Illustrator Q and A: Nathan Collins

Nathan Collins is an illustrator born and bred in South Wales. He graduated from Swansea College of Art, with a degree in Illustration. He works with traditional and digital media. In 2018 he illustrated the Anthology of Amazing Women (20Watt) and also produced new cover art for new editions of The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs (Piccadilly) – the Lewis Barnavelt series. The third book in the series will be republished with new artwork by Nathan on 21 March.

What are you reading at the moment?

The “To Read” collection is certainly building up lately, I recently completed a handful of classic stories that I’ve always wanted to read such as The Jungle Book and Peter Pan. I’ve also been sinking my teeth into John Bellairs’ series lately with it being an on-going commission; the magical themes are right up my street.

Could you tell us how you got into drawing?

It’s hard to say; drawing was always a go-to hobby of mine as a kid and it just continued from casual doodles to now working on commissions. I remember loving Maurice Sendak’s book ‘Where the Wild things Are’, and obsessively drawing creatures from the book along with my own additions; some of them probably made my parents a little worried.

Where and when do you work?

I work in a little humble studio space at home, I do miss being part of an open studio space with other illustrators but I’m just as productive here at home. Working hours tend to be all over the place, but I work mostly everyday. On days when I do get to chill out, I’m probably still thinking about the next illustration idea or sketching for fun.

How would you describe your illustration style?

The past year I’ve become a lot more comfortable in my style. I like to illustrate with clear and simple shapes in mind, always thinking of ways to make the silhouettes a little easier to read. I also play a lot with textured brushes too, recreating traditional mediums in digital brush form and painting digitally.

Did you always want to be an illustrator of books for children?

Not really, I never had a set direction on which creative field I wanted to fully dive into. It took a lot of time for me to decide what to study at university – when I finally settled on illustration it became really overwhelming the different avenues you could go down. But after looking at what I enjoyed most in my final year and what my style lends itself to, it was an easy decision – picture books was the right fit for me.

How do you go about creating an illustration? What are your methods?

I’ll always start with sketching in my sketchbook, loosely playing around with thumbnails making really messy doodles that probably only make sense to me. After settling on a composition I like to move the sketching process to the computer and create a black and white tonal rough that’s much clearer. I concentrate a lot on this part because it makes the later colouring stage easier.

We love the Anthology of Amazing Women, which you illustrated. Who were your favourites to illustrate in that book?

So many! I could easily ramble and end up listing pretty much every amazing lady featured in the book, but to narrow it down to a few I’d have to say Aretha Franklin, Emmeline Pankhurst, Margaret Hardenbroeck Philipse, Mary Anning and Frida Kahlo. All were really fun challenges to capture their likeness in my style. Aretha Franklin and Frida Kahlo were also personal icons that I really wanted to make sure to nail perfectly for this book.

You’ve also illustrated covers for the John Bellairs ‘Lewis Barnavelt’ series. What was the process in designing a cover?

It always starts with a brief and a helpful rough from the design team over at Bonnier. I’ll dissect the brief and from there, like I’ve mentioned earlier loosely sketch thumbnails, character designs and key featured elements for the cover. I’ll settle on a final composition and create a digital rough ready for initial feedback. At this point there’s usually a few changes to make before moving onto the coloured rough and then the final.

Were you aware of any of the other illustrated covers for the books (particularly the rather gruesome pen and ink drawings by Edward Gorey)?

Yes! It’s certainly a little strange to be working on a project like this when I remember some of these covers from my childhood, particularly ‘The Ghost in the Mirror’; it was slightly intimating to illustrate this series since Edward Gorey is such a huge name and a personal favourite of mine!

Which books, authors, illustrators and artists inspire you?

Again, this could be a long list! I’m madly in love with Carson Ellis’s work, her stylistic choices are perfect and I’m just obsessed with her ink work, which is a strong influence texturally to me when it comes to working on internal black and white illustrations for books. Rebecca Green is another illustrator I strongly admire; like Carson the forms she draws are simplified perfectly and she plays with unique colour schemes in the same way as Ellis.

Are you inspired by Wales?

I’d say I’m pretty inspired by Wales, especially by the environment. I grew up in a small village surrounded by forests and hills and it became the main subject for a lot of my early work, even today I feel like I’m in my element when there’s a lot of greenery or foliage to illustrate.

What are your illustration ambitions?

In general my goal is to always better myself from the last illustration I made and to improve in so many different ways. But one goal I’d love to focus on this year would be to fully develop a picture book written and illustrated by myself. Mainly just as a fun project and for the portfolio but hopefully later down the line get something published that I’ve created from the start.

Looking back over your instagram snaps, your more recent work is focused on people, but you also draw birds and beasts (and we spotted goblins!). Do you have a favourite thing to draw?

