We are delighted to be today’s stop on the Strange Tales Blog Tour, and more than a little bit pleased to be featuring author and storyteller Daniel Morden in a Q and A. Strange Tales is a collection of nine short stories inspired by world myths and folklore – full of intrigue, mystery, magic and mayhem. Presented in a hardback gift edition by Firefly Press, it is a thing of beauty publishing on 28th September 2023.
Congratulations on Strange Tales. Thank you! I am proud of the book. It contains some of my favourite stories: stories that have been such fun to tell, and stories that niggle at me, like a pebble in my shoe.
What are the main differences between speaking stories and writing stories?
When you tell a story you can colour the words. Your intonation, gesture, rhythm and facial expression inform the audience’s response. If you say something in a sarcastic tone, the audience will understand it to be a joke. If you write the same words, without the sarcastic tone of voice it could become confusing or even offensive.
Your intonation, gesture etc., means it is obvious which character is speaking, so you don’t have to say, he said. On the page you have to explicitly state who is speaking, especially if there are more than two characters in the scene, which means you have to interrupt the flow of the dialogue with he saids and she saids. Often the dialogue in a spoken version of a story is quickfire and rhythmical, and this is lost because of the scaffolding.
But books are lovely! They are always beside you for you to enjoy, unlike a storyteller. And they travel to more places than I can visit in one lifetime.
How do you go about making the transition from performing a story to writing it down? What are the challenges?
First I write it exactly as I would tell it. Then I send it it to my editor, who replies with comments such as, Who is speaking here? Why does she say this? Give us some adverbs!, the scales fall from my eyes and I realise that the story needs more description and context because the reader cannot hear my voice as they read. The challenge is to try to retain the propulsive momentum of a spoken telling despite the additional contextualising.
Tell us about Daniel Crowley – where and when did you first hear his tale?
I first encountered the story as part of a play called SAVAGE JUSTICE back in the eighties. Because it was a play, they could have great fun with the ghostly party. One actor mimed peeling off his skin, and playing his ribs like a xylophone!
How have you changed the version you first came upon?
The ending felt abrupt: next morning Daniel’s apprentices found him lying amongst the chaos of his workshop. What happened to him then? did this experience change him? So I added a little coda – you will have to read the book to discover if it is an improvement!
Some of the Strange Tales have a gruesome and unnerving aspect. Do you find yourself tempering (or even amplifying) your words for an audience?
When I am performing, I can show the character’s disgusted/appalled/horrified response to what they are seeing, without having to explicitly describe the sight that provoked this extreme response. I have to spell out the horror in the written version, so inevitably it can feel more disturbing! I trusted my editor to rein me in when necessary.
The book is called STRANGE TALES and the cover is ominous. It is very clear what you are getting! My main concern is that the stories are not creepy enough to meet the expectations set up by the cover…
You are twice the winner of the Tir na nOg Award for books with a Welsh context. Does winning awards and recognition have an impact on your craft?
It helps to raise the profile of the book. A writer once said publishing a book is like throwing a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and expecting to hear it land. At this time of year there is always a deluge of new books, most of which disappear very quickly. Winning an award gives the book a second chance to reach an audience.
You often combine storytelling with music. When is this most successful?
Music is very powerful. It can make us feel emotion very quickly. Just think of the JAWS theme. The teller has to adapt their performance to allow the musicians to work their magic. Often I realise I don’t need to say whole paragraphs because in a few moments the music has evoked what I was trying to convey. I think the teller has to behave as if they are another musician contributing to an overall sound, rather than assuming they have to dominate.
Who are amongst your favourite storytellers?
Jan Blake is the real deal. Big hearted, funny, exuberant, shocking, thrilling… you never know what she is going to say next!
What other books can you recommend to readers who have enjoyed your stories?
The Red Gloves by Catherine Fisher – a wonderful collection of eerie stories that will haunt you long after you have finished the book. Clockwork by Phillip Pullman. You can read it in a single (winter’s) evening. Full of magic, mystery and suspense.
Strange Tales is published by Firefly Press on 28.09.2023. Huge thanks to Daniel Morden for answering our questions and to Lucy Mohan at Firefly Press for inviting us. Buy a copy of the book here and also check out links to Daniel’s website and Twitter.
Carnegie Medal nominee and Tir na n-Og Award winner, Elen Caldecott’s new novel is published with Andersen Press on 2 June. We are delighted to present an exclusive reveal of the cover, illustrated by Rachael Dean.
Cassie’s older brother Byron has fallen in with the wrong crowd – it’s soon clear these boys are wild, reckless and not human at all. They are tylwyth teg – Fair Folk, who tempt humans down into the dark places of the world. And Byron is tempted.
When he goes missing, Cassie and her cousin, Siân, follow his trail to an old abandoned railway tunnel which goes down and down into Annwn, the underworld. Here they find that the tylwyth teg are restless – and angry. Their leader, Gwenhidw, wants to protect Annwn from the damage humans are doing to the world. Byron is part of her plan. Cassie won’t let her big brother be part of anyone’s plan. But can rescuing him really be that easy?
Andersen says the book is suitable for age 9+, and there seems no doubt that this is going to become one of our favourite Middle Grade adventures in 2022. Anticipation levels are heightened!
Author, Elen Caldecott, told us, “When I was a child, my sister and I would beg Mum to read to us from her collection of Welsh Folk Tales – both of us had been named after characters in the book (I’d got off lightly with Elen, my poor sister, not so much). We’d listen, enthralled, to stories of the tylwyth teg, the magical creatures who were easily angered, who beguiled careless humans and led them astray. As an adult, I wanted to return to these stories. But now, I wondered, what would the tylwyth teg make of post-industrial Wales? What would they make of council estates, of children on tablets and smart phones, of chapels converted into flats or boarded-up completely? What would these creatures of legend make of the Wales of today? In The Blackthorn Branch, the past and the present, the myth and the reality, come together in one story. It was a joy to write, and I hope that young readers find just as much to love about it as my sister and I found in those old tales.”
Cover artist Rachael Dean lives in a seaside village just north of Liverpool. Her work is traditionally and digitally painted, and she loves to illustrate natural scenery. She recently became the new illustrator for Dame Jacqueline Wilson and has also illustrated covers for Sally Nicholls, Aisha Bushby, Lauren St John and Bali Rae.
On illustrating The Blackthorn Branch, Rachael told us, “I thoroughly enjoyed delving into the world of welsh folklore for The Blackthorn Branch cover. It was a wonderful story to illustrate and I absolutely loved working on the decorative elements!”
Elen Caldecott grew up in North Wales. After her Welsh language education she studied archaeology and then creative writing, graduating with an MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. Her debut novel, How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant, was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and longlisted for the Carnegie Medal.
The Tir na n-Og Award is an annual award for children’s books with an authentic Welsh context. Sponsored by CILIP in Wales and organised by Books Council Wales, the 2021 shortlist, announced in March, features three brilliant books:
The winner of the award will be announced at the end of May. In the meantime, we are all encouraged to shadow the awards and get to know these books in more detail. At Family Bookworms HQ, we have been privileged to interview the three authors about their shortlisted book.
Jess Butterworth is well-known for her series of adventure books for ‘middle grade’ readers. Jess spent her childhood between the UK and India, and grew up hearing stories about the Himalayas from her Grandmother. As soon as she was old enough, she went on her own adventures in search of story ideas. Jess studied a creative writing masters at Bath Spa University and now lives between the USA and the UK.
Where The Wilderness Lives was Jess’s fourth novel, published in April 2020. Her fifth book, Into The Volcano, has just been released.
Where The Wilderness Lives is a brilliant adventure that weaves folklore, survival, friendship issues and family together to make a fantastically enjoyable read. From a canal boat in the West Country to the deepest wilds of Wales, Cara and her siblings escape a thief as they embark on a heart-stopping adventure to solve the mystery of a locked safe. Soon they’re in the wild forests of the Preseli Hills and are lost. Will they escape the wilderness? It’s thrilling stuff!
