Q and A: Cathy Fisher

Cathy Fisher is the illustrator of the visually stunning collaboration with Nicola Davies, The New Girl. A tender and emotive artist, this is the third such collaboration published by Graffeg, following on from The Pond and Perfect.

Cathy has also illustrated Nicola’s Country Tales series, bringing their total output to 8 books, with more to come.

The New Girl addresses bullying, acceptance and inclusion through a simple yet powerful story of a young girl moving schools. The gorgeously sympathetic and thought-provoking compositions add to the narrative; the child who looks different is singled out, but the girl remains faceless and nameless, as do the bullies lurking in the shadows.

An act of kindness crosses a cultural divide, causes intrigue and invokes fascination and interest – the children watch and listen. Then kindness is given a face and a name. The beauty unfurls as the pages are turned – Cathy turns shadows to light, colours brighten and hard edges soften as Kiku warms cold hearts and opens closed minds; the transformation is evident through the change in palette and tones. The New Girl is a truly stunning picturebook.

You can see images from the book and hear Nicola Davies read an extract in this film made by publisher Graffeg.

We are thrilled to welcome Cathy Fisher to the bookworms’ blog today and have the opportunity to celebrate this superb book.

Hello Cathy, What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just read When The Whales Leave, by Yuri Rytkheu, (translated by Ilona Yazhbin,) published by Milkweed Editions – and I am half way through This is Happiness, by Niall Williams, published by Bloomsbury

Can you tell us a bit about how you started in illustration?

I trained in fashion and textile design (a very long time ago) and soon after was lucky to be teaching foundation art and design, a course to prepare students for an art degree. During this time I got my first commission to illustrate a series of book covers for stories for teens.

I left the UK to teach in an art school in the Seychelles and 4 years later moved to Australia, where I became a busy mum, while working as an artist. It wasn’t until my kids were older and we had moved back to the UK that I started illustrating again. I worked for a graphics company, illustrating small pictures for school books and educational resources.

I have always drawn and painted, but I have never been much good at selling my work. One day though, about 6 years ago, I met the lovely Nicola Davies. She had seen one of my pictures on my friend’s wall and had asked my friend for my details. The first time I met her I knew I had a lifelong friend and collaborator… she is amazing! Nicola introduced me to Graffeg Publishing and a year later Perfect was published – my first proper children’s picture book! Then the next year The Pond followed and so we continue to work together!

How do you describe your illustration process?

First I read the story over and over again and do a lot of thinking and research. I spend as much time thinking about the pictures as I do painting them. I try to imagine I am each of the characters, including the wildlife, and how that feels.

I draw lots of sketches, work out the page spreads in a roughly drawn storyboard, think about the space for the words and space for thought. I then send roughs to publishers.

For the final illustrations I prefer large sheets of heavyweight watercolour paper. I draw and paint with pencil, charcoal, watercolour paints, inks and crayons. I paint in layers of tone and colour with the different media, and sometimes make quite a mess. It is not always easy and I often have to struggle through a pain barrier, but, if I’m lucky, a picture will eventually start to sing. I sometimes find it difficult to know when to stop!

You’ve had a very successful picturebook partnership with the amazing Nicola Davies – what’s it like working with her?

It is always brilliant working with Nicola. She is a genius! She is a scientist as well as writer and artist. She knows so much! Her writing is so skilled. She can say so much, with so few words, with such perception and imagination. When thinking about pictures we are often on the same wave length, which makes working with her very easy as she trusts my illustrative response to her writing. She is a brilliant artist herself so won’t always need me, but I hope we will continue to collaborate together for a long time. We are currently very close to each other in Pembrokeshire, so I am very lucky to be able to see her frequently.

How did the latest book, The New Girl, come to fruition?

Nicola read me the story of The New Girl and asked if I’d like to illustrate it – of course I did! I was in Australia when I received the contract from Graffeg, so I starting thinking about the story then. I came to Pembrokeshire early this year and was staying with Jackie Morris when UK first went into lock-down. Jackie was wonderful and very kindly gave me the space and time to work in her home, while I worked on the New Girl every day. I would talk to Nicola and send her photos from my phone of the pictures as I did them. I finished the illustrations just as the first lockdown ended.

The book deals with unkindness and ostracisation at school. You become aware of this through the empathy-filled illustrations as well as the text. What techniques do you use to portray these strong emotions?

I purposely gave each double-page spread a lot of space, exaggerating the school walls and stairs, to illustrate the isolation Kiku, the new girl, might feel coming from another country to a strange new school. I thought about her posture and body language. I conveyed the unkindness of the other children with long shadows. I purposely kept the colours in the early spreads fairly minimal, then slowly added more colour and detail, as the new girl began to warm the hearts of the other children. I also used symbols, like the broken vase, which on the last page has been put back together again, (in Japanese it is called Kintsugi,) as a metaphor that something broken can be mended and made beautiful.

Growing up with 8 brothers and sisters you must have some good tips for dealing with conflict?