I have without really realising it focused on people lately; I have a new found love for character design solely based on people, whereas before I shied away from drawing people and mainly focused on mythical creatures or woodland animals. A lot of the times I’ll often find inspiration from people in pop culture, TV shows and mainly books, but who knows I think a few more goblins might make a comeback along with a few more animal illustrations.


“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.” Stephen Hawking

Are there plans for more published illustrations? What can we expect from Nathan Collins next?

Yep, I have plenty of plans for more published work in the future. At the moment there are still quite a few more books in the pipeline from the John Bellairs series, I’ll still be working on over the next few months, which I cant wait to show everyone!

Thank you to Nathan for taking the time to answer our questions. The Anthology of Amazing Women, written by Sandra Lawrence and illustrated by Nathan Collins, is published by 20 Watt and is available to buy in your local bookshop or online

The third book in the Lewis Barnavelt series, The Letter, The Witch and The Ring, will be published by Piccadilly Press on 21 March.

Author Q and A: Laura Baker

Laura Baker is a children’s book author currently celebrating the success of The Colour of Happy, a new picture book with Angie Rozelaar. She is also an editor with over twelve years experience.

Having grown up in Canada and moved to Wales to complete an MA in Creative Writing, she now lives in Wales with her husband, two young sons and basset hound.

She says that her career highlights so far include having her first picture book, I Love You When… (written as Annie Baker, illustrated by Barroux), read on CBeebies Bedtime Stories; reading her super-short stories (101 words each) at the Hay Festival and editing a number of award-winning children’s books.

We are delighted that Laura agreed to answer our questions and would like to thank her for her responses.

Where and when do you write?

I write mostly at a little desk in the corner of our dining room/lounge, or sometimes on the sofa with the dog curled up next to me. I try to write in my daytime working hours, but sometimes when I’m excited about an idea I carry on into the evening too. I remember pulling out my laptop at midnight to make some tweaks to The Colour of Happy

The Colour of Happy and My Friend Sleep are your first books as Laura Baker, but you’ve worked as an editor on many more books. Can you explain the difference between an author and an editor?

As the editor, you’re working with the author (and illustrator and designer) to pull the book together. It can involve everything from briefing an author on an idea to checking that the words flow to getting the book ready for print. Whereas, as the author, it’s the opposite! You supply the text and someone else takes over. It’s amazing seeing your words brought to life in that way, growing with the ideas from a team of editor, designer, illustrator and more. They often bring things to the story that you never thought about, making it even better. I feel so grateful to be able to work on both sides.

As an author, you are more visible – having book launches and more direct communication with readers. How has this been for you?

It’s been lovely! It’s a bit scary too, because everyone is reading the words you’ve so carefully chosen, but the publishing world is so friendly and encouraging. It was very special to celebrate the launch of The Colour of Happy with the team who brought it together, plus a wonderful group of supportive writer friends. I’m loving going into schools and connecting with readers directly too. Talking to them is giving me more and more ideas to write about!

You have written previously as Annie Baker – why the name change?

I wrote I Love You When… when I worked at the publisher, so I used the pseudonym Annie Baker. Now that I’ve branched out on my own, I’m using my real name! 

Your latest book, The Colour of Happy, explores emotions through colour. What brought you to this topic?

I wrote this story when my son was about two years old. I noticed that he and his friends could experience so many different emotions in a single day, and to them words like ‘mine’ and ‘share’ and ‘sad’ were huge. I’d also been trying to think visually about a book and wondered about using different colours on every spread. I combined the two ideas – along with the fact that my son would always pick a special flower for me whenever we went for a walk – and brought them together to use colour and emotions to frame the story. I love that Hodder understood what I was thinking, and the fact that they stuck to the single colour per page so strictly! I think it’s made for a really striking and different book. 

Can you tell us something about how you worked with your illustrator Angie Rozelaar? Because the book is so visual, we guess you must have been in contact quite a bit?

The editor and designer at Hodder took the reins on this. I think the designer and Angie were in very close contact about how they wanted the pages to look, and I got the lucky job of seeing everything when it came through! 

Which books and authors have inspired you in your career?

My favourite picture books as a child were by Shirley Hughes: Dogger and Alfie Gets in First. I still love them today, being drawn to real stories showing real emotions in everyday life. I could name loads of other inspiration as well: currently I love the Oi! series by Kes Gray and Jim Field because of its appeal to children, and I enjoy Rob Biddulph’s heartfelt stories and his inspiring career path towards children’s books.

You are originally from Canada, but came to Wales to do a Creative Writing MA. How supportive has the community been to your writing?