We were pleased to catch up with Jess and ask her a few questions.
Where The Wilderness Lives is packed full of adventure and action but also focuses on themes of courage and friendship. Was there an initial spark of an idea for the book? I’m interested in what came first.
For me, it’s always the setting and a sense of place that comes first with a story. After that I imagine the characters in the setting, what kind of adventures they go on and how they interact with their environment, and then, as I get to know the characters more, I build the themes and emotional threads.
I wrote Where the Wilderness Lives when I was living in the States and very much missing the UK and the places I love here. One part of the story was sparked by my time living on a narrowboat on the canal; I remember a section of canal was drained and all sorts of rusty bits and bobs were found in the empty bottom. Another part of the story was inspired by a visit to stay with family in Wales and the discovery that the forest I loved there was actually a Celtic temperate rainforest.
The landscapes and wildlife of the Preseli hills are vividly described. What advice do you have for creating such realistic descriptions?
Thank you! As you can probably tell, I love writing about nature. I always try and use all the senses to describe settings. I find writing about specific details in a setting really brings it alive too; things like naming an old oak tree rather than only stating that there’s a tree. I also like to weave descriptions into movement and action as well. For example; how does the ground feel underneath your feet as you step? Is it mossy, muddy, pebbly?
Which aspect of Welsh wildlife intrigues you the most?
I’m a huge fan of lichen, not just because of the weird and wonderful shapes and colours they are, but also because they’re symbiotic organisms and good indicators of air pollution. Wales actually has the highest diversity of lichen species!
I also love spotting seals off the Welsh coast, seeing bats at dusk, and searching for signs of dormice. Once I saw puffins during their breeding season from the Welsh cliffs, which I thought was amazing.
You mention in the author’s note at the back of the book that some of your family are from the area – are they far from Coed Ty Canol? How did they help with the research?
My cousins grew up and still live in south Ceredigion in the Teifi valley, quite close to Coed Ty Canol. As children, whenever I visited them, we would walk over the Preseli hills together and explore the coast and the ancient forests in the area. Their house always felt like a second home to me. When I mentioned I wanted to set a book in the Celtic rainforest they spent time looking at maps with me, and showing me other places in the area like the Pentre Ifan burial chamber and Nevern church, which ended up sparking lots more story ideas!
The story features a locked safe with Ogham symbols (an early medieval alphabet). Tell us about how you discovered the Ogham alphabet.
My younger cousin has always been very interested in it and would write secret messages using the Ogham alphabet which is how I first learnt about it. He also showed me a huge stone from the 5th century in Nevern church that has Ogham script carved into it which I found fascinating.
There is a folk tale threaded through the story – are you a fan of Welsh folklore?
I’m a huge fan of Welsh folklore. I’m really looking forward to reading Claire Fayers’ new book of Welsh Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends, and very excited about the publication of The Mab, a collection of retellings of the Mabinogion, edited by Matt Brown and Eloise Williams.
In Where the Wilderness Lives, I took parts from, and reimagined, two of my favourite Welsh folk tales, Gwion and the Witch and The Battle of the Trees. The latter inspired the title of the story too.
Sounds intriguing. Can you tell us more?
‘The Battle of the Trees’ or ‘Cad Goddeu’ is a medieval Welsh poem set during a war. In it, the magician Gwydion uses his staff to transform trees into warriors to help fight. I’ve always loved the imagery of trees coming to life in a human sense, like the Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and after reading a section of the poem as a child, it stayed with me.
How are your survival skills? Have they ever been tested?
My dad was a trek leader in the Himalayas and as a child I lived partly there in the mountains, so I grew up with the survival skills needed for trekking and being in the mountains, such as finding drinking water, and as an adult, I’ve been trained in first aid.
However … my skills were tested in a completely different climate; in the heat of the Australian desert when a snake fell on my head and bit my thumb as I swatted it away! I know what to do if you come across a bear or a leopard, but in my panic, I couldn’t remember what to do if you are bitten by a snake. Luckily, I was able to get someone’s attention and then I finally remembered that you’re supposed to lie down and stay still to stop any venom being pumped around your body, so I did that and someone bandaged my arm to stop the spread too. Then I was airlifted to the nearest hospital where the anti-venom was kept. It was definitely one of the scariest moments of my life!
I’m very grateful I didn’t have to worry about venomous snakes during my research in Wales!
The setting feels very authentic. How important is authenticity?
This is lovely to hear – thank you! I’m constantly in awe of the wonderful wild places that exist within our world and seek to represent this in my writing. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between people and places too, which is why I love to look at the mythology, folklore, culture, and history of a landscape, as well as its role as a setting.
Readers can learn a lot from Cara – she is a model of courage and determination. When her body gives up she recalls her mother’s mantra A camino largo, pass corto. There’s an important message about mindset in the book isn’t there?
Yes, definitely. The mantra means ‘one step at a time’ and it partly made it into the story because before I wrote the book I knew that I wanted to weave different story threads that all met at the end. I often felt overwhelmed with how much there was to do to make the story work, so I wrote this saying on a post-it note and stuck it to my laptop and it helped me write the book, one sentence at a time! With Cara, when she’s faced with the impossible task of trekking through the snow in freezing conditions, it’s this saying that helps her not give up: if she can keep going, one step at a time, then she has a chance of making it through the snow and helping her brother.
Do you think Cara is changed by her adventure?
Very much so. Being out in nature and overcoming the challenges of the wilderness gives Cara more self belief and confidence to be herself. She also considers the things that are important to her, what matters most, and who she is, and by the end she’s made a new friend and grown even closer with her siblings.
The book will be read in schools across Wales and beyond as a result of your Tir na n-Og Award shortlisting. What do you hope young readers will get out of the book?
I hope readers will enjoy this fast paced race for survival in the Welsh wilderness as they work out the mystery of the locked safe alongside the characters. I hope readers come away feeling excited about the Celtic rainforest, comforted by Cara’s journey to make friends, and feeling not alone in the world.
Many of your books have hazardous moments as part of the adventures. Some of them can shock and surprise. Do you temper your words for your audience?
I’ve always had a very wild imagination and one of the wonderful things about books is that readers can go on adventures from the safety of their own homes. Often the journeys my characters take can be dangerous and I try to reflect this with my writing. I do always think about my choice of language carefully, alongside considering the emotional connection between the reader and protagonist.
Could you recommend some other books that readers of Where The Wilderness Lives might like?
I’d love to! There are so many brilliant adventure stories that I love. A few of my favourites that readers of Where the Wilderness Lives might enjoy are:
Holes by Louis Sachar
Wilde by Eloise Williams
The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook
The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr
Storm Hound by Claire Fayers
Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce
The Last Bear by Hannah Gold
Amazingly, you’ve published a book every year since 2017. Into The Volcano, your fifth novel, has just hit the shops. What can you tell us about it and can we expect this publishing phenomenon to continue?
I still can’t quite believe that Into the Volcano has made it into the world as it was written during lockdowns which meant a completely new way of writing for me (usually I spend lots of time outside). It’s an adventure set on top of a super volcano, and is a book about coming to terms with grief, letting go of anger at the world and finding hope and joy in the most unexpected of places. The story is told through a dual narrative which was really fun to write. It follows Seb from Colorado, and Vivi from London, whose lives collide after a tragic event and they end up on a journey in search of a rainbow pool in Yellowstone National Park. Along their way they meet wolves and bears, all the while dodging bubbling pools and steaming geysers.
My next middle grade book won’t be published until 2023 BUT I have a very exciting new illustrated series for readers aged 7 and up launching in July this year. The first book in The Adventure Club series is called Red Panda Rescue. Each story is filled with travelling the world, protecting endangered animals, and adventuring!
