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…
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.
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!
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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?
I admit it.
It was me who ate all the Welsh cakes.
Not the dog.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.