Very supportive! I started out in publishing straight from my MA, working with Parthian Books. This led me to work with other Welsh publishers, such as Firefly and Accent, and ultimately to my work in children’s publishing. Having the support of these publishers from the beginning really encouraged me along my path towards editing and writing. Now I’ve also met a very supportive group of writers and illustrators through Twitter, book launches, writing conferences and more – all of whom are happy to share both challenges and successes with each other.

Are you inspired by your Welsh surroundings?

Of course! We live in a lovely town by the coast, with everything you need for inspiration: green fields nearby, a local school down the road, parks full of children, the sea in view. I think being from Canada but moving to Wales provides inspiration of its own too.

As an editor, you have worked on some really interesting (and award-winning) projects with other authors. Which of these stand out?

Oh, there are so many! In picture books, I might have to say Scaredy Boo by Claire Freedman and Russell Julian. This was one of the first picture books I worked on as an editor, and I worked really hard to get amazing contributors on it. I remember reaching out to Claire through her website and was so pleased when she responded and was interested in the project! One other stand-out project worth mentioning is an adult travel book I edited for Parthian: Cloud Road: A Journey Through the Inca Heartland by John Harrison. It won Wales Book of the Year, and I got to attend the awards ceremony – red carpet and all! That was definitely a memorable moment early on in my career.  

What can we expect from Laura Baker next?

I’m keeping busy writing a variety of things, with some beautiful board books and fun activity books on the way. I’ve also got some picture books percolating and plenty of ideas brewing, so watch this space! 

Thanks again to Laura for agreeing to this Q and A, which was written and compiled by us with no financial payment or gifts received in return.

You can visit Laura’s website here or follow her on Twitter. The Colour of Happy is available in the shops now.

Author Q and A: Graham Howells

Graham Howells is an author and illustrator raised in Pembroke Dock and now living in Llanelli. He works in book illustration, television, film and board games. His book Merlin’s Magical Creatures won the Tir-na-nOg Award in 2009 and he was previously shortlisted with Jenny Sullivan for Two Left Feet. His illustrations for The Story of King Arthur (Rily, 2017) by Sian Lewis are fabulously shown off in a square hardback. He is clearly drawn to themes of fantasy and magic, as seen in his latest work The Lonely Bwback (Gomer, 2018).

The Lonely Bwbach is the story of a magical house-goblin who lives in a run-down cottage in North Wales. Every Bwbach needs two things – a house to take care of and a family to look after. So what’s a poor Bwbach to do when his home is literally dismantled around him? Go after it, of course! On the way, he will meet friendly foxes, helpful hawks, and a variety of mythical beasts, the most puzzling of which: human children. Will the poor Bwbach ever find his cottage again?

We wanted to find out more about the Bwbach, so sat down with his creator, Graham Howells, to learn all about this enchanting character.

How would you describe the Lonely Bwbach?

Nothing is more important to the lonely Bwbach than carrying out his duties, and his duties involve being the most loyal, caring friend you could ever have.

You have written and illustrated the book – which came first, the images or the words? 

I think the pictures came at the same time as the words. For example, the part where the Bwbach visits the school came to me as if I was watching the characters act it out in my imagination. I knew then how to describe it in words, but I could also ‘freeze-frame’ a scene from my mind, and that would become a picture in the book. 

When creating illustrations, how do you start the process?  Were there many versions of the Bwbach before he looked just as you wanted? 

There were a few versions of the Bwbach. Before he showed me what he looked like the Bwbach showed me what a few other Bwbachs looked like first. One of the most fun parts for me is to sit quietly and see what pops into my head, waiting to be surprised.

You have written and illustrated many books featuring folklore and legends. How did your interest in this begin and what keeps you fascinated? 

I have written a few books featuring folklore and legends, and I’ve illustrated even more that were written by other people. 

My interest began when I was growing up in Pembrokeshire and walking in the lovely countryside. After reading The Lord Of The Rings I then found out that Wales was full of stories about wizards, heroes and magical creatures.

What keeps me fascinated is the feeling that comes when walking on the coast, or on a high hill, that the strange, magical things are still so close.

St Fagan’s National Museum of History is a central part of this magical story, did you visit when writing the book? 

I’ve visited St Fagan’s many times, and it was on one particular visit that the story of the Bwbach came to me. 

In one of the cottages I got talking to an attendant who said he had lived in North Wales, and he told me that when he was young boy in school one of his teachers had lived in the actual cottage we were standing in. 

I can’t remember now whether he mentioned a Bwbach living in the house also, or did the Bwbach whisper it to me later?

Is there a particular house at the Museum on which the Bwbach’s home is based? 

The cottage where I met the attendant was Llainfadyn cottage, so that cottage became the Bwbach’s house.

You clearly enjoy the landscape and wilderness of Wales, which is your favourite area and why?

I do have a particular attachment to Pembrokeshire, as it’s where I grew up and where I started feeling the magic that was in the countryside. 