I am really grateful to Jess for her diligence and patience in answering these questions. Diolch Jess.
Buy yourself a copy of Where The Wilderness Lives from your local bookshop. You can follow Jess on Twitter or visit her website. The winner of the English Language Tir na n-Og Award for 2021 will be announced on the BBC Radio Wales Art Show on Friday 21 May.
The Tir na n-Og Award is an annual award for children’s books with an authentic Welsh context. The shortlist, announced in March, features three brilliant books:
The winner of the award will be announced at the end of May. In the meantime, we are all encouraged to shadow the awards and get to know these books in more detail. We are delighted to be bringing you interviews with the shortlisted authors, and our first is with Dr. Elen Caldecott, author of The Short Knife.
Elen was born and raised near Llangollen, where her family still lives. She has published many books for children; her debut novel, How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant, was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Prize and longlisted for the 2010 Carnegie Award. The Short Knife was written as part of her PhD in Creative Writing and was longlisted for the Carnegie. It is a story set in the early middle ages, 454, at a time when Welsh identity was just starting to emerge, when the Romans had left and the Britons and Saxons were battling to take hold of different territories. Young Mai and her sister, Haf, are suspicious of the Saxon soldiers arriving in their village. Proved rightly so by a brutal attack on their family home, the sisters must seek a new place to belong, encountering betrayal, love, and everything in between. This is a celebration of difference and finding your own way, when even speaking your mother tongue can be dangerous.
What was the seed that began The Short Knife?
I was curious about language, primarily. In an earlier book (Diamonds and Daggers), I had written a Polish character and the copyeditor had asked ‘Isn’t their English really good?’ and the answer was, ‘No, they’re speaking Polish to the other Polish characters.’ But, of course, the words on the page were English. So, I had a creative problem: How can you give the impression of one language when writing in another? It felt like a puzzle. I wanted to try to solve it. As I speak only two languages well enough to be able to write in them – Welsh and English – it was a puzzle I could only try to solve using those languages. Therefore, the voice and style of The Short Knife came first and the plot afterwards. It was great to turn that puzzle into a research question for my PhD as it gave me the time and space I needed to play.
You were an archaeologist – does this have any bearing on the way you approached the story?
Definitely. I studied Roman Britain as an undergraduate, and I’ve always been fascinated by the end of the empire. It would have been a very different experience, depending on where you lived (If you were in modern Turkey, for example, you might not even have noticed). Britain was probably the worst affected province. So, I knew it was a time of tumult, which is always good for a story. In a more practical sense, I was able to read site reports for excavations which had happened in the locations I was using, so I can justify some of the decisions I made – for example, having Gwrtheyrn resettle an Iron Age fort.
Were there any specific sites that provided inspiration or breakthrough moments?
Yes, absolutely. Even though it’s historical fiction, and there’s no 100% accurate way to know what life was like then, I found some approximations which were really inspirational. Leigh Woods in Bristol is woodland with a hill fort within it. I took my laptop and my dog up there a lot. We’d walk for an hour and I’d do my best to notice details of the landscape, then I’d write.
I also visited ‘reconstruction’ sites – St Fagans in Cardiff has a small village of roundhouses, and West Stow, near Peterborough has some Anglo-Saxon halls. It was genuinely amazing to visit these sites and talk to the people who worked there. My pen rushed over my notebook. I felt as though the sounds, smells and sensations were a way to get closer to my characters. I also visited Newport Wetlands and Cadbury Congresbury hill fort for more details about the landscape.
Where is the farm of Mai, Haf and Tad located and would they have considered themselves Welsh, British or something else?
Most readers have assumed that their farm is in
modern Wales, but it isn’t. It’s actually nearer to modern Bristol, (though
that city hasn’t been established at this time period). There are clues to the
location – for example they talk about walking to the Severn and the crossing
being dangerous. But I call the river by its Welsh name, the Hafren, and I
don’t think most people are familiar with that name. Its funny, really, you’d
think that two neighbouring countries would know what the other called the boundary
between them, but we don’t. It reflects the enormous power imbalance between
the languages, I suspect.
In terms of what Mai and her family would consider
themselves, they are British. However, there’s a generational divide between
what they mean by that. Tad, who was a boy at the end of empire, might think of
himself as a citizen of the Roman Province of Britannia, at least
nostalgically. Mai and Haf, on the other hand, have no such nostalgia.
They speak Brittonic, a language family that spread from Edinburgh to Exeter at
the time. Having said that, daily life was likely so disrupted, I doubt
there was any sense of a ‘national people’, the societies were likely much more
Do you see yourself as Welsh, British or something else?
Yes, I absolutely do think of myself as Welsh – that’s what I’d reply if someone asked me where I’m from. I haven’t lived there since I left to go to university, but my family is still there. I visit regularly (or did, you know, before). My PhD was part supervised at Aberystwyth University and I ended up working at Cardiff Uni for nearly two years afterwards. I rarely think of ‘British’ other than as a legal term – like on your passport or when applying for a job. It’s something I am, but it doesn’t hold quite the same resonance, in the way that watching a Lions tour isn’t quite the same as watching the Six Nations…
Whilst the landscape is beyond Wales, the book has Welsh influences and a strong Welsh current. This comes from the language you use.
Yes, absolutely. The language Mai speaks, and thinks in, is inspired by Welsh. I tried to give her a Welsh mindset (as much as one can, given that the book is set in an ancient past). So, the language is important, but there are other ideas about being bilingual, fitting in or standing out, being part of a community that can feel on the edge of things, on the edge of attention. There are also themes of betrayal in the book – about whether or not one should stick with a community one is born into, or whether there are things to be gained by leaving, which are also inspired by my own connection with Wales.
The language is exquisite. I understand you created a database of idioms directly translated from Welsh. How did you hit upon this idea and did you have any favourite phrases?
I’m not sure where the idea came from now. I think I was looking at ways
other writers have approached working between languages and I was listening to
talks by people like Xiaolu Guo and Nicholas Jose who work between languages.
The idea might have come from there. Once I’d had the idea I bought a copy of
‘A Dictionary of Welsh & English Idiomatic Phrases’ by Alun Cowrie and
translated it. There are thousands! Some really wonderful ones are ‘to grow
small bones’ and ‘to see your apron strings grow short’ for being pregnant. I
also really enjoy some of the euphemisms for death, like ‘to go and get your
answer’ or to ‘to go and sleep outside’.
How did you find Mai’s voice (and Welsh mindset)?
The technical limitations I set myself dictated her voice a lot – the idioms, for example, tend to be quite ‘earthy’ so she had to be someone close to the land. It was tricky to imagine what a teenager might have sounded like back then. I made her dad a storyteller, so that she could legitimately have more wider frames of reference (like history, religion etc) than an illiterate farmgirl might otherwise have had. After that, there are elements of the plot which I think push her closer to a ‘Welsh mindset’, so things like being bilingual, living close to more powerful communities, and worrying about betraying the community she came from by adapting to her new circumstance.
The problem of the power imbalance between English and Welsh is an interesting one, does the answer lie in education? Did a welsh-medium education give you a perspective on this?
There is definitely a power imbalance between the
languages. One is a World Language, the lingua franca of half the world. The
other is one of the oldest spoken languages, still clinging on at the edge of
There are a few things I’d like to see happen. The
first is that people stop trying to see them as equivalents. So often people
say, ‘What’s the point of learning Welsh? Why not learn a useful language like
Spanish?’ But, *if you already speak one World Language* then all bets are off.
English will serve you well anywhere you go; you’ve got your useful language.
So, your second (or third, etc) language should be anything that gives you
pleasure, be that Welsh or Klingon (or Spanish, sure!). And, connecting with a
language that stretches back thousands of years has got to be pretty
pleasurable. It’s like visiting a National Park, or a gallery or theatre, it
can just be a thing you do because you think it’s cool.
