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.
What’s the strangest thing to be sent through the post? Well, after a few hours down several internet rabbit holes, I can tell you that there are no limits to the things that people have attempted to send through our beloved Royal Mail. Pets, children, suffragettes, bricks, shepherd’s pie (warm), game (just a label around the neck will do) and a severed ear have all been wrapped and sent in the history of the international postal service. “Mail artists” have sought to push the envelope (thank you very much) and write addresses on unwrapped items such as leaves, apples, potatoes and a piece of toast.
It appears Holly Rivers was inspired by these tales to write The Boy in The Post (charming and funny with a golden heart), her second novel with Chicken House. The book features children mailing themselves to New York in order to solve their problem. You see, the Shalloo siblings have taken on a job for the summer holidays. Their mum is too wrapped up in her second-hand car business to give them her attention and so they answer the call of Grandy Brock to help him establish a new kind of postal service. The kind of postal service that has animals delivering the mail. Animails. Yes that’s right – Grandy Brock has a menagerie of feathers and furs (as well as a rather impressive number of his own children) and is trying to get his new business venture off the ground.
Taber, the youngest of the Shalloo siblings, is responsible for training Geronimo, a pelican, to find it’s way home. Using inbuilt navigation systems, this all goes rather swimmingly (soaringly?) and the bird becomes the best homing pelican you can imagine. However, following an international flight, the bird fails to return home and Taber holds himself responsible. The young boy takes off in the middle of the night, posting himself with a shipment to New York. Taber’s brother and sister become very concerned for him and crate themselves off in a similar manner, embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.
The book has a very classic, vintage feel. The characters are brilliant – written with so much joy you can’t fail to fall in love with them. Grandy Brock is a favourite. He’s eccentric and peculiar but has “a mischievous twinkle in his eyes that hinted at adventure and excitement and fun.” He’s warm and generous and shows kindness that the Shalloo siblings have rarely seen. The book is also laden with some of the best postal-related puns you are ever likely to feast on (it’s all in the delivery!) Now that’s definitely something to write home about.
We’re delighted to be able to share this Q and A with Holly Rivers which delves a bit further into the inspiration behind the book:
Tell us a little about your new novel, The Boy in the Post
The Boy in the Post is a postal-themed adventure story set across land, sea and sky! It follows the Shalloo siblings — adventurous twelve year old Orinthia; nature-loving five year old Taber; and sensible middle child Séafra.
During the summer holidays the three siblings accept a summer job from an eccentric old man called Grandy Brock who lives in a tumbledown windmill. He and his five adopted children are opening a very special postal service called The Mailbox Menagerie, which is to be staffed entirely by animals and birds! The Shalloo siblings become especially fond of Geronimo, a homing pelican. But when the big bird fails to return from a delivery to New York, the Shalloo siblings have no choice but to post themselves across the Atlantic to find her…
What inspired the story?
The story was inspired by a fascinating article published by The Smithsonian Institute, about children who were sent through the mail in the 1900s. Yes, back then it was legal to send your kids through the post! The first child delivered by the U.S. parcel post service was a boy in Ohio, in 1913 — his parents paid 15 cents for the stamps and insured their son for $50, who was then delivered to his Grandmother’s house a few miles away. Even though these children weren’t technically stuffed into mailbags (and instead travelled in the mail vans of trusted postmen) I couldn’t help but start imagining prospective characters being wrapped in brown paper and stamps being stuck to their foreheads; and the idea for The Boy in the Post was born!
What was your favourite piece of information that you uncovered in your research?
I loved reading about loads of other weird and wonderful things that have been sent through the post and intercepted over the years — a turnip with the recipient’s address carved into its flesh; a hive of live bees; false teeth; jars of scorpions; prosthetic limbs; a pair of underpants with an address scrawled across the crotch; a first edition copy of Ulysses deemed ‘obscene’; a brace of game birds; a tree trunk; a building’s worth of bricks; and two suffragettes hoping to get to Herbert Asquith! The bizarre and eccentric side of humanity never fails to inspire and entertain me!
Who were your favourite characters to write?
I had a hoot (excuse the pun) coming up with ideas for my animails — the animals and birds that work at The Mailbox Menagerie. I really let my imagination run wild and ended up penning a homing pelican who gets paid in sardines; a fruit bat who will only work the night shift; a pair of Sphynx cats in charge of licking stamps; an octopus who can deliver 8 parcels at a time; and snakes who cane spell out postcodes with their bodies. All the while I had my own pet chihuahua, Silver snuggled up on my lap — whose snores and farts and woofs made the experience all the richer! She even turns up in the last chapter of the book…..
What do you think the key message is to take away from the book?
I hope that the story inspires readers to embrace more old-school ways of communicating in their post-pandemic lives. During lockdown — a time dominated by zoom calls and emails — sending and receiving letters from family and friends during brought me so much joy; and there was nothing lovelier than hearing the postman coming up the garden path. I hope the book inspires children to switch off their screens, go buy some stamps and put pen to paper. I’m always open to receiving letters from new pen-pals!
You wrote the book during lockdown, how was that as an experience compared to writing your first novel Demelza and the Spectre Detectors?