In Pembrokeshire there are standing stones, cromlechs, castles and ancient forests. There are stories everywhere of miraculous saints, dragons, knights on quests, and Fairy Folk. The land is so magical that thousands of years ago they dragged large Pembrokeshire stones hundreds of miles across Britain to build Stonehenge.

Do you find it easy to see the magical and the mythical in the everyday world?  Do you think that the presence of televisions, computers and phones have meant that we have actually lost a bit of magic in life? 

I think I do find it easy to see the magical and mystical in the everyday world. It just takes a little bit of imagination.

That’s why I wouldn’t blame modern technology for taking the magic away. The problem comes when we get lazy and allow the gadgets to do all the imagining for us.

Use the technology, but also go for a walk, look at the faces in tree trunks and stones, and read books that allow you to feel the magic. 

Do you have a Bwbach living in your house? 

Yes, I do have a Bwbach living in the house. He puts stories and magical pictures in my head and lets me think I came up with them myself. 

I wish he’d do the dishes sometimes, but he doesn’t, so I think he might be a bit lazy. 

Thank you to Graham Howells for answering these questions and for sharing some of his early sketches of The Lonely Bwbach. Thanks also to Gomer for organising the q and a.

The Lonely Bwbach is available now on-line and in bookshops across Wales for £5.99.

Mae fersiwn Cymraeg, Y Bwbach Bach Unig, hefyd ar gael ar-lein ac mewn siopau llyfrau ar draws Cymru am £5.99.

Football School Blog Tour

Football School Season 3

Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton

Walker Books

The Football School series has a new edition! This critically-acclaimed set (Book 1 shortlisted for Blue Peter Book Awards, Book 2 shortlisted for #Lollies2018), brings football facts, figures and bizarre insights to the fore. Noah (aged 11) has been able to enjoy the books at his own leisure, devouring the mysteries over the Jules Rimet Trophies, and the mathematical facts about tallest players, goal averages and circadian rhythms (yes, we have discussed this at the breakfast table!). Meanwhile Kit (aged 6) has enjoyed dipping into the book to pull out nuggets of information. With the help of Mum and Dad, he has been fascinated by the stories, science and trivia bursting from the pages. This really is a highly entertaining read; fast-paced, interesting and educational.

For many, football is a way to inspire children to read, and if you’ve seen any of the other blog posts, you will know that Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton are keen to emphasise the importance of reading for pleasure. On the Books for Topics blog, they say “What’s most important is that kids read the book – since reading anything brings benefits. But we also hope that the books make children curious about the world.” And on Booklover Jo’s blog, they say “We believed that one way to get kids reading was to provide them with a book on a subject they felt passionate about. Football School explains the world through the prism of football.”

Kit was delighted to put his questions to Alex and Ben (but disappointed that neither of them played Fifa 19).

 

Alex Bellos (on the left) and Ben Lyttleton

What are you reading at the moment?

Ben: I am reading a book about family and friendship called the Baltimore Boys but you’re probably more interested in what my children are reading. My eldest daughter is 9 and she is reading Death in the Spotlight by Robin Stevens. She loves these murder mysteries even if they are a bit gory! My youngest daughter is 7 and she is reading Daisy and the Trouble with Life. She also loves the Claude series by Alex T Smith. They have both read the Football School books and told me they liked them – I hope they weren’t just being polite! 

Could you tell us how you got into writing the Football School books?

Alex: Ben and I have been mates for ages and always wanted to work on a project together. We have both written football books for grown-ups, and thought that it would be really fun and worthwhile to write for younger readers. We were avid readers when we were kids, and we both know the advantages that reading brings.

Ben: We are passionate about getting children to enjoy reading – we know you already love it! – and we thought that writing books about football would help reluctant readers tap into their love of football and encourage them to develop a love of reading and a curiosity about the world. We have since been told by teachers and parents that the book has helped their children get into reading, which inspires us to work even harder!

Which football team/s do you support?

Alex: I grew up in Scotland and support Hearts (the Jam Tarts).

Ben: I support Spurs, because they were my local team when I grew up and my whole family supported them. I believe we should never boo any other teams, because supporting a team is often about family, community and being connected to a bigger group. I am proud of my team but also respect and appreciate other teams – especially if their nickname is a yummy food, like the Jam Tarts! 

Who’s the best footballer in the world right now? (Kit thinks it’s either Ronaldo or Rodriguez)

Ben: Good question. I watched Lionel Messi play for Barcelona against Spurs the other day and I haven’t seen many players play better than that and I’ve been going to matches for over 30 years.  I also really like Kylian Mbappe and think Raheem Sterling doesn’t get the credit he deserves. They are all great players.

Who are the best TV commentators?