The second thing I’d like to see is for everyone to
worry less about ‘fluency’ (including myself!). The ability to speak a language
is a spectrum; no-one knows all the words of a language. So, if all you know is
‘diolch’ and ‘bore da’, then use those and feel fine about saying ‘I’m a
beginner’. Or, if you get tangled up with mutations, power through, knowing
you’ll be understood just fine. Perfection is the enemy of done, after all.
I don’t think I thought very much about these
things when I was at school. A Welsh medium education was just, you know, my
life. It was only when I was older that I realised that my parents had made
something of a political choice with the school they chose.
How important is authenticity and how far should a writer go to achieve this?
It’s important that your reader believes in
the world you’ve created. It’s actually half the battle – if a reader 100%
believes the setting, then they will suspend their disbelief for the rest of
the story/characters. The easiest way to write a believable setting is to do
good research and simply describe whatever it is you’ve found out. If there are
obvious anachronisms, then the reader might notice it’s *all* made up. Having
said that, it can be really interesting to deliberately use anachronisms in
historical fiction – I’m thinking of something like Alex Wheatle’s ‘Cane
Warriors’ which uses current London vernacular in an 18th century West Indies
setting; it does this – I think – to highlight that we just don’t know what the
‘authentic’ voices would have sounded like; they have been erased. So the
‘inauthenticity’ points to the violence that was done. At the end of the day,
the duty of the writer is to the needs of the book they are writing, not to
The split narrative creates real mystery and intrigue. Were there any difficulties in composing a non-chronological narrative and what spurred you to write it in this way?
It was actually just a really practical solution to a writing problem.
The finale of the story is based on a traditional legend called ‘The Treachery
of the Long Knives’. The legend is a very male story. If I’d ended the book
with that legend, it would have taken the spotlight off Mai, which I didn’t
want at all. BUT, it’s such a dramatic story, it would have been weird to put
it in the middle of the book. My solution was to write a really long epilogue
and spread it out through the book. The reader moves between
before-the-treachery and after-the-treachery with the actual moment of
treachery where you would expect it to be, at the end. I don’t know if I’ve
explained it well, but it wasn’t that I set out to compose a non-chronological
narrative per se. The narrative was actually a solution to a
different problem I had.
Is the legend of Gwrtheyrn something you were aware of from school?
To be honest, I couldn’t tell you when I first
heard about it. We definitely read all kinds of Welsh legends while I was in
school. I learned to read using a reading scheme called ‘stori a chwedl’ which
was jam-packed with quite gory stuff (the horse’s eyelids story from Branwen
was particularly disturbing when I was in primary school). I was reminded of it
in conversation with Cathy Butler, a children’s writer who is also a lecturer
in Cardiff. She reminded me of the story when we were talking about the lack of
female characters in early medieval literature – though Gwrtheyrn is called
Vortigern in the version she knew. My version of him evolved to fit the
story. He’s the person I needed him to be, rather than me trying to capture a
So many brilliant books from Wales use a folk tale as a seed or even framework for their stories. The Snow Spider, The Owl Service, Cantre’r Gwaelod. Many people see folk tales as holding a mirror up to society so that our values and principles can be taught/preserved. Does The Short Knife hold a mirror up to Wales (and England) / Britain?
Oh and don’t forget The Grey King, I love that book! I really hope The Short Knife holds up a mirror, for sure. I want us to remember how much the kingdom has evolved over the centuries, and how much of what we consider as ‘English’ or ‘British’ are actually imported ideas. We are an island nation formed by the movement of people.
The book has many parallels to today – were these deliberately planned from the outset?
I’d say yes, and no. They weren’t planned right
from the outset, but early on during the writing, the Brexit vote happened, and
all the aftermath of that like the rise in reports of racists attacks. I
couldn’t help but think about the island’s relationship with the continent –
how we often think of ourselves as separate, but actually have a rich and
complex shared history. I also wanted to hold a mirror up to all the people I
heard saying rubbish like, ‘England for the English’ and remind people that the
English were once ‘invaders’ too (and I use that word very advisedly!).
It seems that you approached The Short Knife very differently to previous books. Has The Short Knife changed you as a writer?
I think so, yes. I’m working on a book just now, and I’m much more willing to write about Wales than I was. I’m also much more aware of language and playfulness of style, whereas I think in the past I thought plot was the most important thing. I’m more interested in seeing where exploration takes me, without worrying right from the beginning whether something is a good idea or not.
The book seems suited to a YA audience – was this audience in mind when you were writing and what do you hope young readers get out of it?
Yes, the themes of identity and community – as well
as betrayal, which is quite a big part of it – were just a bit too mature for
Middle Grade readers. Also, there’s a fair chance that the language would
alienate young readers. So, it was always intended as YA. Having said that, a
lot of adults have enjoyed it too. I’m certain that what we bring to a piece of
art (be it books, films, music etc) has a huge impact on what we get out of it.
So, I think that, for example, a young person who speaks one language at home
and a different one outside will get something from the book which is quite
different to what a monolingual speaker would get. But I hope that there are
ideas about not reaching for easy answers to complex problems in there. I also
hope that the wide range of female characters model female power in lots of
different ways – there isn’t just one way to use your voice. I hope young readers
see those ideas there, at least!
And what do you think your readers will learn from Mai?
For me, I think she comes to understand that the world is more complex than she thought at the beginning. Initially, everything is so black and white. But, over time, she sees that everyone can make stupid or thoughtless decisions; that even ‘villains’ can be loved by their families. That’s what I see in Mai’s development, and that’s what I’d like young people to take away from the book, really. Mai does come out of the trauma with a stronger sense of self, but she also has a better understanding of other people’s minds too.
The Short Knife was longlisted for the Carnegie and is now shortlisted for the Tir na n-Og. What is the significance of awards for you?
A writer friend of mine often plays a game: ‘Would you prefer tonnes of sales or good reviews – you can’t have both?’ It’s a brutal, but fun game. With some books I’d choose sales, with others reviews, it depends on what I was trying to do when I wrote the book. Good reviews, and, being nominated for awards like the Tir na n-Og, mean that people have read and reflected on your work – on whether it’s been bold and pushed at the boundaries of the field. I guess award nominations can validate risk taking.
So do you feel validated? And what was the biggest risk for you?
It’s a huge accolade for me, for sure. I grew up seeing books with ‘Tir na n-Og Winner’ stickers on their cover, so it feels really close to home. I’m thrilled about it. In terms of risk, there are lots of ways that The Short Knife was a risk. Two of the biggest are the language and the period. The rules I made for myself risk alienating a reader (and I know some readers have been alienated, I get that), it might simply be *too weird*. And the period is not one we study much. If you’re writing historical fiction, people are much more comfortable with the Tudors, or the second World War, and so on. the periods that are on the school curriculum. The 5th century was way leftfield, but *shrugs* it’s a time I’m really curious about.
Along with RS Thomas and Islwyn Ffowc Elis, you must be among the most renowned literary exports from North East Wales. Is your writing, and in particular The Short Knife, influenced by any Welsh writers?
Aw, my mum loves RS, so she’d be chuffed to hear you say that. There were three writers that were actually very influential. As I did this as a PhD I ended up writing a lot about them! Two are uncontroversial (and brilliant), G R Gemin and Catherine Johnson – I love the exploration of transnational identities in their own work. The third is much more controversial – Caradoc Evans. He wrote ‘My People’ in the early 20th century, which is a collection of short stories that do not reflect well on the Welsh. He was pretty much shunned thereafter, for airing Wales’ dirty laundry before an English public. For someone wanting to write in the space between Wales and England he was a guide – and a warning!
Tell me about the title. Was it always thus?