I was in the middle of my siblings, as the fourth child of nine, and learnt I could make myself almost invisible. This was sometimes a very useful trick, as it kept me out of trouble. But now, being invisible is no longer helpful to me, so perhaps it is not a good tip! I grew up in a fairly chaotic, noisy environment – but we lived by fields and woods and ran wild amongst nature. Although it could be difficult at home sometimes, there was escape and freedom in our surroundings and always a place outside to find peace. It is where I found my love of nature, which has always helped me when I feel troubled.

Previous picture-books The Pond and Perfect have also dealt with serious and important issues; the death of a parent and sibling disability. What is the place of picturebooks in tackling such themes?

I am quite old now with quite a lot of experience. The most important thing we adults can do is to truly celebrate our children. To gently nurture them with love and kindness and share a joy for life and the natural world, teaching them all beings are equal and need looking after.

But we also have a duty to help them understand that life is not always fun and easy. I do not believe we are protecting our children by shielding them from the truth of serious and important issues – we need to be honest. Reading stories, sharing with them a love of words and pictures, and giving children the time to read, listen and talk, is one of the best gifts we can give our children. Picture books are incredibly important as they can teach empathy at an early age and help children understand difficult emotions. A good picture book can help children feel something that isn’t easy to say in words. Talking about death, grief, differences in each other, things we might feel bad about, painful emotions, is very important and needs to be approached with kindness and sensitivity… this is where good stories and pictures help.

There are a lot of hands in the book which are notoriously difficult to draw. Any tips?

I love children’s drawings. I love watching them draw. Hands are so expressive, that is why I drew a lot of them! I wanted to express joy, in the shape of a flower, with all the children’s hands in Kiku’s class. There are stories in the hands!

The only tip I can give is not to be scared of drawing!.. and do not care what other people think about your drawing! If I am finding something difficult to draw I try to forget the object or subject I am drawing and think of it more abstractly, looking at the negative shapes around it and thinking of it as patterns and tones and colours. If you like drawing keep drawing! I believe everyone can draw, they just think they can’t. Drawing doesn’t always have to look like something, it can be patterns or about feeling.

Handwriting is drawing. We all learn to write and each person’s handwriting is unique. The only difference between drawing and handwriting is you are taking handwriting on an adventure…into other shapes and places, all over the paper and sometimes filling it with colour…. Joy!

You’ve also worked with Nicola on the Country Tales series. Which has been your favourite to illustrate?

Hmm. That’s a hard question. I enjoyed doing all the covers. I illustrated the series while I was in Australia. There is still one more book to do. I think my favourite to illustrate was probably Pretend Cows. The cover is my friend’s daughter and she’s in a gum tree, not an apple tree… but don’t tell anyone!

You normally spend your time between Australia and the UK, but we understand you’ve been locked down in Pembrokeshire. Has this been a blessing or a curse?

I really appreciate that lockdown is an extremely difficult time for so many people. But I count myself as one of the very lucky ones. I am lucky to be in a beautiful place in Pembrokeshire, which is such a blessing. I have since become a bit of a hermit and am very happy to be working in the studio all day long and not go anywhere, except for walks. The sad thing for me is that the pandemic has separated me from my husband, he’s on the other side of the world in Western Australia, so we haven’t seen each other since February but we do talk every day and will eventually be reunited! The happy thing is I see Jackie Morris every day and Nicola Davies quite a lot.

Could you recommend any favourite picturebooks?

Oh my goodness, that is such a difficult question! There are so many beautiful picture books. If I start listing them I am bound to miss a favourite out! This year alone has produced some beautiful books. When I’m painting pictures and start to feel stuck, I often look at John Burningham’s books or Brian Wildsmith’s pictures. I love the whimsy, freedom and textures in their art.

But my recent favourites, in no particular order are:

  • Dog, Shaun Tan
  • The Promise, Nicola Davies and Laura Carling
  • I Talk Like a River, Jordon Scott and Sydney Smith
  • The House by The Lake, Thomas Harding and Britta Teckentrp
  • Lost Spells, Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane (all of her books and collaborations with other illustrators)
  • Mrs Noah’s Garden, Jackie Morris and James Mayhew
  • Last, Nicola Davies, (all of her books and collaborations with other illustrators!)
  • The Best Place in the World, by Petr Horacek (all of his books)
  • The Girl Who became Tree, by Joseph Coelho and Kate Milner

Images from your Twitter account show pandas and cockatoos – are these clues to future books?

They are! The panda pictures are for a story called The Panda Child, which Jackie Morris has written. It is very beautiful timeless story, but it is a bit daunting to illustrate a book with Jackie  as she has such an amazing reputation as an author and illustrator, she is an absolutely brilliant artist. I am very fortunate to be collaborating with her. Her agent is currently finding the right publisher for the book.

The same goes for the pictures with a sulphur-crested cockatoo, (my best friends in Australia.) These are early illustrations for a picture book written by Nicola Davies, called Mr Horstman’s Parrot. Nicola has left a lot of space in the story for me to elaborate visually which I’m looking forward to doing. It is another of her beautiful, powerful stories.

Anything else to declare?

