a child you can feel completely helpless to do anything about it. I remember the ‘Save the Tiger’ campaign from when I was younger, and short of buying a membership to the World Wildlife Fund there was nothing I could do – and for me, that’s not very positive. I want everybody to feel they are able to do something to help.”

In the back of all of Karin’s books there are some craft activities, many with an ecological theme – building bug houses, weaving, making suncatchers. “We should all be back garden eco warriors – the activities are something that any child can do and feel good about. They then grow up thinking they can make a difference.”

Making a difference is exactly what Karin’s books inspire through the actions of Grandpa, Grandma, Bert, Bertram, Emily, Small, Panda, King Norty, Baby Weasus and all the tribe. Kindness and mischief and making a difference.

To buy copies of Karin’s books with personalised dedications, visit her website where you can find lots of other information and activities. Huge thanks to Karin for giving her time so generously and thank you to Graffeg for the copy of Helping Hedgehog Home, given in return for an honest review.

For more Weasel Wednesday and Choklit stealing, follow Karin on Twitter or Facebook.

Storm Hound Blog Tour

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

The Wild Hunt

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

The dogs didn’t look very impressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ysgyryd Fawr or Skirrid Mountain near Abergavenny

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

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

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

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

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

Anticipated Reads of 2019

January

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

February

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

March

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

April

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

May

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

June

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

July

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

And in the second half of the year…

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

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

Meet The… (Pirates and Ancient Greeks)

James Davies

Big Picture Press
Review written by Daddy Worm

These two hardback non-fiction releases follow in the footsteps of Meet The Ancient Romans and Meet The Ancient Egyptians. In our house these books are beloved by 6 year old Kit and Mum and Dad too. The same should be true in the rest of the world as they have wide appeal.

Contents of Ancient Greeks

Funny, engaging and stylish, their primary aim is surely to entertain and inform. But this is no fuddy-duddy school textbook – James Davies brings new life to well-worn topics, and finds quirky extras to amuse, shock and surprise (Kit’s favourite part of Ancient Egyptians is the mummification of pets!) The factual information is delivered concisely and backed up with the most amazing illustrations. So in Meet The Pirates, we learn who they were, where they came from, parts of the ship, how they navigated and so on. In Ancient Greeks, we are taken through the buildings, the myths, education, art, games and more – both volumes stretch to around 64 pages.

The illustrations (I said they were amazing), add humour and humanity to each page – so we get Homer writing an epic blog; pirates claiming “This looks nothing like the brochure”; Athens’ Got Talent; parrots squawking “Who’s a pretty boy then?” to pirates on a catwalk; Alexander the Great sticking Post-It notes all over the countries of a map claiming ‘Mine’; oh, and some cat references (follow James on Twitter for updates on his own cat, Audrey). Sometimes the humour is hysterically childish, sometimes it makes you laugh out loud, but it will always bring a smile to your face, no matter how old you are.

Within the books we particularly enjoyed the cartoon retellings of historical sagas. Here James really excels with a traditional-looking cartoon format for Pandora’s Box (Ancient Greeks) or The Strange Case of Alexander Selkirk (Pirates). We’d love to see James get the opportunity to work on a comic or graphic novel.

Endpapers of Meet The… Ancient Greeks

We should also mention the design of this series which has been very well-considered. Olivia Cook and Marty Cleary get the credit at the front of the books – James has designed his own font, and it’s clear that the whole book, from endpapers to maps, timelines, subheadings and page edges, have been thought about in great detail.

Page edges with design showing subtitles

Perfect for all ages; from inquisitive 5 year olds, fact-seeking 8 year olds, eager 12 year olds, unashamed 43 year olds and older – we can’t live without these books at the moment, and don’t think you should have to either.

James Davies is from Wales, now living in Bristol. You can see more of his bold, graphic style at his website. You can also follow him on Twitter.

The Meet The… series is published by Big Picture Press and can be bought from your local independent bookshop or direct from the publisher.

Firefly Review 2018

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

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

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

Thrilling Series for Mature Readers

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

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

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

Middle Grade Masterpieces

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

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

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

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

For a full review of the book, click here.

Fart Gags and Funnybones

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

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

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

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

Christmas Books of 2018

In this post, we take a look at our pick of essential Christmas books, all by authors of Wales.

