Cardiff Kids Lit Fest

Mummy, Nina and Kit saw two events at the iconic Cardiff City Hall

Last weekend saw the start of this year’s Cardiff Children’s Literature Festival and we were delighted to make the journey south to see a few events. The programme for the book-fest is brilliant, with a mix of new and established authors and illustrators appealing to a range of ages. It’s fantastic that the festival, now in its seventh year, celebrates Welsh authors and illustrators so strongly – and yet it has nationwide appeal. Taking place in a number of the city’s iconic buildings, this young festival is well-supported and feels prestigious.

Over the course of the weekend we saw four of Wales’ finest – starting with the wonderful Catherine Fisher who spoke at length to a keen audience of avid readers. Her latest book, The Clockwork Crow (Firefly Press) was shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Award and has recently been nominated for the Tir-na-nOg Award, for books with an authentic Welsh background. In the plush surroundings of Cardiff Central Library, Catherine spoke with passion about her love of fantasy; memories of her father reading Alice in Wonderland aloud; and her discovery of Tolkien.

She also told the enraptured gathering not to ask her about plotting or where she gets her ideas, or even why she writes for children! She writes what she writes, and what comes out are children’s books. Her ideas “just appear”, and she has “no idea” what is going to happen in the story when she sits down to write it. She doesn’t plan – but feels the thrill of the reader as the story forms on the page. Later, we asked Catherine if this meant that there was more focus on editing her books, and she told us that she does this as she writes. She tends to go through the book twice more, “fine-tuning the language” and making details crisp.

After reading from The Clockwork Crow, Catherine Fisher revealed that it would now be the start of a trilogy. The Velvet Fox is currently being written and will hopefully be published around October 2019. In that book, the crow will not be returned to his normal form and so a third book will be required to make that happen.

Noah met Catherine Fisher at the Cardiff Central Library

The Clockwork Crow has already been a big success and both author and publisher are hopeful that there is more to come. Thank you to Catherine for granting a private audience for a short time to ask a few questions, the final one of which was “If you could have any super-power, what would it be?” This led to much discussion and a book recommendation for Noah to read HG Wells’ ‘The Invisible Man’. In the end, Catherine decided that, provided she could avoid the difficulties that The Invisible Man had (not being able to hide his clothes, or disguise his drink from descending his food pipe) she would like to have that magical quality.

Next up was Gavin Puckett and his wonderful “Fables from the Stables” session at Cardiff City Hall. Gavin spoke about how having a child gave him the impetus to write. Several years ago, whilst driving, Gavin had heard a radio show posing the question, “Which sports are carried out backwards?” Puzzling this over, Gavin had driven past a lone horse in a field and thought to himself, “What could make a horse walk backwards?” Fables from the Stables was born!

Gavin’s session was fun and interactive, geared towards his 5-9 audience. The children and adults enjoyed the quizzes and were treated to a reading from Gavin’s latest book, Hayley, The Hairy Horse. Having been educated on the varied uses of horse hair, we were left on the proverbial cliff with the reading ending enigmatically: “Would the lovely, hairy Hayley lose her whole tail?!”

Mummy found herself volunteered (thanks to Nina and Kit) to represent a rock star in the Hendrix the Rocking Horse music round. Standing in front of a room full of children and adults, holding an inflatable guitar, with stripy socks on her wrists and red knickers on her head, was not how we had imagined our weekend to run. By the 5th tune Mummy became more accustomed to her role and rocked out with a reasonable amount of energy to “Peppa Pig” and “Old McDonald”. 

Kit and Nina with Gavin Puckett

Thanks to Gavin for a really fun and engaging session. The books have all been hits for the younger bookworms and the grown-ups found plenty to chortle at too!

Saturday afternoon was given over to The Girls by Lauren Ace and Jenny Løvlie. This session had a distinctively chilled out flavour with the audience encouraged to snuggle up with the fabulously enticing pile of cushions covering the front of the room. Girls made chairs, beds, cars and lounged comfortably whilst Lauren and Jenny spoke of their inspirations and ideas behind the illustrated story.

