“I don’t think I’ve ever loved a cover more or been so involved with a character than with Skrimsli,” wrote author Nicola Davies recently. Skrimsli, the prequel to double-Carnegie nominated The Song That Sings Us will publish with Firefly Press in September 2023 with a cover by artist Jackie Morris. Both author and artist are hugely talented and it is a real thrill to see them continue their creative relationship with a second collaboration. Jackie and Nicola have been firm friends for many years, both have a passion for the wild and a belief in active hope. Davies calls Morris’ cover ‘glorious’ whilst Morris says Davies’ novel is ‘a triumph’.
For the first time, here is the cover…
Nicola told us, “Jackie was one of the first to love my tiger Skrimsli and her cover catches his spirit and the soul of the story. Her beautiful map makes the world in my head accessible for everyone.”
Nicola recently gave her twitter followers a sneak preview of writing from the new book:
The cover lettering is by textual artist Stephen Raw, who has exhibited widely, and is currently artist-in-residence at Manchester Cathedral. You may recognise this combination of artist and calligrapher (Morris/Raw) from the Robin Hobb books.
The synopsis from the publisher is as follows:
Skrimsli is the second fantasy adventure from author Nicola Davies set in a world where animals and humans can sometimes share their thoughts. It traces the early life of Skrimsli, the tiger sea captain who stole readers’ hearts in The Song that Sings Us.
He and his friends, Owl and Elo, must escape the clutches of the tyrannical circus owner Kobret Majak, and his twin assassin-acrobats, then stop a war and save the ancient forest, where the Tiger, and the Owl are sacred guardians. Skrimsli and his friends are helped by the Palatine, desert princess and her eagle, a chihuahua who thinks she’s a wolf, a horse with heart of gold and the crew of a very unusual ship.
This is a story full of excitement and danger, that explores themes of friendship, loyalty, identity and love, in the context of some of humanity’s toughest problems.
A recent post in Jackie’s online journal describes her approach to the stunning map that will grace Skrimsli. Follow the link to read about this fascinating process. The full cover jacket is shown below.
Skrimsli, written by Nicola Davies is scheduled to be published on 14 Sept 2023 in foiled hardback with cover, map and internal illustrations by Jackie Morris. Huge thanks to Firefly Press for inviting us to reveal the cover; it is a great honour. Preorder your copy now direct from their website.
We are absolutely thrilled to be taking part in this Blog Tour for Swansea-based author and illustrator, Helen and Thomas Docherty. They really are the perfect picturebook pairing and have just published yet another playful, engaging and colourful story that will entertain by the bucketload.
The Snaffle has arrived in the city and she just wants to play – but everyone is distracted by phones, tablets and devices. They don’t seem to have time for each other. So the Snaffle becomes The Screen Thief and embarks on a mission to change the city into a more playful and more caring place. Ultimately, eating screens doesn’t do this for her, and leaves her feeling lonely, but a wonderful friend called Max is kind and caring and together they put things right.
Clearly ‘screen time’ is a huge issue for parents and teachers and striking a balance is important in all our lives, so this book will appeal to everyone looking to provide more than a subtle dose of encouragement to adopt healthier habits.
Helen’s joyous rhyming text is funny and great fun to read aloud. Thomas’ illustrations are so vibrant and full of detail – we’ve been poring over them over several bedtimes, reading the emotions of the characters and looking how they change through the story.
It’s totally apt therefore that Thomas joins us on this blog tour to give an insight into the illustration process.
Creating the Snaffle: Thomas Docherty on illustrating THE SCREEN THIEF
Throughout the story, the Snaffle
goes through a whole range of emotions, so above all she had to be expressive. At
the same time she gets up to plenty of mischief, so she needed to be dynamic. I
also had to make sure that she was loveable. After all, she acts with the
innocent impulses of a small child and that vulnerability comes through at the
end of the story.
As always, she went through many
versions before we decided on the final design. From the start, her general
body shape remained more or less the same. The hard part was solving the
question of how to resolve her face and head.