Hmmm?… Occasionally I have times of great doubt, and I wonder why the work of making pictures feels so important to me? Unless you are very famous, an illustrator doesn’t earn very much money. But, when I push passed my doubt and insecurity, I always come back to remembering the influence that picture books had on me in my young life. How they were a place to escape, made me feel so much part of the picture, and how much they taught me.  So I feel such joy when I hear a parent, teacher or child say that a book with my pictures has opened up conversation they have never had before, or have made them feel emotions that open a new door, or simply that they just love the pictures.

The only other thing to declare is that I intend to keep making pictures.

Thank you so very much to Cathy for taking the time to answer our questions with such care and attention. The New Girl is published by Graffeg and is available from your local independent bookshop.

Follow Cathy on Twitter to see beautiful examples of her work (and sneak previews of future books).

Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell

A review and Q&A with Helen Docherty and Thomas Docherty.

Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell is the latest collaboration between husband and wife team Helen and Thomas Docherty. The pair have separate successful careers but have often worked together with amazing results.

Helen has always loved stories and as a child would make her own books (you can see some fine examples on her website). Her early career was as a languages teacher both in the UK and in South America. In 2010, encouraged by Thomas, she began writing again and they published ‘Ruby Nettleship and the Ice Lolly’ together. This was followed in 2013 by her first rhyming text, The Snatchabook, since translated into 22 languages, nominated for many awards and considered a classic by everyone from Booktrust to CBeebies.

Since he was very young, Thomas has always enjoyed drawing and keeping sketchbooks. He was a big Asterix fan. His first book, Little Boat was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2009. He has since written and illustrated 4 more solo works, 5 books with Helen and 5 books with other authors.

They live in Swansea with their two children and, through Storyopolis, enjoy helping children and young people to write their own Book in a Day.

Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell (Sourcebooks) is a charming and colourful rhyming story about independent Nell. Beautifully detailed illustrations capture the tumbling waves, sea monsters and idiosyncratic shipmates. Our eponymous heroine, the newest member of the pirate crew, relies on knowledge, learning and books to chart the seas and live the pirate life. Captain Gnash is too proud, dismissive and closed to new ideas, and he certainly doesn’t approve of books being on board! Cue Nell showing him the error of his ways, the joy of books and reading, and finding life’s real treasure.

We are delighted that Helen and Thomas have answered some of our questions. Huge thanks to them both.

What are you reading at the moment?

Helen: I’ve just finished Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, and I’m sorry it’s come to an end; it was a brilliant and absorbing read.

I still read to our girls (age 10 and 12) every night, though they’re both avid readers themselves. Over half term we enjoyed Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh – a Halloween gem from my own childhood. We’ve just started The Castle of Tangled Magic by Sophie Anderson and next up is Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day.

Thomas: In an attempt to keep my Welsh up over lockdown (we’ve been learning for a number of years) I’ve got through most of my daughter’s Welsh teen novels, most recently the Yma trilogy by Lleucu Roberts, but also her brilliant adult novel Saith Oes Efa (challenging Welsh but very rewarding). Before that I read two books by Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines and Among Muslims, both beautifully observed and poetic real journeys in words.

As a husband and wife picturebook team you must have more opportunity to discuss your ideas together?

Helen: Yes, we’re very lucky in that we can brainstorm ideas for stories, give each other feedback on story drafts and develop characters or plots together. The first book we collaborated on, Ruby Nettleship and the Ice Lolly Adventure, was very much a joint effort. Having said that, when Tom is working flat out illustrating a book, he doesn’t have a lot of free time (or headspace) to discuss new ideas – it’s such a time-consuming job!

Do your own children input into your ideas?

Helen: A few years ago, a conversation with our youngest daughter directly inspired me to write a picture book text. She asked me whether it’s possible for a parent to love a new baby as much as their other children, and I reassured her that we’re not born with a limited amount of love to give, and that You Can Never Run Out of Love. As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I was onto something, and I started working on the text that very night.

Similarly, our eldest daughter was feeling anxious at the beginning of lockdown this spring – as so many of us were – and missing her friends and grandparents. I wrote a new picture book text, All the Things We Carry, partly in response to this. The central message is that we don’t have to bear our worries alone; we carry one another, even when we are apart.

Thomas: I love our daughters’ pictures (all children’s pictures) and I sometimes wish my own illustrations could be as free and spontaneous as theirs. I’m still waiting for them to hand me a best seller on a plate though!

Helen, when you start to write a picturebook text, what are you hoping to achieve? (Do you have a set of overarching aims?)

Helen: Picture books are a child’s first encounter with books and stories. They can help to frame children’s understanding of the world, and they introduce them to new concepts and ideas. They can also be a vehicle for exploring different emotions and how we deal with them. That’s why writing picture books feels like such a privilege to me – and also a responsibility. I want each book I write to carry a positive message – not just for children, but for the adults reading it, too. I want children to care about the characters in each story. And, of course, I want to entertain my audience.

What, do you think, makes a successful picturebook?

Helen: There are so many different ways in which a picture book can be successful. I guess the ultimate litmus test is, do you want to read it – or have it read to you – again (and again)? The best picture books endure multiple readings, and become more loved over time.

Thomas, the endpapers are often a place of innovation, humour and thought-provocation. What is their importance?