Ben: There are lots of good ones but my favourite is Dave Farrar, because he is a friend of mine! His voice is wonderful, and he comes up with brilliant one-liners. I always remember when Greece beat France in Euro 2004, he said “And France lose! That’s Napoleon Blown-Apart!” It was a clever pun on Napoleon Bonaparte and he claims he thought of it on the spot! It still makes me chuckle…

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned when researching your books?

Alex: So many things! I love the fact that stadiums have vomitories, that eagles are the most popular mascot for football teams and that the coelacanth is a fish has limbs instead of fins! 

Ben: As a younger sibling, I liked learning that younger siblings are more likely to become professional footballers. That’s good news for Kit! Also that female players are less likely to be left-footed, that Iceland has 130 volcanoes, that paint is like a cake and that the Prime Minister of India once drank his own wee! 

Who is the best Welsh footballer?

Ben: Right now, or of all time? In both cases I would say Gareth Bale! An incredible player who has always shown how much Wales means to him. There is an exciting new generation of players coming through as well, so keep an eye on Harry Wilson and Ethan Ampadu – it’s a really exciting time for Welsh football.  

How many keepy-ups can you do?

Ben: I have got up to 96, but always lose my concentration as I get close to 100. Annoying! 

Alex: Not as many as Ben!

Apart from your books, what other books about football would you recommend?

Alex: My favourite football books are anything by Simon Kuper, Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby and Twelve Yards by Ben Lyttleton!

Ben: Alex is so nice! I would say Futebol by this guy called Alex Bellos, it’s all about Brazilian football and it’s Brazilliant!  

What’s next for Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton?

Alex: We have two new Football School books out next year: Football School Star Players out in the Spring, which has the stories of 50 inspirational players, and Football School Season 4 out in the Autumn, and there will be two more in the year following that too.

Ben: It’s really exciting! We also have our youtube channel which is youtube.com/FootballSchoolFacts and we upload new videos all the time so please check it out and subscribe!

 

Thank you to Alex and Ben for answering the questions and to Walker for sending us a review copy of the book. You can follow Alex and Ben on Twitter or visit the Football School website.

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?

#Lollies2018 Blog Tour: Joe Berger

Lollies 2018 Blog Tour: Joe Berger

The Pudding Problem by Joe Berger is nominated for the #Lollies2018 in the age 6-8 category. Kit (6), Nina (9) and Noah (11) have all read this hilarious graphic novel and enjoyed it very very much! They got caught up in the misadventures of Sam Lyttle, a boy who keeps getting into trouble though it has nothing to do with lying (honest)! The eponymous ‘Pudding’ is Sam’s cat – and the ingenious story of how Pudding came to be the family pet and get her name is worth the entry fee alone. Noah picked up on the subtle humour in the illustrations – sometimes it’s unmitigated ‘out there’ humour, which had Kit and Nina in fits of giggles and outbursts of belly-laughs, and sometimes it’s just in a ‘look’ or more understated reference in the brilliant drawings. There’s something in this book for everyone, adults included, so the age 6-8 tag is a bit misleading. Either way, all five worms loved The Pudding Problem and its follow-up The Stinky Truth. Here’s the book trailer from Joe’s website:

Joe Berger lives in Bristol with his wife, three daughters, cat and dog. He regularly collaborates with Pascal Wyse, as Berger & Wyse on a weekly cartoon published in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine. He says “telling jokes in cartoon form remains one of my favourite things ever”. He has written two Lyttle Lies books and illustrated many more. We were delighted that he agreed to answer the Worms’ questions, so here are his answers…

What are you reading at the moment?

At the moment I’m reading Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle vol 1 – it’s a grown-up book but I’d recommend it once you’re older. Also reading some comics, including Greatest Ever Marlys by Lynda Barry, which is brilliant.

Could you tell us how you got into writing and drawing?

When I was little my mum used to read fashion magazines like Vogue, and she would sometimes show me an illustration she liked and ask me to make her a version of it. So I learned a huge amount from copying other people’s drawings and techniques – it’s a brilliant way to learn, to unpick how drawings and paintings are made. From a young age I was also obsessed with comics, and always wanted to do my own comic strip. In 2002 my friend and I landed a job of doing a 4 panel comic in the Guardian newspaper – and co-writing that each week gave me the confidence to write children’s books, which was a long-held ambition. Although the 4 panel strip stopped in 2009, we continue to do a single panel cartoon in the Guardian every week – so far that’s nearly 900 cartoons!

Where and when do you work?

I work in my studio, which is a 20 minute walk from home, in the centre of Bristol. It’s a lovely room with lots of natural light, and room to play the VERY OCCASIONAL board game, which is my big hobby when I’m not making books and cartoons. I usually work 9-5 Monday to Friday, as I find keeping regular hours helps me organise my time. Many mornings I’ll spend an hour or so dreaming up cartoon ideas, and then switch to writing or book illustration later in the day.