In the end I found that the long ears helped to make her very expressive
and the trunk was fun and surprising. It was also good for sniffing and tasting
It mentions in the text that the
Snaffle is small and blue. I was going to be painting the illustrations by hand
and I wanted the Snaffle to stand out. I found a bottle of blue ink that I
particularly liked, renamed it SNAFFLE BLUE and used it only for painting the
I had a lot of fun hiding the Snaffle
in the library, the cinema and the TV shop and I hope children will enjoy
looking for her in the illustrations. My favourite moment where she eats a
screen is when she is walking away with the ice cream sign from outside the
When I’m creating a book, lots of the
ideas never get included. If there was one set of pictures I would have liked
to keep, it was of the Snaffle reacting to the different tastes and textures of
the screens. In the end there just wasn’t room for everything.
One early idea that I’m glad was
taken out was a moment where the Snaffle is arrested by the police for eating
everyone’s screens. It’s just too sad!
The city is full of so many other
characters. Originally I imagined these as made up creatures but in the end we
went for animals, which made the Snaffle stand out more.
I had so much fun drawing them all
glued to their screens, oblivious to everything around them.
Of course the Snaffle wants to join
Creating The City
One of the fun things about
illustrating The Screen Thief was
that it is set in a city. I hadn’t drawn a city before in a picture book and I
was excited about all the visual opportunities that this presented. It also
meant a huge amount of work as I had to plan the city from scratch.
At the beginning, I tried a slightly
futuristic city with rounded buildings and bubble cars. However, in the end we
decided that it would be more relatable to children if it was set in the
The most complicated image to compose
was the first page when the Snaffle arrives in the city. I tried lots of
options including a train station and coming out of a subway. In the end I
wanted to show all the main locations in the story on this page, so I went for
a roof top view of a square. You can see Max’s house, the Library, the cinema
and the park.
I even drew myself a map to make sure
I knew where all the other places the Snaffle visits made sense.
The city is full of shops selling all
sorts of things (I actually walked past a cactus shop just like this recently!).
Of course the Snaffle is only interested in the TV shop…
As always, some of my rough ideas
didn’t make it into the book. I did some sketches of inside the animal’s homes
and some other locations which would have been fun to include.
Although cities are full of life, the
Snaffle soon discovers that they can be lonely places too. There is a moment in
the story where despite all the screens the Snaffle has gobbled, she still
feels empty inside. What’s missing? Nothing that a screen can give her, what
the Snaffle needs is a friend. Setting this scene in a deserted ally seemed to
fit the Snaffle’s mood.
The park is not mentioned in the text,
but it seemed the perfect place to develop the key message of the story. At the
beginning, the Snaffle comes across children in the playground. They are so
absorbed in their screens that they are not even playing. However, by the end
of the story the park has been transformed into a magical space full of activity.
Max and the Snaffle have managed to bring everyone together.
Huge thanks to Thomas Docherty for preparing this blog and sharing his insight and these amazing images.
Books to develop insight into the culture, people and history of Wales
This St. David’s Day, we’ve decided to take a look at some brilliant stories with a Welsh context. These are books that will fire the imagination and connect children to the landscape and the communities of Wales, both now and in the past. We hope that our suggested reading list is fuel for teachers, parents and reading enthusiasts from Holyhead to Haverfordwest and Highmoor Hill to Hawarden. We also have some suggestions for activities that will help to get to know these books better.
Reception (Age 5)
Tad-cu’s Bobble Hat was Malachy Doyle’s 100th book and was recently included in the Iechyd Da wellbeing pack from the Welsh Books Council delivered to all Welsh primaries. Set in the Cambrian Mountains not far from Machynlleth, the story features a boy and his tadcu (grandfather) on walks through the hills. On one particular trip the snow falls and tadcu lends his bobble hat which is then lost. The book, illustrated by Dorry Spikes, deals with the loss of a grandparent in a very gentle way and the symbolism of the changing seasons can be explored whilst connecting with the intergenerational theme and the welsh landscapes. ‘A touching story that conveys the warmth and joy between two generations, and handles the universal themes of love, loss and renewal with gentleness. On one walk, as Tadcu gets older, his special bobble hat is lost. Winter sets in and with it, life dies. When the thaw of spring arrives, the boy returns to the hillside walk to look for the hat. Its discovery brings comfort and a renewed sense of love and positive memories.’