Thomas: When creating the endpapers you are freed from the constraints of the story, but at the same time you have the chance to add something new or unexpected. It’s a chance to take the reader further into the visual world you have created, maybe in a different direction. I sometimes like the end papers more than the illustrations inside the book, possibly because they stand alone and speak for themselves.

Pirate Nell celebrates the power of reading. Sharing stories is also a central theme of The Knight Who Wouldn’t Fight and The Snatchabook. Are you on a mission?

Helen: Apparently so! Believe it or not, it’s never been intentional, in that I didn’t set out to write a series of ‘books about books.’ However, I’ve always been a bookworm and I strongly believe in the power of stories to bring people together and nurture empathy, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s become a recurring theme.

Captain Gnash is the ‘top dog’, yet he doesn’t listen and is quite arrogant. Is it too much to read a political message into the story?

Helen: What could a greedy, power-obsessed pirate captain with an over-inflated ego, a disdain for books and very few actual skills possibly have in common with any of the great political leaders of our time?

I hope our young readers will be more inspired by Pirate Nell’s example; she is brave, compassionate and eager to share and to help others.

Note: The character of Captain Gnash was first conceived in an earlier version of the story, Captain Gnash and the Wrong Treasure, which I started working on at the very end of 2016. Here are the opening verses:

Just two things mattered to Captain Gnash:

Making his fortune; and fame.

He was desperate to find some treasure,

And for all to know his name.

He worked very hard on his image

(He took selfies every day).

But woe betide any pirate

Who dared to get in his way.

His temper tantrums were famous;

You could hear them for miles around.

The other pirates did their best

To block out the terrible sound.

The book features some glorious seascapes and coastal illustrations. Are you inspired by your local Swansea shores?

Thomas: If I wasn’t a children’s book illustrator I would like to draw landscapes. In fact, I often sketch when we go out walking – so I’m definitely inspired by the Swansea shores. The Knight who Wouldn’t Fight is full of Brecon Beacons inspired hills, a nod to Castell Carreg Cennen and a twisty tree you can find half way up Skirrid Fawr.

Helen: Absolutely! I grew up by the sea (in Weymouth, Dorset) and I’m so happy that we live by the sea on the beautiful Gower peninsula now. Knowing how much Tom loves to draw the sea, I wrote Pirate Nell’s Tale To Tell  for him to illustrate.

You’re both learning Welsh. Sut mae’n mynd?

Thomas: Da iawn diolch!

Helen: It’s been a real effort over many years, but we’re both so happy that we can now speak (and understand) Welsh – as can our daughters, who both attend Welsh medium schools. Cymraeg was my Granny’s first language, and she would be so proud – and pretty amazed – to see us all now. O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau!

Could you recommend any favourite picturebooks?

Thomas: Don’t Cross The Line! By Isabel Minhos Martins and Bernardo P. Carvalho

Anything illustrated by Christian Robinson

Helen: We have so many favourites in our house – too many to mention! Anything by Shirley Hughes. I would second Christian Robinson’s books – he’s a genius. When Tom and I first met, we found we had a favourite picture book from our respective childhoods in common: How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban and Quentin Blake. One of the books which has most inspired me over time is The Sneetches by the great Dr Seuss. And a book I always return to is Leon and Bob by Simon James. So understated, so much heart – and the best last line in any picture book I’ve ever read. Gets me every time.

The Screen Thief is coming in 2021. What can you tell us about it? Is it a follow-up to The Snatchabook?

Helen: The Screen Thief is about a little creature called the Snaffle who arrives in the city hoping to make friends to play with. Unfortunately, everyone is too busy looking at their screens. When the Snaffle eats a stray mobile phone out of curiosity, she develops a taste for screens… But will they ever really satisfy her hunger? This story was so much fun to write, and I love the world that Thomas has created with his illustrations. It wasn’t intended as a follow-up to The Snatchabook, but there are obvious similarities. And Snatchabook fans might enjoy spotting Eliza and her friend on a couple of pages in The Screen Thief.

Do you have any other projects on the horizon?

Thomas: I’ve got a new book of my own out with Egmont in April called The Horse That Jumped – it’s full of landscapes! Helen and I are also working on a new book together for Sourcebooks in the US called Orange Moon, Blue Baboon and I’m just starting the illustrations for that now.

Helen: I have three other picture books commissioned by different publishers, all soon to be illustrated (by different illustrators, not Thomas): All the Things We Carry, The Bee Who Loved Words and Someone Just Like You. And of course, I’m always working on new story ideas… Watch this space!

Thanks again to Helen and Thomas for taking the time to answer our questions. Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell is published by Sourcebooks and is available from your local independent bookshop.

Thomas’ new book, The Horse That Jumped is published in April 2021 by Egmont. The Screen Thief publishes with Alison Green Books in May 2021.

Follow Thomas on Twitter and visit his website. Follow Helen and click here for her website.