Can you tell us about your methods?

All my work starts with drawing on paper. I usually do rough drawings in pencil, and then final drawing in brush pen and ink on a clean sheet of paper  which is just thin enough to see a bit of the rough drawing underneath. But for cartoons I like to draw straight in ink, and see where the drawing goes. It’s harder to be that spontaneous with drawing for children’s books because there are often a lot of changes to make.

What advice would you give to budding young illustrators?

Copy the stuff you love! I don’t mean trace it, that wouldn’t teach you much – but copying really makes you focus on how the artist/illustrator was able to achieve what they did. It’s an invaluable way to learn – and of course, your own style will start to seep in to those drawings, and you’ll naturally start to create your own work.

Is it difficult to do funny some days?

Yes it is! It can be very frustrating if you don’t feel like you’re in the right mood. See next answer . . .

Is being funny a serious business?

It is serious and silly in equal amounts. It’s serious in that you have to be able to be funny on demand, even if you don’t feel like it. For this reason, I carry a small notebook wherever I go, to note down any funny ideas. So then when I need to be funny but don’t feel like it, can look in my notebooks for inspiration. These are not really sketchbooks, though I have those too. I have a collection of about 40 old notebooks which I am always looking in for thoughts and ideas I might not have used yet. But I have to keep writing in new ones too!

How do you choose names for your characters?

Hmmm, that’s a good question – names for characters are so important. Sam in the Lyttle Lies books was originally called Joe, because the stories are loosely based on my misadventures as a boy. But I wanted to distance the character from me because other bits are totally made up. I have a friend called Sam, and Sam seems like a similar name to Joe – one syllable, 3 letters etc. So that’s how Sam was named. Pudding is called Pudding because of what happens in the story – I wish I could remember how or when I came up with that idea. But I can’t.

Which books, authors and illustrators inspire you?

I love Just William stories, and Petit Nicolas stories too, which are kind of a French version of Just William, with drawings by one of my favourite artists, Sempé. I find other cartoonists very inspiring too – Charles Shultz who made Peanuts (Snoopy and Charlie Brown) every day for 50 years – as well as other single panel cartoonists like Charles Addams and Edward Steed.

Ever been to Wales?

Yes, I love WALES! I live in Bristol, so not far from South Wales, and we go at least once a year. We often stay in a place called Capel y Fin in the black mountains, which is an area I love, near Abergavenny. There’s a hill there called The Tumper which we love to climb.

You’ve illustrated work for others – what’s been your favourite of these projects to work on?

Hmmm, it’s hard to pick favourites. One that stands out is the recent Chitty Chitty Bang Bang series I worked on with Frank Cottrell Boyce – I grew up watching the film in the 1970s, so it was a real thrill to get to work on the three new books. I was worried about it because I’m not good at drawing cars, but it helped me get better I think.

Are you an animal person?

Yes I am. We have a cat called Spooky (she’s white like a ghost) and a dog called Sybil. Sybil is a Cairn terrier, and she’s quite naughty – she loves to race out into the garden and bark at birds (and hot air balloons), which gets us in trouble with the neighbours.

What’s the weirdest doodle in your doodle book?

There are so many to choose from. I’m going to open a notebook at random and see what I find, ready? Here goes . . .

Hmmm,  a roll-mop herring driving a car? That’s pretty weird.

Let me try again . . . ok, a robot punching a sandwich, saying “I love you, sandwich”. There’s two weird ones right there.

What’s the biggest lie you’ve ever told?

The worst lie is too long to put here, but it might end up in a book one day :-/ But I stopped lying when I was about 12, so nothing too bad since. It’s a habit I learned to break, because it takes a lot of energy to stick to your story in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, and anyway you always end up getting in trouble twice – once for the thing you covered up by lying, and once for lying about it. It takes less energy, but more bravery, to tell the truth. In my case it also took a large box of Smarties, offered to me as an incentive to own up.

What’s next for Joe Berger?

I don’t know If I’ll get to write more Lyttle Lies books, but I want to tell more stories with cartoons, so I’m working on a couple of ideas. At the same time I’m still drawing my cartoons, and hope to find more places that are willing to publish them.

 

 

Thank you to Joe for answering the worms’ questions. We’re really grateful for the time he gave us and are thrilled with his answers. You can vote for the Pudding Problem in the #Lollies2018 here. You can follow Joe on Twitter or visit his website. Thanks to the #Lollies2018 team for inviting us to be part of the Blog Tour again. Check out the other posts:

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.