Year 1 (Age 6)
The Quilt by Valeriane Leblond is a wonderful picturebook that can be read and enjoyed by any age. Children and adults will be captivated by the gorgeous illustrations that take us from rural Wales at the turn of the 20th century to the New World via Liverpool. This book connects us to our past but could also open up conversations about migration, homes, family, travel as well as Wales’ unique landscapes. ‘A beautifully illustrated story about emigration and homesickness. A little girl lives with her parents on a farm near the coast, around the turn of the twentieth century. Times are hard and the family decides to emigrate to the USA, raising the fare by selling all of their possessions except for a black and red quilt lovingly hand-made by the mother. The little girl feels homesick and sad at times, but the memories and love contained in the quilt help her overcome this and adapt to her new life. The book offers a message of hope which is sure to strike a chord with many adult readers: when things look bleak, remember that happy times will return.’
Little Honey Bee also has illustrations by Valeriane Leblond and is written by Caryl Lewis. The Welsh landscapes are evident throughout the story which will connect readers to the rich plantlife of their locality through a sensitive story about a bee-keeping grandma. ‘One wintry night, Elsi is left on her grandmother’s doorstep. Elsi is as silent as snow until Grandma shows her a secret at the bottom of the garden…’
Year 2 (Age 7)
Owen and the Mountain by Malachy Doyle and Giles Greenfield has echoes of Tadcu’s Bobble Hat in that it highlights a warm and loving relationship between a boy and his grandfather. Climbing the remote Welsh mountain can be seen as a metaphor that is difficult for both grandfather and grandson. Ultimately this is a story about love, achieving your heart’s desire and the glory of nature. ‘Owen is visiting his grandad and he wants to climb the mountain. But his grandad is not sure. The journey is long and tiring and when they succeed they are not only happy to have completed a difficult task but have also learnt a bit more about each other.’
The Seal Children by Jackie Morris is a story built on the celtic myth of half-woman half-seal selkies, and is set just above St. David’s Head. ‘When a fisherman falls in love with a selkie she gives him her sealskin as a sign of her love, and bears him two children, Ffion and Morlo, before returning to her own people. When a stranger comes to the village, telling of a land far away, the children remember their mother’s stories of the cities of gold and pearls beneath the waves…’ The Hamilton Trust have written teaching notes for The Seal Children aimed at Year 4, and you can hear Jackie read the book below.
Cities in the Sea
While considering books for this list, it became clear that there are many excellent quality stories about the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod – the prosperous land accidently flooded when the gates to the low-lying kingdom were left open. These three versions are suitable to read together (and work great as a read-aloud) to bridge the journey between Year 2 and Year 3.
Year 3 (Age 8)
Wendy White has some really brilliant stories all about Welsh communities. Short manageable chapters make these great books for newly independent readers to try for themselves. But there’s great humour to be had in reading aloud – especially the Welsh caricatures in the seasonally apt St. David’s Day Is Cancelled.
The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo is a classic story that has to be included in this list. About to mark its 35th birthday following the recent TV adaptation by Owen Sheers, The Snow Spider is another story that features the Welsh landscape almost as an additional character. It’s also great for empathy as readers have to come to terms with the reactions of different family members to the disappearance of Gwyn’s sister. More mature readers could be encouraged to investigate the links to the Mabinogion. ‘Gwyn’s grandmother leaves him five gifts: a brooch, a piece of dried seaweed, a tin whistle, a scarf, and a broken toy horse. She tells him they will help make him a magician – but can Gwyn use them to bring his missing sister, Bethan, home?’