The Newborn Child (Otter-Barry Books) tells the story of a child born to change the world. A special child; a baby born of a first-time mother. Jackie Morris’ detailed, thoughtful and glorious artwork accompanies her own tender poetry. The focus on the innocence and fragility of a newborn and the pure love and adoration of a mother, make this a book for life, not just for Christmas.

The Dog That Saved Christmas (Barrington Stoke) is Nicola Davies’ newly published book telling the story of someone who dislikes the festive season. There are plenty who feel uncomfortable, anxious or lonely at Christmas and this dyslexia-friendly tale shines a light and will help to develop empathy amongst its readers. Brilliantly illustrated by Mike Byrne, the titular dog comes to the rescue, making Christmas a more bearable, even loving time. (See our full reviews of this book).

There are more dogs in Sam Hay and Loretta Schauer’s A Very Corgi Christmas picture book (Simon & Schuster). And what gorgeous corgis they are! Belle keeps getting under everyone’s feet at Buckingham Palace so she sneaks out to explore the bright lights of the city. She’s given a fabulous guided tour by Pip, experiencing the various highs of London life. A simply wonderful story with irresistible illustrations make this an absolute delight (with a super cute ending).

A Child’s Christmas in Wales is one of the best read-alouds ever – Daddy Worm loves channelling Richard Burton and getting his tongue around the sing-song phrases and Thomasisms. Full of humour, dry and profound as the narrator reminisces on Christmases past, this classic short vignette is evergreen. Our own version (Puffin Books) contains the evocative illustrations of Edward Ardizzone which we cannot do without.

Santa’s Greatest Gift (Gwasg Gomer), was nominated for this year’s Tir na-nOg Award and is an excellent picture book about Gwydion who ends up helping Santa to deliver presents. However, Santa has forgotten Gwydion’s present so has to think on the spot! This is a real favourite in our house particularly due to the beautiful illustrations of Valériane Leblond. Tudur Dylan Jones rhyming verse is engaging and fast moving.

The Christmas Extravaganza Hotel (Little Tiger) is a new offering from Tracey Corderoy and Tony Neal. It’s a big, bold and bright picture book with real heart. Frog arrives at Bear’s house thinking he’s in for the time of his life at the amazing Christmas Extravaganza Hotel – but he’s not the best map reader and has taken more than a few wrong turns. Bear, being a kind and compassionate soul, doesn’t want Frog to be disappointed at Christmas time so tries to equal the promises of the glossy brochure. Here’s a book that shows there is awe and wonder in simple pleasures and that spending time together can bring fulfilment and joy.

The Clockwork Crow (Firefly Press) is destined to win yet more awards for Catherine Fisher and is a highly satisfying read by an extremely talented writer. A victorian Christmas in Wales promises to be everything Seren dreamed of, but there’s more to Plas-y-Fran than meets the eye. The Mid-Wales manor house has a gateway to the underworld which Seren must explore (with the flying, talking Clockwork Crow) if she is to solve the mystery of the missing Tomos. Enchanting, riveting, accomplished and highly enjoyable middle grade fiction.

Author Q and A: Peter Bell

We are delighted to be part of The Train to Impossible Places blog tour and so pleased that Peter was able to answer our questions. The Train to Impossible Places was highly anticipated by the Worms and instantly cemented itself into Noah’s favourite books when he read it a few months back. It is a great story and, as Noah’s review implies, everything you could possibly want from a book – a thrilling fast-paced adventure with quirks that twist and reshape the fantasy genre. Read Noah’s review here. Now over to Peter…

What are you reading at the moment?

Orphan, Monster, Spy by Matt Killeen, and it’s every bit as good as I’d heard – tense, brutal and moving. I really can’t wait to see what Matt does next. I’m also working my way through the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, which are tremendous fun. He’s coming to Cardiff in November, and I want to be up to date before he gets here.

What are your favourite children’s books?

Too many to list here, but off the top of my head:

Pretty much the whole Roald Dahl cannon, especially The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr Fox. I loved them when I was young, and my son is now a big fan too. He dressed as a Vermicious Knid for World Book Day last year!

The Worst Witch books by Jill Murphy. Such a great and accessible fantasy series – the Harry Potter of its day. It’s so good to know it’s still going strong.

Murder Mystery is a genre that’s largely passed me by, but I’ve absolutely loved the Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens. She re-purposes all the tropes so cleverly, while keeping the stories grounded in character. I look forward to reading the new one.

The Accidental Pirates books by Claire Fayers are everything fantasy adventure stories should be – inventive, exciting and funny. Her most recent books, Mirror Magic and Stormhound are equally good, but I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for an end to the Pirates trilogy one day.