When I was working on Demelza I was able to take my laptop to so many different locations to write — libraries, cosy pubs, cafes, parks, the northbound Piccadilly line, number 91 bus! But because of lockdown and the fact that all of our worlds had suddenly become a lot smaller, the entirety of The Boy in The Post was written at an antique desk gifted to me by Grandma. I was surprisingly focused and motivated during lockdown and managed to write the first draft of the book fairly quickly. Penning an epic transatlantic adventure also meant that I could travel the world and go on a journey even though I wasn’t allowed to leave the house — it felt like a real tonic!
You work as a children’s workshop facilitator, does this help to inform your writing?
As you can see from the acknowledgments sections of both Demelza and The Boy In The Post, the children I work with are a huge inspiration to me and my writing. They buoy me with their ideas, energy, humour, warmth and imagination, and I’m always jotting down the unusual and funny things they come out with! Being around children so much reminds me to remain playful, and they stop me from turning into too much of a grumpy old grown-up!
Thank you to Holly and Laura for the Q and A and for allowing us to host today’s post on the Blog Tour. The Boy in The Post is available now to buy in your local independent bookshop, published by Chicken House. You can follow Holly on Twitter.
It’s a totally bonkers feeling that we get to celebrate the publication day of Thimble and the Girl from Mars with you. An honour and a pleasure to be kicking off this blog tour.
We first met Thimble, the anarchic Monkey Superstar, around 4 years ago. The debut was a fresh and funny madcap adventure full of hilarious slapstick episodes. Plenty of toilet humour and unbelievable escapades, with the parents (particularly Douglas, the dad) ending up as the ‘butt’ of the joke. Our children have laughed out loud with Thimble and Jams and have grown up loving this favourite series.
That first book was rightly nominated for the Lollies Laugh Out Loud Award, at which point Jon Blake wrote us a rather wonderful blog introducing Thimble to the nation. Do check it out.
Subsequent books, Holiday Havoc and Wonga Bonkers, continued to thrill new generations of the Bookworms family and even inspired one to commit an outrageous act in a branch of IKEA.
All this brings us to Thimble and the Girl from Mars, the newly published installment featuring an extremely unlikeable girl who wants to claim Thimble as her own. This feisty and intelligent foster child, with fantastic football skills, is a mean match for Jams as she manipulates his family and charms his primate pal. Jams needs to use all his wits to keep Thimble on his side. Just like the rest of the series, this is great fun, fast-paced, light-hearted and ever so slightly unhinged!
Jon Blake has written over 60 books for children (and many more radio scripts and books for adults). He is well used to questions, having regularly carried out school visits. Indeed he answered our Q and A back in 2017. But “What are the best questions that children have asked Jon Blake?” we hear you call through the Internet. Here is some exclusive Blog Tour content:
We are very grateful to Jon for sharing this video with us and look forward to finishing Thimble and the Girl from Mars as our current bedtime read. The book is out now and you can buy signed copies from Jon here.Follow Jon and illustrator Martin on Twitter, and check out Jon’s website because there is plenty to explore!
The Queen on our Corner is a very special picture book written by Lucy Christopher and illustrated by Nia Tudor. Both Lucy and Nia were born in Wales so we are delighted to take part in this book tour (and even without the Welsh connection, we’d jump at the chance to celebrate such a lovely book!).
The Queen in question is a homeless lady who lives on the corner of the street with her pet dog. She is ignored by most, feared by some and often seen as a nuisance. But as Lucy Christopher writes, “She is just tired from all the battles she has fought and won, and the ones she has fought and lost too.” The adult reader may see real-world problems in this statement, but the child narrator imagines the fascinating adventures that the Queen may have had combatting dragons and journeying to the far reaches of the globe. It is clear that illustrator Nia Tudor enjoyed these flights of fancy too and these imaginings form the basis for the wonderful endpapers.
Later in the book, the Queen is responsible for an act of extreme braveness and kindness which averts a certain disaster in the street. Suddenly, attitudes change and the residents want to give their thanks and support to the lady who they now acknowledge. But what can they do to show their gratitude? The child narrator has a wonderfully generous and heart-warming thought, but you’ll need to read or listen to the book yourself to find out!
Lucy Christopher was inspired to write this story by the compassion and charity of her friends. She urges all readers to look for the queens in their lives and to reach out. Don’t you think we should treat everyone like a queen? You never know the adventures they have had in their lives.
We absolutely adore Nia’s illustrations in The Queen On Our Corner, her first published picture book. The autumnal palette is just gorgeous and we love the characterisation of the people in the street and have enjoyed spotting the nods to adventure through hidden items in the wonderful spreads. Nia was very kind and answered a few questions from bookworms Kit and Nina to mark the occasion.
What was your first reaction to Lucy Christopher’s words? I thought it was a beautiful story with an important message, and I instantly started imagining the possibilities for the illustrations.
What is your favourite illustration in the book? The picture that shows the whole street. I loved how much detail I was able to put into it.
How do you illustrate? I illustrate digitally using my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil in Procreate.
What is your reaction to seeing the book in the shops? It’s very surreal! I’m just really flattered that there are people out there who are enjoying the book.