Year 4 (Age 9)
Two books that have dual Italian-Welsh heritage are Sweet Pizza and King of the Sky. Both of these books provide opportunities for children to discover an important part of Welsh history – Italian cafes or ice-cream parlours were commonplace at one time. Sweet Pizza by G.R. Gemin, is about a South Wales valley café under threat; Joe, has an entrepreneurial spirit like his immigrant ancestors; he is unwilling to accept that the café is a lost cause and has ideas to breathe new life into it and make it the centre of the community once more. The pride that Joe feels for his own heritage, his ancestors and the valley in which he lives is obvious and infectious in this heart-warming book. ‘Joe loves his Italian heritage: the language, the opera, the lasagne! But it’s hard to celebrate his Italian roots in Bryn Mawr, South Wales, where his mam is sick of running the family’s tatty café. Just like his great-grandfather, who opened the café in 1929, Joe is an entrepreneur. He vows to save the family business, and to spice up the tired High Street with a little Italian flavour!’
King of the Sky, meanwhile, features an Italian boy who is finding it hard to call Wales home. Only when he meets the pigeon-racing Mr Evans does he begin to connect and start to belong. Nicola Davies’ perfectly pitched prose and Laura Carlin’s earthy illustrations make this a delightfully evocative book about Wales’ recent past. The book is one of many on this list that would work with all ages, and there are lots of teacher notes available to download. We particularly like the ones from Walker and Amnesty. We made a video about King of the Sky when it was shortlisted for the Tir na n-Og Award in 2018. It made me smile to go back, so here it is again…
The most recent winner of the Tir na n-Og Award (an award for children’s books that have an authentic Welsh context), is Storm Hound by Claire Fayers. I have recently used Storm Hound as a Whole Class Read in my Year 4 class so can vouch that it totally engaged and enthused the children. Based on both Norse and Welsh mythology the story centres on a family new to Abergavenny who adopt a puppy from the Dog Centre; he just happens to be one of the Hounds of Odin’s Wild Hunt! Funny, fast-paced and hugely satisfying with lots of layers to unpeel. ‘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 twelve-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 . . . 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.’
The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr was only published at the start of 2021 but it already feels like it belongs in this list. In fact, it feels like a classic as you read it and I’m sure many schools will be adopting it for their teaching as the word begins to spread. It’s a brilliant World War II evacuee story that we described as “a moving love song to the valleys”.
‘When Jimmy is evacuated to a small village in Wales, it couldn’t be more different from London. Green, quiet and full of strangers, he instantly feels out of place. But then he finds a skull hidden in a tree, and suddenly the valley is more frightening than the war. Who can Jimmy trust? His brother is too little; his best friend has changed. Finding an ally in someone he never expects, they set out together to uncover the secrets that lie with the skull. What they discover will change Jimmy – and the village – forever.‘
The Clockwork Crow is a world-class fantasy for children by Catherine Fisher, set at the end of the Victorian era. Taking the myth of the Tylwyth Teg and using it to inspire a trilogy of stories located in a Mid-Wales manor house, provides a treasure trove of interesting links. The eponymous Crow has a mystery of his own, but the talking corvid is not the central character. Seren is an orphan who seeks to belong and is determined to solve the central mystery of a missing child. ‘A magical story of snow and stars; a mysterious gothic Christmas tale set in a frost-bound Victorian country mansion. When orphaned Seren Rees is given a mysterious package by a strange and frightened man on her way to her new home, she reluctantly takes it with her. But what is in the parcel? Who are the Family who must not be spoken of, and can the Crow help Seren find Tomos, before the owner of the parcel finds her?’
Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day is an extraordinary book. A witty, gritty, profound adventure set in the heart of Snowdonia. It’s got sibling rivalry, dragons and mountains. It’s fresh, it’s real, it’ll make you cry. One reviewer described it as “Jacqueline Wilson meets Alan Garner” and there’s no doubt that this is a raw coming-of-age adventure. ‘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…’
Gaslight is a highly atmospheric and very dramatic historical fiction set in Victorian Cardiff. Wales’ Children’s Laureate, Eloise Williams has crafted a rich and vividly descriptive novel that will have you on the edge of your seat. Nansi is the central character, trying to solve the disappearance of her mother, whilst scraping a living between bit parts on the Empire Theatre stage and thieving from rich households. Nansi dreams of finding her own identity and freeing herself from the perilous life she leads. In parts bleak and brutal, this is a gripping tale that will fire many imaginations. ‘All Nansi knows is that her mother disappeared on the day she was fished out of Cardiff docks. Now, in 1899, she can’t remember anything else. With no other family to turn to, she works for Sid at the Empire Theatre, sometimes legally, sometimes thieving to order, trying to earn enough money to hire a detective to find her mother. Everything changes when Constance and Violet join the theatre, both with their own dark secrets. Nansi is forced to be part of Violet’s crooked psychic act. But it’s when Constance recognises her, and realises who her mother must be, that Nansi’s world is turned upside down forever. She is soon on the run for her life and she will have to risk everything if she’s going to find the truth.’
Year 7+ (Age 12 and up)
Traditionally our blog has focussed on the primary years, but as our children grow up (two of them are now over 12) we are learning more about books for more mature children and young adults. We are therefore delighted to recommend these titles for secondary age children.
Non-Fiction for all ages
The book Wales on the Map was published a couple of years ago, and is an indispensable guide to Wales, it’s regions, landscapes, culture and history. It really is essential reading for all and is presented with gorgeous double page spread illustrations in a large format book. Elin Meek has done the research and written the little facts in readable bitesize nuggets while illustrations are by the ridiculously talented Valeriane Leblond, who has several books on this page.
For those looking to explore specific periods of history in Wales, then the Wicked Wales series published by Gomer presents the information in a similar manner to the Horrible Histories books.
Folk Tales and Legends
We’d also like to recommend some folk tales and legends to spark your imagination – there are a number of really fantastic versions available. A special mention for the newly published Welsh Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends by Claire Fayers which is a cracking compilation of short stories – some familiar, some not so familiar, but all told with Claire’s friendly fireside storytelling voice – there’s a real focus on building each story and telling it well. It’s going down a storm in our house with all ages from 8 to 46 (am sure it appeals to older and younger too!).
Claire is also contributing towards a new collection of stories from The Mabinogion. The Mab has now received full funding for publication and will feature stories from some of our best-loved authors, put together by Eloise Williams and Matt Brown. You can pre-order your copy here.
Here’s a gallery of other folk tales and legends that have captivated us:
5 Activities to encourage Reading for Pleasure with books from Wales
Many of these ideas are credited to research carried out by the Open University Reading for Pleasure groups, in association with the UKLA (UK Literacy Association). I have provided links to the examples of practice on their website, where relevant. These are all tried and tested methods in my own classroom and can be easily transferred to the home setting. This is not about comprehension tasks or analysis of writing – it’s about firing a spark and reading for pleasure!
1. Book Blanket
A Book Blanket is essentially where you lay out books and encourage readers to look, read the blurbs, dip in, see what appeals and then, importantly, talk about it. If you’re in school you can do this with a whole class and have a little crib sheet that they fill in, or tick the ones they like the look of and want to read later. At home, you can engage in more detailed conversations about why books appeal; what do we think they will be about; have we read anything similar? Book blankets are normally carried out on a ‘theme’ so collecting together books about Wales is an ideal opportunity. If you don’t have many books about Wales, you could widen it to books by Welsh authors.
Similar to the Book Blanket, Book Tasting is a means to show children that there are more genres, more authors, more stories to be found. It is about widening their reading repertoires and showing them new stories in a fun and interesting way. Provide a selection of books for children to look at. Make it fun by turning the classroom into a cafe – tablecloths, menus, flowers… that kind of thing. You could put on an apron and be the waiter/waitress attending to the cafe customers. Children can write down the menu of books they have chosen and discuss with friends which ‘flavours’ they enjoyed most and would like more of. Again, it’s important to encourage ‘book talk’ – find out why particular books are chosen. A special Welsh cafe for St. David’s Day would be rather wonderful wouldn’t it?