And finally, anything with Diana Wynne Jones’s name on the cover!

Where and when do you write?

I mostly write in the mornings after dropping the kids off at school. I’ve got a small study at the back of the house, and I’ll get a few hours done there before lunch, with maybe another hour or so in the evening after the kids have gone to bed. My favourite mornings are the ones when Claire Fayers and I meet up at a local coffee shop and sit in silence for two and a half hours, typing away. They serve coffee in pint mugs, which endears the place to me greatly, and they’ve got to know us so well that they know our orders off by heart. 

We know that The Train To Impossible Places began as a bedtime story for your children. Is the finished version much different? What didn’t make the final cut?

Pretty much everything that was in the bedtime story ended up in the book, albeit in a much more polished form. The only thing that didn’t survive the jump was a flying visit to a supermarket, so the crew of the train could stock up on bananas. Every other change I made was adding material, rather than taking away – the whole sub plot of Captain Neoma, the observatory and Lord Meridian grew out of the editing process. The finished book is almost 15,000 words longer than my first draft.

How do you choose names for your characters?

I try to make their names reflect their nature or status in some way. So the Lady Crepuscula comes from the word “crepuscular”, which is an adjective describing anything to do with twilight. Her opposite number, Lord Meridian, takes his name from the point at which the sun is at its highest, suggesting enlightenment. He is a librarian, after all!

Some names, like Fletch and Wilmot, just came to me out of the blue and I’ve no idea why. But they stuck immediately.

We think the book has hints of The Magic Faraway Tree. What else has influenced the storyline?

Thank you for saying so! The Magic Faraway Tree books are the very first stories I remember from my childhood, and they’ve shaped all my reading ever since, so I guess it’s inevitable that there would be a dose of that in my writing.

I drew pretty heavily on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, but only in terms of tone – I like to think that Suzy and the trolls would feel at home making deliveries to Ankh Morpork. Because each of the Impossible Places is different, I can effectively make each one a genre – or at least a collection of genre tropes – unto itself. So the Obsidian Tower has strong echoes of Tolkien, while the Topaz Narrows are every pirate adventure story you’ve ever read.

Are we right in thinking you’d love to write an episode of Doctor Who?

Let’s just say that if they ever ask me, I wouldn’t refuse.

How important is a sense of place to your writing? In particular, has living in Wales any influence on your writing?

A sense of place is always important, especially if your characters are travelling from place to place, as mine are. I want the reader to get excited about exploring these strange new worlds, so I always try and include a few details to help ground them. Trollville is probably the most fully-realised world in the book, as we spend quite a bit of time there (and we’ll see even more of it in the sequel!) Its post-industrial feel is definitely informed by my childhood in south Wales. It was everywhere – in the architecture and the street layouts, in the art and in the chimneys of the Llanwern Steelworks, which was still active at the time. And you never had to go far to meet a retired miner.

Our school caretaker was an old man who had gone down the pits at the age of 11. I remember one day he showed our class his missing fingers and recounted each of the accidents that had claimed them. He was the basis of the Old Guard – the retired Posties who spend their time comparing tales of daring and disaster.

The Train To Impossible Places is the first in a series, called A Cursed Delivery. What is the appeal in writing a number of books rather than a single story?

It’s a tremendous privilege to be given the chance to tell more stories with these characters. It’s allowed me to think of new directions to take them in, and new and interesting parts of the Impossible Places to explore. It’s also allowed me to become a full time professional writer for the first time in my life, which is a childhood dream come true.

The finished hardback is delightfully illustrated by Flavia Sorrentino. Should we judge your book by its cover and how important was it for you to have some internal illustration?

You should definitely judge the book by BOTH its covers, because they’re gorgeous. My favourite is the hidden cover underneath the dust jacket – my editors at Usborne presented me with a framed print of it at the launch party, and it’s now got pride of place in my study. 

Usborne made the decision very early on to include interior illustrations, and I was very happy to go along with the plan – I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want a few illustrations with their text if given the chance. And Flavia’s work is just gorgeous. I love her expressionist style, and she’s absolutely nailed the characters.

What question have we forgotten to ask you?

You haven’t asked me who the best Doctor Who is. And the correct answer is: all of them. Although Sylvester McCoy is the best of the best.

 

There have been some really excellent blog posts as part of this tour. Why not check out some of the other hosts?