I *think* so. I can’t remember it ever having a different title. I think as soon as I knew the Treachery of the Long Knives was going to be a major component, I liked the idea of Mai being a ‘short knife’ in contrast to the men. Back then everyone would have had their own knife, worn on their belt, for all kinds of simple domestic tasks. I liked the idea of something innocuous coming to be significant.
I wonder if you could recommend other books. A kind of “If you enjoyed The Short Knife then you will love…”
Ooh, yes please! There are some amazing YA historical fiction writers working just now. The voice in ‘Cane Warriors’ by Alex Wheatle is just amazing. Everything Tanya Landman has ever written is fire. I also love Catherine Johnson’s work, especially ‘The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo’.
What’s next for Elen Caldecott?
I’m working on a novel for middle grade readers just now. It’s set in North Wales, but has a big dollop of fantasy in it, as well as the village life I saw as I grew up. I’m really enjoying bringing in more Wales into my writing than I ever have before.
This interview took place between Elen Caldecott and Simon Fisher over a number of months. I am really grateful to Elen for her patience (not least with my questions) and for her generous and thoughtful answers. Diolch Elen.
Three books have made it to the shortlist of the English-language Tir na n-Og Award; the annual awards celebrate the best books for children and young adults published in 2020.
Organised by the Books Council of Wales and sponsored by CILIP Cymru Wales, the English-language shortlist honours books with an authentic Welsh background for children and young people. There are also two other prizes for Welsh language books for primary and secondary ages.
The shortlist: The Quilt, Valeriane Leblond (Y Lolfa) The Short Knife, Elen Caldecott (Andersen Press) Where The Wilderness Lives, Jess Butterworth (Orion Books)
The Quilt by Valériane Leblond (Y Lolfa, 2020) for ages 5+ is a beautiful, lyrical story about a little girl who lives with her parents on a farm near the coast in rural Wales, around the turn of the twentieth century. Life is hard and the family decide to emigrate to America. To pay for the cost of their journey they sell their possessions but keep a black and red quilt hand-made by the mother from pieces of fabric left over from clothes she has made for the family. Leaving everything familiar behind brings homesickness and a longing – hiraeth – for the little girl, and it is the memories and love contained in the quilt that help her overcome these feelings and adapt to her new life.
The Short Knife by Elen Caldecott (Andersen Press, 2020) for ages 12+ is a story set many centuries ago, in the early Middle Ages, 454, at a time when a new Welsh identity was just starting to emerge, when the Romans had left and the Britons and Saxons were battling to take hold of different territories. It is narrated through the voice of the main character, Mai, a young girl, who up until now, along with her sister Haf, has been kept safe by her father. The story starts with the arrival of Saxon warriors at their farm, forcing the family to flee to the hills where British warlords lie in wait. From here we see Mai surviving in a dangerous world where just speaking her mother tongue could lead to her death, and where she comes to mistrust even the people she loves the most.
Where the Wilderness Lives by Jess Butterworth (Orion, 2020) for ages 9+ centres around the character of Cara who lives on a houseboat with her mum, siblings and a dog called Willow. Her dad used to live with them but now lives in a remote part of Wales. The adventure starts when Cara and her siblings find a locked safe one day when they are helping with a clean-up of the canal where they live. A fire destroys their houseboat one night, and while her mum is in hospital and Cara is looking after her siblings, a thief comes to steal the safe. The children leave the house they are temporarily living in to travel in their houseboat with the safe to go to their dad, and then on foot on a journey of survival across Welsh mountains in the snow.
There will be lots of talk on our Twitter channel and on this blog about #TNNO2021 in the coming months, in the lead up to the announcement of the winner on Friday 21st May. We have interviews with the authors and more exclusive content to entertain and educate.
Jo Bowers, Chair of the English-language judging panel, said: “All three books had their stories set against a rich authentic Welsh background, which is a central criteria for this award, and each one did this in a very different way to the others. Each book stood out for many reasons: the sense of place and time in Wales and Welsh history; the overall design, and each surprised and engaged in both the style and content of the story. We felt that each one brought new aspects about Wales in children’s literature.”
Chief Executive of the Books Council of Wales, Helgard Krause, said: “My warmest congratulations to all those involved in bringing these three shortlisted titles to readers. It is so important to ensure that young readers in Wales have a choice of high-quality books which reflect the country and culture in which they live.”
Previous winners of this award include Claire Fayers, Jenny Nimmo, Catherine Fisher and Susan Cooper.
Schools and teachers can get involved by shadowing the awards in the run up to the winner’s announcement. For more information on the award, visit the special pages on the Books Council of Wales website.
Books to develop insight into the culture, people and history of Wales
This St. David’s Day, we’ve decided to take a look at some brilliant stories with a Welsh context. These are books that will fire the imagination and connect children to the landscape and the communities of Wales, both now and in the past. We hope that our suggested reading list is fuel for teachers, parents and reading enthusiasts from Holyhead to Haverfordwest and Highmoor Hill to Hawarden. We also have some suggestions for activities that will help to get to know these books better.
Reception (Age 5)
Tad-cu’s Bobble Hat was Malachy Doyle’s 100th book and was recently included in the Iechyd Da wellbeing pack from the Welsh Books Council delivered to all Welsh primaries. Set in the Cambrian Mountains not far from Machynlleth, the story features a boy and his tadcu (grandfather) on walks through the hills. On one particular trip the snow falls and tadcu lends his bobble hat which is then lost. The book, illustrated by Dorry Spikes, deals with the loss of a grandparent in a very gentle way and the symbolism of the changing seasons can be explored whilst connecting with the intergenerational theme and the welsh landscapes. ‘A touching story that conveys the warmth and joy between two generations, and handles the universal themes of love, loss and renewal with gentleness. On one walk, as Tadcu gets older, his special bobble hat is lost. Winter sets in and with it, life dies. When the thaw of spring arrives, the boy returns to the hillside walk to look for the hat. Its discovery brings comfort and a renewed sense of love and positive memories.’
Year 1 (Age 6)
The Quilt by Valeriane Leblond is a wonderful picturebook that can be read and enjoyed by any age. Children and adults will be captivated by the gorgeous illustrations that take us from rural Wales at the turn of the 20th century to the New World via Liverpool. This book connects us to our past but could also open up conversations about migration, homes, family, travel as well as Wales’ unique landscapes. ‘A beautifully illustrated story about emigration and homesickness. A little girl lives with her parents on a farm near the coast, around the turn of the twentieth century. Times are hard and the family decides to emigrate to the USA, raising the fare by selling all of their possessions except for a black and red quilt lovingly hand-made by the mother. The little girl feels homesick and sad at times, but the memories and love contained in the quilt help her overcome this and adapt to her new life. The book offers a message of hope which is sure to strike a chord with many adult readers: when things look bleak, remember that happy times will return.’
Little Honey Bee also has illustrations by Valeriane Leblond and is written by Caryl Lewis. The Welsh landscapes are evident throughout the story which will connect readers to the rich plantlife of their locality through a sensitive story about a bee-keeping grandma. ‘One wintry night, Elsi is left on her grandmother’s doorstep. Elsi is as silent as snow until Grandma shows her a secret at the bottom of the garden…’
Year 2 (Age 7)
Owen and the Mountain by Malachy Doyle and Giles Greenfield has echoes of Tadcu’s Bobble Hat in that it highlights a warm and loving relationship between a boy and his grandfather. Climbing the remote Welsh mountain can be seen as a metaphor that is difficult for both grandfather and grandson. Ultimately this is a story about love, achieving your heart’s desire and the glory of nature. ‘Owen is visiting his grandad and he wants to climb the mountain. But his grandad is not sure. The journey is long and tiring and when they succeed they are not only happy to have completed a difficult task but have also learnt a bit more about each other.’