Here’s one for the grown-ups. The research by Open University shows that a teacher who has good knowledge of the available books is much better placed to give a suitable recommendation and foster reading for pleasure in the classroom or home. If you want a vibrant and diverse collection of books for children to explore, which should include books from Wales, then you have to develop your knowledge of these texts.
Much has been written about the reliance on celebrity authors and also the reliance on the authors of our childhoods like Dahl and Blyton, but for many teachers it’s seen as a professional responsibility to increase their own knowledge of available books.
So how about this: get out a map of Wales and place the books in their geographical locations. Are there gaps on the map? Do you have books that children in your community can relate to? Are there some places in Wales that inspire more stories than others? Do the characters reflect the realities of the children you teach/parent? You may want to explore the Tir na n-Og shortlists of the past in conjunction with our blog post.
Adopt an author is an idea to engage with one author and find out more about their work. In the context of Books from Wales, you could choose any of the authors, although it would work particularly well with Claire Fayers, Eloise Williams, Jenny Nimmo, Valeriane Leblond, Catherine Fisher, Jenny Sullivan, Sian Lewis, Jackie Morris as these names have more than 1 book set in Wales. You could widen it to include authors from Wales – in which case this graphic will be useful…
Children could be encouraged to become an expert in that author and produce a presentation; make promotional posters; record readings (try to keep the focus on the book, themes and connections – this isn’t a biography.)
5. Write a Letter
This is a bit old school, but authors love to hear when children have enjoyed their books. Writing a letter helps to connect the child to the book and to the author. Why not get children to write to the author of their favourite book set in Wales, explaining why they like the book so much? P.G. Bell, Welsh author of The Train to Impossible Places, is a big fan of letter writing and has produced some supportive resources.
Composing a tweet is a similar idea – and sometimes more challenging for a child to express themselves in a limited number of words.
We are absolutely delighted to be able to reveal the cover to the 3rd installment of Grace-Ella’s adventures, written by Sharon Marie-Jones with illustrations by Adriana J Puglisi.
Grace-Ella: Pixie Pandemonium promises yet more fun, adventure and magic with everyone’s favourite young spell-maker and her cat, Mr Whiskins. Publishing with Firefly Press in June 2021, Pixie Pandemonium continues the school-based series, promising naughty pixies and an environmental theme.
So here’s what you’ve been waiting for…
The cover is designed by Claire Brisley with illustration by Adriana J Puglisi. We love how the three covers in the series compliment each other so well…
Here is a summary of Pixie Pandemonium:
When Buddy the pixie smuggles himself into her backpack after Witch Camp, Grace-Ella lets him stay, even though Mr Whiskins tells her pixies are trouble. She takes him to school – but he soon escapes and causes all kinds of mischief.
It’s all fun, until searching for Buddy, Grace-Ella sees someone stealing the school’s charity fund. Will anyone believe her? With her best friends, a naughty pixie and of course Mr Whiskins by her side, can Grace-Ella save the School Fair?
We have a huge Grace-Ella fan here at Bookworms Wales HQ and she cannot wait to read this new installment. Grace-Ella: Spells for Beginners is “super-amazing and very imaginative“, whilst Witch Camp is “an awesome read!” Looking forward to adding a third picture and review here very soon…
Grace-Ella: Pixie Pandemonium is published on 17 June 2021 by Firefly Press. You can pre-order at the Firefly website (or buy the first two books at January sale prices) and follow Sharon on Twitter for more updates.
Huge thanks to Meg, Janet and Simone at Firefly for inviting us to do the reveal. They’ve got big things planned for this year, so keep an eye out on their social media channels too.
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.
“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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
“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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.