Q and A: Jack Meggitt-Phillips

The Beast and The Bethany by Cardiff-born writer Jack Meggitt-Phillips is published on 1 October 2020. This dastardly inventive and hilarious novel channels Dahl and Lemony Snicket in a tale about the Beast in the attic who’s hungry for, well, anything. It’s an absolute delight – brilliantly written so that it can be enjoyed by a wide range of ages (including adults!). Kit (aged 7) thought it was the “best book I’ve ever read”, and it was similarly devoured (gettit?) by 13-year-old Hobbit-loving Noah. The film rights have been snapped up so we’re at the start of something huge. It’s only proper that we should invite Jack to answer a few questions…

The Beast and The Bethany is the first book in a trilogy that was highly-sought after by publishers and has been snapped up by a film company too. These are exciting times for you…

It’s all delightfully bonkers, and I’m still trying to find a way of telling people I’m a children’s author without blushing purple and combusting into a flurry of awkwardness.

I’m very grateful for the chance that I’ve been given, and if there’s a chance that my books can give children the same feeling I experienced when reading The Bad Beginning for the first time, then I shall be brimming with ever greater quantities of delight.

The story has drawn comparisons to Roald Dahl, Despicable Me, Little Shop of Horrors, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Lemony Snicket. Which of these comparisons is the most accurate/helpful?

It’s a fabulous list of comparisons, isn’t it? May have to frame this question for my wall.

The plot probably shares most in common with Dorian Gray. It’s about a 511-year-old called Ebenezer Tweezer who keeps a beast he keeps in his attic. He feeds the beast all manner of things (hedgehogs, chandeliers, the occasional pet cat), and in return the beast vomits out presents, as well as potions which keep him young and beautiful.

One day, the beast announces that it wants to eat a child, and so Ebenezer brings a rebellious prankster into the house – one who will be a lot trickier to get into the beast’s belly than any cat or chandelier.  Enter Bethany . . .

The story seems delightfully bizarre featuring parrots who sing like Elvis and a blob who lives in the attic. What’s the most bonkers detail that you included?

There’s an exceptionally silly scene in Buckingham Palace involving a stand-off between Bethany, and the Queen’s chief under-butler, Perkins. Fully expecting to receive a firmly written letter of complaint from Her Majesty about it.

Were there any details considered too farout by your editor?

Unfortunately, my agent and editors have been terribly bad influences on my penchant for silliness There are now twice as many Elvis parrots, twelve more squashed muffin sandwiches, and a whole gaggle of villainous household appliances because of them.

Are you looking forward to seeing your creations come to life on film?

This was another moment when I squealed ungainly with delight. The beast and I couldn’t hope for better partners in Heyday Films and Warner Bros., in our quest to delight and terrify as many children as possible.

Do you have more of an affinity to The Beast or Bethany?

Both are far too ill-mannered for my tastes, and frankly I don’t think either of them would care to spend any time in my company unless they could chomp my head off, or pull some ghastly prank on me.

I have far more in common with Ebenezer Tweezer, and his obsession with velvet waistcoats and eccentric teas. He has better hair than me, and somewhat looser morals, but aside from that I think we’d get on very well.

Have you already completed the trilogy? What can you tell us about the other 2 books?

The series is essentially going to be about two misguided people trying, and miserably failing to become do-gooders. All whilst saving themselves and their friends from the beast’s dastardly, bone-crunching villainy. 

I’m currently in edits for book 2. After that, the beast, the Bethany, Ebenezer and I are going to have a long, serious think about what we can try and get away with for the next book.

You are a scriptwriter and podcast presenter – how did you get into writing for children?

I had been working on another book for a few months, which just sort of collapsed at the seams. The characters weren’t behaving themselves, the plot was pettily refusing to come together, and my interest in the thing was wilting faster than a dying daffodil.

I started The Beast and the Bethany, because I wanted to have some fun writing again, and because the idea had been scratching away in the back of my brain for a while.  I’ve now buried that other book in the back garden. 

What are you reading at the moment?

For years I’ve been struggling with a worrying habit for Victorian literature, and it only seems to be worsening. Currently I can be found wearing a cloak, carrying a candle, and cackling menacingly at The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins.  

Where and when do you write?

I write exclusively in my dressing gown, which can make my attempts to write on train journeys a little awkward.

My most productive times are before I’ve had breakfast, and before I go to bed. I’m like a needy puppy – I need the reward of a pain au chocolat or bedtime in order to get me writing.  

What are your favourite books for children?

The books I’ve enjoy most are the ones that feel like they’re too mischievous or macabre to be written for children. Books like those belonging to Mr Snicket and Mr Dahl deserve all the praise and plaudits that are heaped upon them, and I would also put in a very warm word for a book called ‘The Day My Bum Went Psycho’ by Andy Griffiths.

Can you tell us about your Welsh connections and inspirations?

Well, one of the biggest influences on my writing has to be the modern series of Doctor Who, and frankly anything written by Russell T Davies – what a legend.

My running/ out-of-breath stroll route in Wales also takes me past the Mrs Pratchett’s Sweetshop plaque – the one featured in Roald Dahl’s Boy, so that always cheers me up. It also gives me an urge for sweets, which immediately undoes any of the good work done by my attempt at exercise.   

We’ve heard that you’re fond of tea. Any thoughts on Welsh tea?

Several. Enough to bore even the most patient and indulgent of listeners to tears.