The importance of friendship was at the core of the session. The illustrations are beautiful, complimenting and enhancing the impact of the deceptively simple text. One of the great joys of The Girls is its ability to engage readers, regardless of age. Certainly the Mums in our session had as much to talk about as their daughters. Both Lauren and Jenny spoke of their own friendships and how growing up – either in a busy world of family and friends, or in a remote Nordic village (being the first child born in 12 years, amongst a population of 30!) – is shaped by the people we surround ourselves with. We were all delighted with the prospect of a follow-up, The Boys.

Nina and I enjoyed drawing our own best friends and the whole group were delighted to share names and descriptions of friends, who were then turned into perfect little drawings before our eyes. Løvlie’s talent is in her ability to translate human spirit into art and her humble “I’m an illustrator, it’s what I do,” understates her great talent. Løvlie delights in her work, describing how her soul lifts as she enters her workplace, where she is surrounded by what sounds like a remarkable hub of creatives. Lauren has started writing more recently and finds the outdoors to be the best location for harvesting her ideas.

Nina with Jenny and Lauren (in fabulous The Girls T-Shirt!)

The two women have an obvious bond, derived from this first collaboration. We were lucky enough to have a chance to speak with them both after the session and their warmth and enthusiasm for life in general was pretty intoxicating.

Following a well deserved rest (and a visit to a few Cardiff cafes, bookstores and record shops), and a good sleep, we returned the next day to meet Karin Celestine and her tribe of felted creatures. It was a real pleasure to meet Karin and spend some time with her afterwards, but none of us (Daddy worm especially) could contain our joy at meeting Bert, Bertram, Granny Dandelion, Grandpa Burdock and the gang. There was so much adoration in the room for these creatures, who under Karin’s leadership bring kindness, compassion, love and understanding in a world often blighted by worry, intolerance and cruelty.

Nina and Kit with Karin, Bert, Bertram, Granny Dandelion, Grandpa Burdock, Hedgehog…

Karin read from Bert’s Garden (Graffeg), a simply wonderful tale about the über-kind Bert who loves having a sit in the garden, with tea and biscuits, and welcoming visitors with beautiful produce. He is caring towards all creatures in his garden, including the slugs and snails and the bugs that wake him in the night. In the story, he provides a new home for some beetles who are enormously grateful for somewhere cosy and dry to live. The assembled group of 4-7 year olds were then encouraged to get stuck in to making bug houses, and were all delighted to take them home with a sticker and a packet of seeds.

The ninth book from Celestine and the Hare, Helping Hedgehog Home, is due for publication later this month and completes the Tribe ennealogy (yes, we looked that up – it’s an art work in nine parts). We had a wonderful chat with Karin* after the event and asked her a bit more about Hedgehog. She told us, “There is more humour in this one, but still with an ecological message.”

“A lot of the environmental issues 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 WWF there was nothing I could do – and for me, that’s not very positive. I want anybody to be able to do something to help. Similar to today’s event – anyone can make a bug house and make a difference and that’s what we did.”

*We’ll publish a full interview with Karin later this month to coincide with Helping Hedgehog Home.

In the back of each of Karin’s books there are some suggested craft activities that readers can engage with – such as making a bug house. In the new book, as the Hedgehog tries to find her way home by making a hot air balloon, readers can try their hand at making one from papier mâché. Do not worry too much about Hedgehog’s escapades, because as Karin revealed to us, “Granny saves the day in a very simple and sensible way.”

It’s fair to say that we had a brilliant weekend in Cardiff thanks to the Cardiff Children’s Literature Festival. A truly fabulous festival with a wide variety of events for all ages. The second weekend continues to feature amazing authors and we’re sad that we can’t get there ourselves. If you get the opportunity, do take a look at their website, even just to keep yourself in the loop for next year.

We received complimentary tickets to the above events thanks to Cardiff Children’s Literature Festival. They also helped us to arrange conversations with the authors.

The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher is published by Firefly and is out now.
Hayley The Hairy Horse by Gavin Puckett will be published by Faber and Faber in June 2019. Other Fables in the Stables books are available now.
The Girls by Lauren Ace and Jenny Løvlie is published by Caterpillar, part of the Little Tiger group and is out now.
Helping Hedgehog Home by Celestine and the Hare will be published by Graffeg in late April 2019. The 8 other books, including Bert’s Garden are available now.

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).

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.