Mirror Magic Blog Tour

We were delighted to be given the opportunity to travel to Cardiff to meet with Claire Fayers and talk with her about her enchanting new novel, Mirror Magic. Noah takes the lead in this video, with the rest of the worms joining in with a ‘Would You Rather?’ section near the end. Thank you very very much to Claire for being such a great sport and taking the time to film with us.

Why not check out Noah’s written review of Mirror Magic here.

Author Q & A: Sophie Anderson

To mark our stop on the House With Chicken Legs blog tour we asked Sophie Anderson to answer these questions set by the young worms. We have previously reviewed The House with Chicken Legs and we are delighted that Sophie has also written an exclusive post for Family Bookworms.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just finished The Wild Folk by Sylvia Linsteadt. It’s published on 31st May, but one of the enormous perks of being an Usborne author is getting the occasional ARC! The Wild Folk is glorious; both thrilling tale and song to the natural world. Next on my tbr pile is The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day by Christopher Edge, which I have been excited about forever! 

Where and when do you write?

I home school my three children, and every day is different. Sometimes I get up before my children and write for an hour or two. Or sometimes I get a little writing done in the afternoon if my youngest has a nap, and the older two are busy with their own projects. Or sometimes I write at the end of the day, when my children have gone to bed. I don’t have an office or dedicated writing room; just a small standing desk in the corner of the living room with a laptop on it.

Who or what inspires you?

I love writing stories inspired by fairy tales, or fairy tale characters. Fairy tales can stimulate so many ‘what if?’ questions that spark new stories; they beg to be told from different points of view; or reimagined in original ways. 

Which book do you wish you’d written?

The Moomin books by Tove Jansson were my first love, and I hugely admire her talent as a writer and illustrator. But I can’t wish I wrote them, because if I did, they would be something completely different! I think it’s important we all keep our unique voices, and create our own works of art, so I’m just happy to have written The House with Chicken Legs! 

How long did it take you to write The House with Chicken Legs?

The first draft flowed so well, it poured out in less than two months. But then there were three months of edits with my agent, where the book went through two more drafts and nearly doubled in size. Then there were two months of structural edits with my editor at Usborne, followed by a month of copy edits, and at least another month of final tweaks. So, nine months in total. But there were around two years between writing and publishing because between each stage is some waiting time. It can feel like nothing is happening during these times, but they are actually really important stages in themselves, as they distance you from your work, enabling you to look at it with fresh eyes.

How do you choose character names?

Good question! They have to feel right for the character, and for me there always has to be a kind of hidden meaning or link. For example, there is an old folk tale I once heard where Baba Yaga has a daughter named Marinka, so that is where her name came from. Jack for a jackdaw is unimaginative I know, but it felt perfect! The Old Yaga, whose name is Tatyana, and Yaga Onekin both have names borrowed from Eugene Onekin, a novel written in verse by Alexander Pushkin. In Pushkin’s novel, Onekin and Tatyana show love for each other at different times of their lives, but never manage to get together. It isn’t mentioned in The House with Chicken Legs, but I think Yaga Tatyana and Yaga Onekin have a similar history. 

Marinka is a really interesting character. Are you like Marinka at all?

Yes! I am in my forties, but I often still feel like a young girl trying to find my place in the world! Her character was also inspired by my children who, like Marinka, dream of climbing over fences and carving their own destiny. But as soon as I started writing Marinka, she became incredibly real to me and took on a life of her own!

When Marinka leaves the house to explore the world and make friends, she finds that friendship has its challenges. What makes a good friend?

Another good question! I think someone who values and respects you for who you are, and genuinely enjoys spending time with you. Someone who makes you feel happy and loved.

Would you like to live in a Yaga house?

Oh yes! I have always wanted to. I would sit on the house’s roof as it ran over fells and hills, splashed through rivers, swam across seas, and skated across ice sheets. It could grow me a vine hammock on its porch, and we could sleep together under the stars. 

Can you tell us about your Welsh connections?

I was born and brought up in Swansea. My maternal grandparents lived in Pontypridd, and my paternal grandparents in Brecon. I left Swansea when I was eighteen, to go to University in Liverpool, but my parents still live in my childhood home in Swansea, and I visit them regularly.

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

My next book is a reimagining of another, lesser known, Russian fairy tale called The Lime Tree or Why Bears’ Paws are Like Hands; and, like The House with Chicken Legs, it is an MG novel with themes of identity and belonging. One of the minor characters from The House with Chicken Legs features with a larger role, but it is definitely another stand alone novel.

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

I think I would have to express my creativity in other ways. Maybe puppetry! A giant marionette House with Chicken Legs would be awesome!

 We’d like to sincerely thank Sophie for taking the time to answer our questions. She has also written a brilliant blog post just for us on Sadko – a character from a narrative poem and an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov.