Waterloo Tea Gardens, Cardiff

However, I shall spare your readers the agony by confining my recommendation to any of the loose-leaf delights from Waterloo Tea Gardens. The Orange Blossom green tea is a personal favourite.

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

I’ve always loved horror stories with a supernatural tinge, and especially those that can make you jump between laughter and screams. So currently having a bash at one of those.

Huge thanks to Jack for answering our questions! You can follow him on Twitter. The Beast and The Bethany is published by Egmont and you can pick up a copy in your local independent bookshop.

My Name Is River Blog Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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


Emma’s Favourite Journey Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie Anderson Wins Wales Book of The Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is being Welsh important to you?

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

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

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

Does being Welsh have any influence on your writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What other quality Welsh fiction can you recommend?

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

But onward to choosing a few titles …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valériane Leblond

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

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

Could you tell us how you became an artist?

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

What was your own journey to settling near Aberystwyth?

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

What are you reading at the moment?

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

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

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

What attracted you to the story?

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

What are your methods of illustration?

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

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

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

Did it involve a lot of research?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you consider yourself an artist or an illustrator?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Valériane on Twitter and visit her website.

My Name is River

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

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

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

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


Book Synopsis

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Machynlleth Lantern Parade

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

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

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

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

Q and A: Sharon Marie Jones

Sharon Marie Jones, author of Grace-Ella: Spells for Beginners and Grace Ella: Witch Camp has kindly answered our questions as part of the Witch Camp Blog Tour. She grew up in North Wales and now lives near Aberystwyth with her family, close to the sea and countryside. Having worked as a Primary School Teacher for 13 years, Sharon is now a full time author.

What are you reading at the moment?
I’m currently reading ‘The Girl who Speaks Bear’ by Sophie Anderson. I loved her first book, ‘The House with Chicken Legs’, so I couldn’t wait to start this one and it definitely doesn’t disappoint! It’s a magical mix of folklore and adventure, friendship and being true to yourself; utterly enchanting.

Could you tell us how you got into writing?
It has always been my dream to become an author, from a very young age. I loved writing stories and spent much of my early childhood living in my imagination! In Secondary School, I won the school’s R S Thomas prize for creative writing.

But once I decided on a career as a teacher, my job and life in general took over and writing was pushed to the back of my mind – but it was always there, lingering, never completely gone.

I was on my second maternity leave when I decided that I would chase that dream of being a writer. I sat down determined to write. I wrote a short story, which was placed second in a competition and published in Writers’ Forum magazine. This was a huge boost to my confidence. I then had a further seven short stories make the shortlist.

I was enjoying writing short stories but knew that my real passion was to write a book for children. I had just returned to my teaching job by then, and as was driving to work one morning, when the name Grace-Ella popped into my head. I pulled into a lay-by and started to scribble frantically in my notebook.

The following morning I set my alarm for 4.30am and I started to write my first Grace-Ella story. I continued like this, writing for a couple of hours every morning, before real life had to take over. It took me a year, by the end of which I was exhausted, but I had finished writing my first ever book. I sent it to Firefly Press with no expectation at all of hearing back from them … but after three months an email pinged into my inbox and my journey with Grace-Ella truly began.

Why writing for children?
I think you just know if you want to write for children. It’s something intrinsic. I wanted to dive back into that imaginary world that I would escape to as a child. I wanted to let my imagination take over again and lead me on a magical journey.

Because children’s books are just that – they’re magical. I loved reading aloud to my class when I was a teacher; looking at the children mesmerised by the words, and loving the, ‘Oh, please just one more chapter’ chorus at the end of a reading session.

I knew once I started to write that my heart lay with children’s fiction. Seeing a child engrossed in a book is so wonderful and to think that a child could pick up a book that I have written and become lost between its pages is an amazing feeling.

Where and when do you write?
I write at home, in my office. I’ve decorated the room so that it feels relaxing and peaceful, a room that I enjoy being in. I can only concentrate fully on my writing when the house is empty and silent, so my writing time happens when my boys are at school.

Sharon’s Office

Now that I write full time, I don’t set my alarm for 4.30am! But my writing is at its best in the mornings, so I aim to be at my desk by 10am, after dropping my boys off at school and doing a quick tidy up of the house. I can usually ‘write’ for 3-4 hours – I say ‘write’ because I don’t necessarily mean I’m typing away continuously for 3-4 hours. There’s a lot of staring out of the window, allowing ideas to brew and scribbling notes in a notebook. It’s all part of the process of ‘writing’.

On days where the words are hiding from me and I know I won’t add anything to a story I’m working on, I’ll settle down to read a book and allow another author’s words to carry me away. Some days I need this break and find that I’m ready to get going again with my own story, the following day.

Who are your favourite authors for children?
As a child, my favourite author was Enid Blyton. I devoured her books. My favourite being ‘The Enchanted Wood’ and ‘The Faraway Tree’, which I read over and over.