The Seal Children by Jackie Morris is a story built on the celtic myth of half-woman half-seal selkies, and is set just above St. David’s Head. ‘When a fisherman falls in love with a selkie she gives him her sealskin as a sign of her love, and bears him two children, Ffion and Morlo, before returning to her own people. When a stranger comes to the village, telling of a land far away, the children remember their mother’s stories of the cities of gold and pearls beneath the waves…’ The Hamilton Trust have written teaching notes for The Seal Children aimed at Year 4, and you can hear Jackie read the book below.
Cities in the Sea
While considering books for this list, it became clear that there are many excellent quality stories about the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod – the prosperous land accidently flooded when the gates to the low-lying kingdom were left open. These three versions are suitable to read together (and work great as a read-aloud) to bridge the journey between Year 2 and Year 3.
Year 3 (Age 8)
Wendy White has some really brilliant stories all about Welsh communities. Short manageable chapters make these great books for newly independent readers to try for themselves. But there’s great humour to be had in reading aloud – especially the Welsh caricatures in the seasonally apt St. David’s Day Is Cancelled.
The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo is a classic story that has to be included in this list. About to mark its 35th birthday following the recent TV adaptation by Owen Sheers, The Snow Spider is another story that features the Welsh landscape almost as an additional character. It’s also great for empathy as readers have to come to terms with the reactions of different family members to the disappearance of Gwyn’s sister. More mature readers could be encouraged to investigate the links to the Mabinogion. ‘Gwyn’s grandmother leaves him five gifts: a brooch, a piece of dried seaweed, a tin whistle, a scarf, and a broken toy horse. She tells him they will help make him a magician – but can Gwyn use them to bring his missing sister, Bethan, home?’
Year 4 (Age 9)
Two books that have dual Italian-Welsh heritage are Sweet Pizza and King of the Sky. Both of these books provide opportunities for children to discover an important part of Welsh history – Italian cafes or ice-cream parlours were commonplace at one time. Sweet Pizza by G.R. Gemin, is about a South Wales valley café under threat; Joe, has an entrepreneurial spirit like his immigrant ancestors; he is unwilling to accept that the café is a lost cause and has ideas to breathe new life into it and make it the centre of the community once more. The pride that Joe feels for his own heritage, his ancestors and the valley in which he lives is obvious and infectious in this heart-warming book. ‘Joe loves his Italian heritage: the language, the opera, the lasagne! But it’s hard to celebrate his Italian roots in Bryn Mawr, South Wales, where his mam is sick of running the family’s tatty café. Just like his great-grandfather, who opened the café in 1929, Joe is an entrepreneur. He vows to save the family business, and to spice up the tired High Street with a little Italian flavour!’
King of the Sky, meanwhile, features an Italian boy who is finding it hard to call Wales home. Only when he meets the pigeon-racing Mr Evans does he begin to connect and start to belong. Nicola Davies’ perfectly pitched prose and Laura Carlin’s earthy illustrations make this a delightfully evocative book about Wales’ recent past. The book is one of many on this list that would work with all ages, and there are lots of teacher notes available to download. We particularly like the ones from Walker and Amnesty. We made a video about King of the Sky when it was shortlisted for the Tir na n-Og Award in 2018. It made me smile to go back, so here it is again…
The most recent winner of the Tir na n-Og Award (an award for children’s books that have an authentic Welsh context), is Storm Hound by Claire Fayers. I have recently used Storm Hound as a Whole Class Read in my Year 4 class so can vouch that it totally engaged and enthused the children. Based on both Norse and Welsh mythology the story centres on a family new to Abergavenny who adopt a puppy from the Dog Centre; he just happens to be one of the Hounds of Odin’s Wild Hunt! Funny, fast-paced and hugely satisfying with lots of layers to unpeel. ‘Storm of Odin is the youngest stormhound of the Wild Hunt that haunts lightning-filled skies. He has longed for the time when he will be able to join his brothers and sisters but on his very first hunt he finds he can’t keep up and falls to earth, landing on the A40 just outside Abergavenny. Enter twelve-year-old Jessica Price, who finds and adopts a cute puppy from an animal rescue centre. And suddenly, a number of strange people seem very interested in her and her new pet, Storm. People who seem to know a lot about magic . . . Jessica starts to see that there’s something different about her beloved dog and will need to work out which of her new friends she can trust.’
The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr was only published at the start of 2021 but it already feels like it belongs in this list. In fact, it feels like a classic as you read it and I’m sure many schools will be adopting it for their teaching as the word begins to spread. It’s a brilliant World War II evacuee story that we described as “a moving love song to the valleys”.
‘When Jimmy is evacuated to a small village in Wales, it couldn’t be more different from London. Green, quiet and full of strangers, he instantly feels out of place. But then he finds a skull hidden in a tree, and suddenly the valley is more frightening than the war. Who can Jimmy trust? His brother is too little; his best friend has changed. Finding an ally in someone he never expects, they set out together to uncover the secrets that lie with the skull. What they discover will change Jimmy – and the village – forever.‘
The Clockwork Crow is a world-class fantasy for children by Catherine Fisher, set at the end of the Victorian era. Taking the myth of the Tylwyth Teg and using it to inspire a trilogy of stories located in a Mid-Wales manor house, provides a treasure trove of interesting links. The eponymous Crow has a mystery of his own, but the talking corvid is not the central character. Seren is an orphan who seeks to belong and is determined to solve the central mystery of a missing child. ‘A magical story of snow and stars; a mysterious gothic Christmas tale set in a frost-bound Victorian country mansion. When orphaned Seren Rees is given a mysterious package by a strange and frightened man on her way to her new home, she reluctantly takes it with her. But what is in the parcel? Who are the Family who must not be spoken of, and can the Crow help Seren find Tomos, before the owner of the parcel finds her?’
Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day is an extraordinary book. A witty, gritty, profound adventure set in the heart of Snowdonia. It’s got sibling rivalry, dragons and mountains. It’s fresh, it’s real, it’ll make you cry. One reviewer described it as “Jacqueline Wilson meets Alan Garner” and there’s no doubt that this is a raw coming-of-age adventure. ‘Max wants to be just like his dad – fun, loud and strong. Instead, he always seems to be accidentally getting into fights and breaking things. But when his dad starts bringing home mysterious boxes, even more mysterious wads of cash starts turning up. Then Dad disappears. And it’s up to Max to look after his sisters until he comes home.
When they run away to a remote village in Wales, he’s convinced that no one will find them. He’s Max Kowalski. Of course he can look after three kids with no grownups around! Although, he can’t stop thinking about where Dad really went. And the whispers of a golden dragon, asleep under the Welsh mountains…’
Gaslight is a highly atmospheric and very dramatic historical fiction set in Victorian Cardiff. Wales’ Children’s Laureate, Eloise Williams has crafted a rich and vividly descriptive novel that will have you on the edge of your seat. Nansi is the central character, trying to solve the disappearance of her mother, whilst scraping a living between bit parts on the Empire Theatre stage and thieving from rich households. Nansi dreams of finding her own identity and freeing herself from the perilous life she leads. In parts bleak and brutal, this is a gripping tale that will fire many imaginations. ‘All Nansi knows is that her mother disappeared on the day she was fished out of Cardiff docks. Now, in 1899, she can’t remember anything else. With no other family to turn to, she works for Sid at the Empire Theatre, sometimes legally, sometimes thieving to order, trying to earn enough money to hire a detective to find her mother. Everything changes when Constance and Violet join the theatre, both with their own dark secrets. Nansi is forced to be part of Violet’s crooked psychic act. But it’s when Constance recognises her, and realises who her mother must be, that Nansi’s world is turned upside down forever. She is soon on the run for her life and she will have to risk everything if she’s going to find the truth.’
Year 7+ (Age 12 and up)
Traditionally our blog has focussed on the primary years, but as our children grow up (two of them are now over 12) we are learning more about books for more mature children and young adults. We are therefore delighted to recommend these titles for secondary age children.