Author Q and A: Catherine Fisher

The Clockwork Crow is Catherine Fisher’s latest novel – a beautifully crafted enchanted wintry tale for children. Catherine is an acclaimed author and poet of over 30 books and we are delighted that she took the time to answer our questions.

Born in Newport, she graduated from the University of Wales and has worked in education, archaeology and broadcasting. She has been shortlisted for numerous prizes and awards including the Smarties Prize (The Conjuror’s Game), the Whitbread Prize (The Oracle) and the Tir-na-nOg Award (The Candle Man / Corbenic).

What are you reading at the moment?

I always read a few books at once. At the moment it’s an odd mixture – Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel,  The Fall of Gondolin by JRR Tolkien, and Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography!

Could you tell us how you got into writing?

I was about 11, and started with poems, at first in school and then at home. I had a whole notebook full of them. I only decided to write a novel when I was about 19 or 20.

Where and when do you write?

I try to write every morning between 9 and 1. I have room with a desk looking onto the garden, and that’s my usual place, though the good thing about writing is that you can do it anywhere.

How do you choose names for your characters?

Sometimes the names just come,like Seren in the Clockwork Crow, or Finn and Claudia in Incarceron. Other times I have to make a list and choose. I’m always looking at names on TV programmes or in books for ideas. I have a names page in a notebook with a few saved up for future books, if I can find the characters to suit them.  

Which books and authors have inspired you in your career?

Alan Garner’s fantasies, Tolkien, Robert Holdstock’s weird tales, Arthur Machen, who I have always found a great writer. Also a million fairy tales and myths and legends,Norse and Welsh and Irish and Greek.  In terms of poetry, Keats,Yeats, David Jones and George Mackay Brown.

A lot of your writing is set in Wales. How important is a sense of place to your books? 

In some books like Darkhenge or Crown of Acorns, very important because the story rises out of the landscape and history of that place. In Corbenic I used real places in Wales to set a very strange tale. I think Wales is an amazing place and full of untold stories.

The Tir na n-Og Award celebrates books with authentic Welsh backgrounds. You won the award in 1995 and have been nominated twice more. How does it feel to be recognised with literary awards?

It’s always a great honour and encouragement. But I know that many, many really good books are overlooked, so I try not to get down if I am not nominated. It doesn’t mean the book is any less good.

The book is published with Firefly Press, an independent Welsh publisher who we love. How did this come about?

I have been aware of Firefly since they started and they are doing such a great job for Welsh children’s fiction. I wanted to write a Christmas book and suggested the idea to Penny Thomas, who was very keen to publish it. I was very happy to write it for them.

What inspired The Clockwork Crow?

Christmas, the idea of a Crow you could put together from pieces, lots of snow and ice. I wrote the book last winter and as I was working it kept on snowing outside my window, so I think the snowglobe has a real magic!

Was it difficult / fun / strange to give a voice to the Crow?

Not difficult but great fun. He had to be tetchy and bossy and yet quite likeable underneath. And vain,of course.

The Clockwork Crow is a tale “of snow and stars”. Are you a fan of wintry weather?

I have memories of when I was very small and there were really bitterly cold winters when everything froze. I love snow and the dark starry skies, and Northern, arctic stories. The Snow Queen is one of my favourite books.

The new book is written for 9-12 year olds (though Daddy Worm really really enjoyed it!). You also have poetry and YA writing on the go. How do you approach writing for different age groups?

Each is different and arrives differently. Poetry is much more intense and every word has to be tested. Young Adult and children’s books differ in the age of the hero/ine and the complexity of the story.  

Noah (aged 11) has just finished The Clockwork Crow tonight. He’s not read anything else by you. Which books of yours would you suggest he reads next?

I hope he enjoyed it! Maybe a book called The Glass Tower; Three doors to the Otherworld, which contains 3 of my early stories. Or even The Relic Master, the first of a set. Or maybe The Obsidian Mirror.

Is it fair to ask you to name the favourite book you’ve written?

Corbenic. I’m not sure why but I like that character and his story a lot.

What’s next for Catherine Fisher?

I have a new poetry book out with Seren Books in April called The Bramble King, which I am very excited about. And I am working on the sequel to the Clockwork Crow, so look out for more of Seren, Tomos and the Crow.

 

Many many thanks to Catherine for answering our questions and thanks to Firefly Press for organising. You can learn more about Catherine by visiting her website. To order The Clockwork Crow, visit Firefly’s website.