Now … there are so many! There is such a wealth of children’s authors writing today, which is wonderful. I strongly believe that there is a book out there for every young reader. I have far too many authors I currently love, so I’ll choose the ones who I know for definite that I’ll always rush out to buy their next book:

  • Eloise Williams – her writing is so beautifully atmospheric, I feel like I’m in the story with her characters
  • Sophie Anderson – I love folktales and her books bring a new twist to old folktales and are utterly charming
  • Lisa Thompson – she’s a master at tackling difficult issues, weaving them into a sparkling plot that always keep me gripped till the end
  • Onjali Q Rauf – again, she tackles real-life issues perfectly, with wonderfully believable and relatable characters.

Grace-Ella is a witch in training. What drew you to her story?
I think it’s because it’s the kind of story I would have loved as a child. I was entranced by Enid Blyton’s magic, and discovered that I had my very own fairy door on the trunk of the crab apple tree at the bottom of our garden. If I closed my eyes and tapped on the tiny door three times, I would be transported to the kingdom of the Crabble Fairies.
I was always mixing up my own ‘potions’ in the garden – mixing wildflowers and berries with water in empty jam jars. I would line them up on the outside kitchen windowsill.

So once the name Grace-Ella popped into my head, I knew that she was going to be a magical character. Her story began to flow once I started to write the words. I didn’t plot the story, I let the story take me where it wanted to go. Grace-Ella is the girl I would have loved to have had as a friend when I was 9 years old.

Did you ever go to camp as a child?
No, I never went to a Camp as such. I was a painfully shy child and had low self-esteem and confidence. I loved school and was happy playing with my friends, but away from that security, I always stayed close to home.

I was a Brownie, and they went to Camp every year, but I was always too nervous to go. I do remember us going to Brown Owl’s home one evening where we toasted marshmallows on an open-fire. I remember it feeling magical – being wrapped up warm in the dusky darkness, the smell of smoke floating in the air and the sweet taste of the sticky marshmallows.

I spent a lot of time outdoors as a child. I loved pressing wildflowers after going for a walk in the woods with my dad. These memories came flooding back as I wrote ‘Witch Camp’.

Will there be more Grace-Ella?
I hope so! I still have plenty of adventures for her to go on, so fingers crossed…

How does Wales inspire you?
The first thing I loved about Firefly Press was that they were looking for stories for children aged 7-9 years, specifically based in Wales. Wales is rich in stories. As a child, I listened in wide-eyed wonderment to folktales about giants and the tylwyth teg.

The Arch at Devil’s Bridge

The landscape is a constant source of inspiration. There are so many wonderfully wild places to walk, where stories whisper in the rustle of leaves. The setting for ‘Witch Camp’ is very much based on places I have visited. The map of ‘Witch Camp’ at the start of the book shows ‘The Old Stone Archway’, which is based on ‘The Arch’ at Devil’s Bridge, just outside Aberystwyth.

I often read about authors travelling the world on magnificent adventures, which then feed into their writing. For me, Wales is such a beautiful country and is full of inspiration for stories, I don’t feel the need to stray far. T Llew Jones, Wales’ most famous Welsh children’s writer, wrote stories based in Wales for over half a century!

I feel strongly that stories based in Wales should reach young audiences far and wide. Every child should experience the magic and wonder of this beautiful country, and one way for them to do that, is by reading stories from Wales.

One of your own mottos, as signalled on your website is “be proud of your achievements”. This comes across in Grace-Ella: Witch Camp. Was it a conscious decision to allow these messages to filter through your writing and Grace-Ella’s character?
I hadn’t even thought about that so no, it hasn’t been a conscious decision. I’m a perfectionist and my own worst critic in everything I do. As a child, I never felt quite good enough, even though I was often ‘top of the class’ in terms of my work. I’ve also taught children who found it difficult to feel a sense of achievement, often comparing themselves to others and in their minds, finding themselves lacking.

With Grace-Ella, I wanted her to be able to shine at something. She struggles a little with schoolwork and worries that she won’t be able to do her work well, so I wanted to give her something new that she would be good at.

I’ll always remember a young girl I taught, who felt her schoolwork wasn’t good enough and would get herself into a worried mess when having to do tests. She would compare herself to her sister and friends and feel that she wasn’t as good as them. I wanted to help her find that something that she sparkled at. It came when the class were put into groups to work on creating a stall for the school’s Summer Fair. One of the items her group decided to make was bunting. Once this girl started sewing, there was no stopping her! The other three members of the group worked on other items whilst she developed her sewing talent and made all the bunting herself. On her last day of school, she gave me a handmade cushion which was perfect in every way.

We all have the ability to shine at something, it’s just a matter of finding what that is.

What else should we ask you?
Can I do magic? Yes! I can make a coin disappear…

What comes next for Sharon Marie Jones?
Lots of published books I hope! I have stories other than ‘Grace-Ella’ that I want to write, and it would be wonderful for some of them to become published books.

But right now, what comes next for me is a cup of coffee and diving back into writing Grace-Ella Book 3…

Thanks again to Sharon for answering our questions! You can follow her on Twitter and should visit her website.

To read a full review of Grace-Ella: Witch Camp, click here.