Non-Fiction for all ages
The book Wales on the Map was published a couple of years ago, and is an indispensable guide to Wales, it’s regions, landscapes, culture and history. It really is essential reading for all and is presented with gorgeous double page spread illustrations in a large format book. Elin Meek has done the research and written the little facts in readable bitesize nuggets while illustrations are by the ridiculously talented Valeriane Leblond, who has several books on this page.
For those looking to explore specific periods of history in Wales, then the Wicked Wales series published by Gomer presents the information in a similar manner to the Horrible Histories books.
Folk Tales and Legends
We’d also like to recommend some folk tales and legends to spark your imagination – there are a number of really fantastic versions available. A special mention for the newly published Welsh Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends by Claire Fayers which is a cracking compilation of short stories – some familiar, some not so familiar, but all told with Claire’s friendly fireside storytelling voice – there’s a real focus on building each story and telling it well. It’s going down a storm in our house with all ages from 8 to 46 (am sure it appeals to older and younger too!).
Claire is also contributing towards a new collection of stories from The Mabinogion. The Mab has now received full funding for publication and will feature stories from some of our best-loved authors, put together by Eloise Williams and Matt Brown. You can pre-order your copy here.
Here’s a gallery of other folk tales and legends that have captivated us:
5 Activities to encourage Reading for Pleasure with books from Wales
Many of these ideas are credited to research carried out by the Open University Reading for Pleasure groups, in association with the UKLA (UK Literacy Association). I have provided links to the examples of practice on their website, where relevant. These are all tried and tested methods in my own classroom and can be easily transferred to the home setting. This is not about comprehension tasks or analysis of writing – it’s about firing a spark and reading for pleasure!
1. Book Blanket
A Book Blanket is essentially where you lay out books and encourage readers to look, read the blurbs, dip in, see what appeals and then, importantly, talk about it. If you’re in school you can do this with a whole class and have a little crib sheet that they fill in, or tick the ones they like the look of and want to read later. At home, you can engage in more detailed conversations about why books appeal; what do we think they will be about; have we read anything similar? Book blankets are normally carried out on a ‘theme’ so collecting together books about Wales is an ideal opportunity. If you don’t have many books about Wales, you could widen it to books by Welsh authors.
Similar to the Book Blanket, Book Tasting is a means to show children that there are more genres, more authors, more stories to be found. It is about widening their reading repertoires and showing them new stories in a fun and interesting way. Provide a selection of books for children to look at. Make it fun by turning the classroom into a cafe – tablecloths, menus, flowers… that kind of thing. You could put on an apron and be the waiter/waitress attending to the cafe customers. Children can write down the menu of books they have chosen and discuss with friends which ‘flavours’ they enjoyed most and would like more of. Again, it’s important to encourage ‘book talk’ – find out why particular books are chosen. A special Welsh cafe for St. David’s Day would be rather wonderful wouldn’t it?
Here’s one for the grown-ups. The research by Open University shows that a teacher who has good knowledge of the available books is much better placed to give a suitable recommendation and foster reading for pleasure in the classroom or home. If you want a vibrant and diverse collection of books for children to explore, which should include books from Wales, then you have to develop your knowledge of these texts.
Much has been written about the reliance on celebrity authors and also the reliance on the authors of our childhoods like Dahl and Blyton, but for many teachers it’s seen as a professional responsibility to increase their own knowledge of available books.
So how about this: get out a map of Wales and place the books in their geographical locations. Are there gaps on the map? Do you have books that children in your community can relate to? Are there some places in Wales that inspire more stories than others? Do the characters reflect the realities of the children you teach/parent? You may want to explore the Tir na n-Og shortlists of the past in conjunction with our blog post.
Adopt an author is an idea to engage with one author and find out more about their work. In the context of Books from Wales, you could choose any of the authors, although it would work particularly well with Claire Fayers, Eloise Williams, Jenny Nimmo, Valeriane Leblond, Catherine Fisher, Jenny Sullivan, Sian Lewis, Jackie Morris as these names have more than 1 book set in Wales. You could widen it to include authors from Wales – in which case this graphic will be useful…
Children could be encouraged to become an expert in that author and produce a presentation; make promotional posters; record readings (try to keep the focus on the book, themes and connections – this isn’t a biography.)
5. Write a Letter
This is a bit old school, but authors love to hear when children have enjoyed their books. Writing a letter helps to connect the child to the book and to the author. Why not get children to write to the author of their favourite book set in Wales, explaining why they like the book so much? P.G. Bell, Welsh author of The Train to Impossible Places, is a big fan of letter writing and has produced some supportive resources.
Composing a tweet is a similar idea – and sometimes more challenging for a child to express themselves in a limited number of words.
The Tir na nOg Award winner for 2020 will be announced on Friday 3rd July. The award is given to the best children’s book with an authentic Welsh setting. Winners since the inaugural award in 1976 include The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo, The Grey King by Susan Cooper, Arthur The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland and The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher.
We decided to look into the statistics behind the award to see if there is any indication of who is most likely to win…
It seems that if you want to win the Tir na nOg Award, your best bet is to be a female author named Jenny Lewis published by Pont/Gomer. The title of your book should be ‘The Tale of the Welsh King of the Sea’. And if you want the best shot at the trophy, then you’d need to go back to 1981 when there were 17 books shortlisted.
So what does this all mean for this year’s nominees? Er, probably not very much. However – we have to say that the shortlist is very strong and any of these would be worthy winners. We look forward to celebrating the 2020 winner very soon…
Our Children’s Laureate Wales publishes a new book today. And what a book. Wilde is a brilliant story full of excitement, anguish, humour, fantasy and weirdness. Wilde moves in with her Aunt Mae, but struggles to fit in. Odd things keep happening – the birds are following her, she wakes up in strange places, other children keep their distance. Does Wilde have a connection to the legend of The Witch Called Winter? It’s a completely engrossing tale of belonging and acceptance that would appeal to readers age 9+. It’s written by one of our most favourite authors so we thought we’d give you 5 Reasons why we’re Wilde about Eloise Williams:
1 Eloise is a fantastic writer. From the dramatic and tempestuous opening chapters of Elen’s Island, her first book published in 2015, to the poignant and tender close of her latest Wilde, Eloise gets under the skin. She gets under the skin of the reader, compelling them to drop everything and devour every word. Descriptions of landscapes are a real draw; whether it’s the wild and windswept coastline of Pembrokeshire in Seaglass, the grimy Victorian backstreets of Cardiff in Gaslight, or the waterfalls of the Brecon Beacons in Wilde.
What’s impressive though is how she gets under the skin of her characters, producing very real depictions of isolation, loneliness, the frustrations and fears of teenage years, and the joys too. Elen is plucky. Nansi is feisty. Lark is confused. Wilde is lonely. Eloise writes with real empathy for her female protagonists and portrays real understanding for her readers.
2 Eloise works non-stop. Even before she was appointed Children’s Laureate for Wales, Eloise Williams spent a lot of time in schools, libraries and book festivals. She delivers courses like those at Ty Newydd, and is invited to attend courses like the Writers At Work scheme at Hay Festival. And despite claiming to be a procrastinator, on top of all this travelling, publishing four books in 5 years is quite an achievement. Hard work deserves to be recognised and rewarded. Even in lockdown, she is producing weekly challenges to motivate and engage young people…
3 Eloise passionately promotes reading and writing for pleasure. Now, as Children’s Laureate for Wales, Eloise is a strong voice for the children of Wales. She travels the length and breadth of the country (and that takes some time!) enthusing about reading and writing. She talks fervently about the writing process and nurtures strong relationships with the children in her workshops. She is an inspiration to watch in these situations and has a lasting impact on those she meets.