Author Q & A: Christopher Edge

We are absolutely thrilled to be part of this astronomical blog tour and are delighted that Christopher Edge has answered some questions set by the young worms. You can read our review of The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day now or later.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just finished reading Daemon Voices, a wonderful collection of essays from Philip Pullman on the art of storytelling. I always read in bed at night before I go to sleep, so for the past few weeks I feel as though I’ve been having some rather intense late-night discussions with Philip Pullman!   

Could you tell us how you got into writing?

I’ve been writing stories since I first learned how to write, although publication came much later. Following a short-lived career in teaching, I made the move into educational publishing and there had a role reading some of the best contemporary children’s literature being published with a view to discovering novels that teachers might want to use in the classroom. Reading books by authors such as Frank Cottrell Boyce, Sonya Hartnett and Philip Reeve showed me the brilliance and ambition of the stories being told in children’s fiction and made me want to write my own, which I then started doing on the commute to and from work. After a couple of unpublishable novels that are still locked away in a drawer somewhere, I wrote the story that found me my agent, and then a publisher and so finally realized my dream. 

Do you miss teaching?

As you might have guessed from my description of my short-lived teaching career, the answer is no! I was waylaid into teaching by the film Dead Poets Society and misled into believing that all you needed to do to be a great teacher was inspire students to stand on desks declaiming poetry.

Where and when do you write?

In the best tradition of Roald Dahl and Charles Dickens I have an office at the bottom of my garden that I retreat to. When I’m writing the first draft of a story I like to immerse myself in this writing full-time, but other times I’ll be travelling to events with a notebook handy so I can keep scribbling away on the move. I actually think I do some of my best writing on trains, so would quite like to be hired as the writer-in-residence on Great Western Railways.

You have written several books for budding authors. What is the most important piece of advice you have on this?

Every writer is a reader and every reader can be a writer too. Fill yourself with stories and I believe your own will start tumbling out. 

Which books and authors inspire you?

Too many to mention! Every book I’ve ever read feeds the roots of the tree my stories grow from. Many years ago, bunking off school to get my comics signed my Neil Gaiman inspired me to dream that one day I could be a writer and I’ve blogged about this here. 

How do you choose names for your characters?

For me, every story starts with a character and they seem to come to me with a name attached. For The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day I had an image of a girl opening her front door to find an infinite blackness outside and the moment this image came into my mind, I knew this girl’s name was Maisie. 

Do you have any connection with Wales?

I’ve walked the whistling sands on the Llyn Peninsula, visited Conwy Castle as a child, but think my strongest connection to Wales is my love of the Super Furry Animals! 

You’re clearly interested in Science. Where did this interest come from?

I didn’t enjoy science at school, but as I’ve got older my interest in science has grown. Watching documentaries made by scientists such as Carl Sagan and Professor Brian Cox make me marvel at the sheer wonder of the Universe, and I now find myself picking up books by popular science writers such as Brian Clegg and Carlo Rovelli to read for pleasure! 

Your most recent books have been full of scientific ideas but there is often an emotional human story at the heart. Is this a fair assessment, and do you see either as more important?

I think both science and stories approach the same questions from different angles. Why are we here? What makes us human? How do we know we really exist? Both science and fiction help us to make sense of the world, with all its wonder and possibilities as well as its inevitable pain. In my books I hope to use scientific ideas to explore the human condition and tell stories about love, loss and family. Without heart, the story would be a lifeless thing.  

You have a Spotify playlist for Jamie Drake. Are you planning one for Maisy Day? If so, what would be your top choices?

Yes, there is a soundtrack for The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day – actually there’re two! As well as my own chapter-by-chapter soundtrack for the book, there’s also a soundtrack that’s been curated by BBC Radio DJ Chris Hawkins of the songs the story reminded him of. And the one song that made it onto both soundtracks is the mesmerizing ‘Birthday’ by The Sugarcubes, whose queasy beauty sets the scene in my mind for the opening chapter of the story. (For more on this visit the Nosy Crow blog). 

We love the covers by Matt Saunders. How much involvement do you have with this and how important is it for you that the cover somehow reflects your writing?

I love Matt’s cover art too and the brilliant design that Nosy Crow create for my books. I’m very lucky in the fact that I’m allowed to comment on the cover concepts and designs as these are developed, and feel incredibly proud that the first contact a reader might have with my books comes via Matt’s cover art as I love the way my stories are represented by his artwork. 

Can you reveal anything about what you’re working on at the moment?

I’m writing a new novel at the moment which should hopefully be published in Spring 2019. I can’t say too much about it at the moment, but it’s about friendship and what it means to be alive. 

What question do you wish we’d asked?

I’m just glad you didn’t ask me to explain infinity!

Thank you so much to Christopher Edge for indulging us. Did you know he came with us to Scotland? Read our review now.