Author Q & A: Helen Lipscombe

We are delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for Helen Lipscombe’s debut novel, Peril en Pointe. Helen grew up in Wales, studied at Exeter College of Art and Design and went on to work in agencies in London, Singapore and the Caribbean. She obtained an MA in Creative Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University and now lives in the Cotswolds with her family.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve got four books on the go . . . The Dragon in the Library by Louie Stowell, Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, The House of Light by Julia Green and No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton. I’ve just finished Normal People by Sally Rooney, The Last Spell Breather by Julia Pike and The Middler by Kirsty Applebaum. All wonderful books. I wish I could read faster. Got a very lovely, but slightly wobbly tbr pile.

Could you tell us how you got into writing?

When I was little, I used to turn my favourite Ladybird Books into plays so I could act them out in front of anyone within a five-mile radius. Such a show-off! 

We understand you trained to be a graphic designer. Did you work on any books?

The majority of my design work has been for charities like The British Red Cross and Salvation Army. Although I LOVED creating a storyboard of ideas for Peril En Pointe’s cover, the designer Helen Crawford-White did a much better job than I could have ever done.

Where and when do you work?

I’m rubbish at any kind of routine. I have a desk in a study off the kitchen, but I only tend to use it when I’m in the thick of rewriting. My ideas flow better when I’m out walking the dog or staring out of a train window. I’m not really a morning person either, so I try to get all my admin done before lunch and focus on the creative stuff later. 

Why writing for children?

I think it’s because I didn’t start writing seriously until after my sons were born. Reading children’s books again sparked my imagination and I rediscovered my inner child. When I started to write, that’s who came out!

Who are your favourite writers for children?

That’s a hard one to answer – there are so many, and the list is growing as more and more brilliant new voices are published. As a child, I loved C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome. As a parent, I loved reading Janet and Allan Ahlberg, and Roald Dahl. As a writer, I appreciate strong voices – Louise Rennison, Sally Nicholls, Patrick Ness, Meg Rosoff; and great plotters – J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins and Philip Pullman. And thanks to Peril En Pointe, I’ve just discovered Noel Streatfeild.

Peril en Pointe is out now from Chicken House. Can you give us a flavour?

Absolutely. My heroine’s called Milly Kydd and more than anything, she wants to be a ballerina, just like her famous mum. The story starts as Milly’s about to dance in the biggest ballet competition of her life. It’s called the Scarlet Slipper Ballet Prize and it’s on telly like Britain’s Got Talent – only without Ant and Dec. But EVERYTHING goes wrong. Milly accidentally trips up the despicable Willow Perkins, and worse, her mum disappears into thin air. As a result, Milly’s kicked out of ballet school. Eight months later, her mum’s still missing when Milly’s invited to a mysterious ballet school. But when Millly arrives, she discovers that Swan House School of Ballet is no ordinary ballet school. It’s a school for SPIES.

Did you ever go to ballet?

Yes – when I was very young. I remember dancing in the Christmas show dressed as a little green pixie, which inspired one of the scenes in Peril En Pointe. (My lovely mum made my costume and I’ve still got it). Tragically, my ballet career was cut short when I broke my toes. I’d been watching Olga Korbut winning a gymnastic gold in the summer Olympics and thought, how hard can it be? Alas, my ‘beam’ was the side of the bath. I fell off and my toes got stuck in the plughole. They’ve never been the same since.

Is music important to you and what music inspired the book?

I’m so glad you asked me that! The answer is sort of connected with your next question. As a child, I sang in Eisteddfods and played the viola with the county youth orchestra. When I started learning the piano, my great auntie Lottie, (who I adored), gave me all of her old sheet music from the 1940’s. My favourite was ‘Jewels from the Ballet’ by Lawrence Wright. By the time I got to writing the last draft of Peril En Pointe, I needed a bit of a pick-me-up to keep me going so I made a playlist. There are pieces from Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet, but also Slow-Moving Millie, Family of the Year, Pink Martini, the Be Good Tanyas, Katy Perry and even U2’s theme from Mission Impossible! All the tracks represent a scene or character in the story.

Are you inspired by Wales?

Yes! My family live in South Wales and my eldest son goes to uni in Cardiff. I love the South Wales coastline and have spent time writing there. My first attempt at a novel was set in the Welsh valleys in the 1970’s on the night of a terrible storm. It had everything in it, from sheep farmers to tight-rope walkers to cat burglers. 

Your Twitter profile says that you love words, welsh cakes and waggy tails. But really, if you had to choose one – which would it be?

NOOO, don’t make me choose! Garghhh. It would have to be waggy tails. If I wasn’t walking my dog I wouldn’t come up with nearly as many words. Plus, I love her deeply.

What are your ambitions?

Gosh. Beyond meeting my next deadline? I always thought I’d like to write a musical one day (it’s not going to happen).

Anything else you’d like to declare?

OK.

Yes.

I admit it. 

It was me who ate all the Welsh cakes.

Not the dog. 

Sorry.

What comes next for Helen Lipscombe?

The sequel to Peril En Pointe is due out next year. Beyond that, I’ve got a few more imperiled heroines up my sleeve. I’ll keep you posted!

Thank you to Helen for taking the time to answer our questions. Peril en Pointe, by Helen Lipscombe is published by Chicken House and is available to buy in your local bookshop or online

Helping Hedgehog Home

Celestine and the Hare

Graffeg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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