4 Eloise is a tireless advocate for Welsh writers and writing from Wales. As Children’s Laureate for Wales, Eloise encourages and supports other writers for children, sharing her passion for the wealth of talent in Wales. Good stories and excellent writing has no borders, and Eloise pushes the view that books from Wales are books for everyone, raising the visibility of children’s literature in Wales and beyond.
5 Wilde is her best book yet. It’s creating a stir amongst readers and we’d strongly recommend you order a copy this weekend (direct from Firefly Press or from your local independent bookshop). Don’t take our word for it, just look at these quotes…
‘A spookily good adventure that will hold children spellbound. Bewitching.’ Zoe Williams, South Wales Evening Post
‘I loved this contemporary adventure of witches, curses, identity and belonging, from Wales’ children’s laureate.’ Fiona Noble, The Bookseller
‘An inspirational book. She just keeps getting better.’ Claire Fayers
‘Packed with chills and thrills, but is also full of heart. I loved it!’ Kat Ellis
‘A TRULY BRAVE AND BEAUTIFUL BOOK! … Utterly beguiling.’ Zillah Bethel
‘Thrilling throughout … her best yet.’ Scott Evans, the Reader Teacher
Being different can be dangerous. Wilde is afraid strange things are happening around her. Are the birds following her? Is she flying in her sleep? Moving to live with her aunt seems to make it all worse. Wilde is desperate to fit in at her new school, but things keep getting stranger. In a fierce heatwave, in rehearsals for a school play telling the old, local legend of a witch called Winter, ‘The Witch’ starts leaving pupils frightening letters cursing them. Can Wilde find out what’s happening before everyone blames her? Or will she always be the outcast?
The shortlists for the Tir na nOg Award 2020 have been released. Organised by the Books Council of Wales and sponsored by CILIP Cymru, the awards celebrate the work of authors and illustrators published in 2019.
There are three categories – Welsh language books for primary age children, Welsh language books for secondary age children and English language books for all ages. The English language award celebrates books with an authentic Welsh background.
Chief Executive for the Books Council of Wales, Helgard Krause said, “The Tir na n-Og Awards are an opportunity for us to celebrate the talents of our writers and illustrators who are creating world-class content for our children and young people.”
We have to agree that the English language shortlist is very strong – there are books here that would win easily in a different year, and the decision of the judges will be difficult.
Last year’s winning author, Catherine Fisher, tweeted her congratulations to the shortlistees:
The 2020 Shortlist for the English Language Category is as follows:
The Secret Dragon, Ed Clarke (Puffin)
Set on the coastline of the Vale of Glamorgan, The Secret Dragon is a gorgeous story full of fun and fantasy. It’s great for those around aged 8 and above and has a real focus on science and discovery. Fossil hunter Mari Jones makes a remarkable discovery on the beach, and decides to keep it to herself. There’s an interesting and sensitive sub-plot about family breakups that makes this an absorbing tale for all.
Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It, Susie Day (Puffin)
Max and his sisters escape Southend to the mountains of Snowdonia – 6 miles from Llanberis; without their dad, without any adult, without telling anyone. Max Kowalski is a fantastically original and heartfelt tale about growing up, dealing with siblings and inner dragons. This witty and emotional book takes on toxic masculinity and shows middle grade readers that empathy and stories make for a better world.
Storm Hound, Claire Fayers (Macmillan)
Storm (a hound from Odin’s Hunt) finds himself fallen to earth on the A40 a few miles from Abergavenny. This fast-paced and highly satisfying mash-up of Norse mythology and Welsh legend is firmly rooted in the Welsh landscape. Jess adopts the puppy but his magic is much sought-after by suspicious characters. It’s an accomplished, funny fantasy with a very human story at its heart.
Where Magic Hides, Cat Weatherill (Gomer)
Where Magic Hides is a collection of short stories anchored in the four corners of Wales. Ancient kings, trolls and unicorns bound through the pages but the real message is for the contemporary world: magic can be found if you know where to look.
Creating these short summaries has highlighted the many connections between the shortlisted books. Clearly, the Welsh landscape is a unifying factor but there is also the magic and fantasy element. See also: dragons and creatures of mythology; children battling inner demons; the humour and wit of the author. As we say above, all fully deserving of the shortlisting and all worthy of your time. There are some classics here and we look forward to the winner being announced in late May.
Chair of the judging panel, Eleri Twynog Davies said, “All four books on the shortlist are of very high quality. It is so important that the children of Wales can see themselves reflected in Welsh literature, and that children outside Wales have a window on another culture.”
The sequel to The Secret Dragon by Ed Clarke is released in April.
When The Secret Dragon was launched last year, it garnered a lot of praise for its joyous and enchanting story of keen fossil hunter and aspiring scientist, Mari Jones. We called it a “great adventure full of humour and heart”. We loved the setting of the heritage coast, making it eligible for this year’s Tir na n-Og Award shortlist, to be announced in the next few weeks.
Imagine our delight then to be tasked with the cover reveal for Summer of the Dragons, the follow-up coming to all good bookshops on 16 April 2020. And this is really special because it is, once again, illustrated by Ben Mantle. Ben is quickly gathering a reputation for some amazing MG and older fiction covers – see recent examples for stories by Jenny McLachlan, Fleur Hitchcock, Piers Torday and Carlie Sorosiak.
Ben Mantle comes up trumps again with this stunning sunshine design:
“I just love Ben’s artwork and feel so lucky to have him as the cover illustrator,” Ed told us. “On Summer of the Dragons he really captures that seaside holiday feeling too. Who wouldn’t want to have a summer holiday on the Welsh coast? Especially when there’s tiny dragons around…”
Ben was born in Leamington Spa in 1980, and developed a very early interest in things artistic. He studied animation at Surrey Institute of Art & Design, then gained valuable experience working on Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride” before moving to Brighton to work as Head of Animation in a media company.
He was part of the animation team creating the BAFTA winning ‘Big and Small’ CBeebies website and since 2008, has been working as a children’s book illustrator from his shared studio in Brighton. His picture book collaborations with Lucy Rowland, amongst many others, are well-loved and we look forward to the rest of 2020 when he will illustrate the follow up to The Land of Roar and publish a new picture book with Catherine Emmett, entitled King of the Swamp.
Set against the stunning seaside backdrop of the Welsh coast, Summer of the Dragons picks up the story of budding scientist Mari Jones and her pocket-sized dragon Gweeb. A year after she discovered Gweeb on the beach, life is getting back to normal for them both, when two unexpected events turn it upside down again. First comes the news that Mari’s mum Rhian is expecting a baby, meaning that her boyfriend Gareth and Mari’s best friend Dylan will be moving in with them on the farm. Even more incredibly, Gweeb’s family have returned to lay their eggs in the same cave where Mari first found her secret dragon.
With tourists flocking to the beach for the summer, Mari has her work cut out to keep the dragons hidden and safe, especially when disgraced scientist Dr Griff Griffiths turns up on the hunt for a story. And when Griff manages to find and steal Gweeb’s precious egg, Mari must stage a daring rescue mission before it’s too late . . .
Gweeb’s snout emerged once more from Mari’s hoodie, took a sniff of the sea air and nosed out into the open. A second later, the little dragon had sprung forth and rocketed off into the distance. Gweeb loved the beach almost as much as Mari did. With its slatted layers of rolling, undulating rock, it provided the perfect terrain for exhilarating , low-flying aerobatics, and the dark caves cut into the cliffs provided the perfect hiding places, should anyone appear unexpectedly.
When Ed Clarke isn’t writing for kids, he is a film and television executive and producer, working with writers to make drama for grown ups. He lives in North London with his wife and two young daughters, who would both desperately like a pet. He realises they may be disappointed now if they get a rabbit rather than a dragon.
Thank you so much to Puffin for asking us to host this cover reveal. You can find links to pre-order Summer of the Dragons at their website. It is out on 16th April 2020. Please also take the time to follow Ed and Ben and Puffinon Twitter.