We love the dragons and mountains that you included in the book. Are you inspired by Wales? Yes, it was great to include a little homage to my heritage through the dragon!
THE QUEEN ON OUR CORNER is now available in all good bookshops! OR, buy your copy from Lantana’s online shop and donate a book to children who need books the most with your purchase.
Thank you to Katrina and Lantana for inviting us to participate in the book tour. You can follow Lucy, Nia and Lantana on Twitter, and find out more about the author and illustrator at their websites.
We are very happy to be part of the blog tour for His Royal Hopeless, the debut novel from Chloë Perrin, published by Chicken House. We heard that Chloë had been brought up in North Wales so were keen to support them and find out more.
His Royal Hopeless is funny, tender and wise, centering on Robbie – the heir to the Sinistevils – the most wicked dynasty in the world. He can’t wait to pledge his heart to the menacing power of the family Sceptre and embark on his bloodthirsty future. The thing is, Robbie is … well … nice. And when he discovers his heart has been swapped for clockwork, he’s incapable of believing Mother had dark intentions. Instead, he embarks on a quest to retrieve his heart, claim his wicked destiny, and secure Mother’s pride at last. But Mother has other ideas …
Billed as ‘Despicable Me’ meets ‘The Descendants’, this is a fun and absorbing fairy tale from a new voice in middle-grade fiction.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading The Peculiar Tale of the Tentacle Boy by Richard Pickard at the moment – it’s an offbeat adventure about a girl and a mysterious boy with tentacles for hair and crab claws for hands. It’s really heartfelt, funny and wonderfully twisted (all my favourite things in a book).
What are your favourite books?
I absolutely LOVE Terry Pratchett and the Discworld
series, his “fantasy-gone-wrong” tone really influenced me as a writer! I also
love Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, for the wonderful and
hilarious characters but also for the complete Welsh-ness of it all.
Where and when do you write? Do you have a routine?
My writing routine is woefully non-existent!! I tend
to end up writing in any spare moment I have, usually late at night fuelled by
dangerous amounts of coffee and toast (would not recommend).
What was your journey to publication?
My journey to publication was quite a fun one. I
entered His Royal Hopeless in the Times Chicken House competition
in 2019 and was longlisted, which was amazing! However, when I didn’t make the
shortlist I assumed HRH’s journey was over for the time being- until I got a
phone call from Chicken House saying that while HRH wasn’t right for the
competition they still wanted to have a chat about it. A coffee-shop meeting
and several panicked emails to my university lecturers with the subject header
“what do I do what do I do???” later, and HRH was on its way to publication!
You are a “North Walian writer who currently lives in London”. Tell us about your Welsh upbringing.
I grew up in the tourist town of Llandudno and lived there for most of my life. Llandudno isn’t such a rural area but there’s still mountains whichever way you look, castle ruins down the road and wild goats wandering the streets completely nonplussed by the people. And, of course, there’s Snowdon, Yr Wyddfa, less than an hour away. I love the history you see walking around London, but nothing will beat the wildness of North Wales for me.
Does Wales or coming from Wales, have any influence on your writing?
I think all the things I mentioned about North Wales
in the previous question pretty much set me up to write fantasy-adventure
stories. The fact that Robbie and Layla need to traverse through deep forests
and treacherous mountains is a very Welsh influence on HRH. I also used to work
as a storyteller, which involved reciting Welsh folklore by heart, and the
constant practice of retelling exciting and often frightening stories about
castles and magic and devious villains really moulded what I’d eventually end
up writing down.
In His Royal Hopeless, there is an optimistic message for readers about forging your own path and accepting yourself for who you are. How deliberate and planned was this?
Without giving anything away, I always wanted HRH to
be a book about understanding yourself in spite of what the world around you is
telling you to be, so it was very deliberate. The optimism, I went back and
forth on- I appreciate children’s books that give layers of reality to the
lessons they teach, and I definitely didn’t want to completely sugar coat the
ending of HRH. Hopefully I struck the right balance, but we’ll see what people
What are your hopes for His Royal Hopeless?
I hope that HRH will give perspective to people who
may be in Robbie’s situation without realising it. It’s SO easy for us to get
stuck trying to be something that’s actually harming us, and no one is immune
to Robbie’s level of obliviousness. But honestly, I’ll just be happy if the
readers laugh at the jokes!
What’s the best piece of writing advice you have received?
Have projects ready. They don’t need to be polished,
but when competitions start calling for submissions you don’t want to be stuck
with only a third of a first draft to hand.
The book is brilliantly illustrated by George Ermos, including some internal illustrations. What were your thoughts when you first saw them?
I ADORED them!! My biggest anxiety around HRH wasn’t
“what if people don’t like it?”, but “what if it has a bad cover?” The moment I
was told George Ermos was designing it, however, I never had that worry again.
I was honestly stunned by the final design. George Ermos has done an absolutely
amazing job. And Robbie’s crown! I very much want that crown.
Could you recommend any other books for those who enjoy His Royal Hopeless?
The books I mentioned before – any of Pratchett’s middle grade work or Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle. I wouldn’t dare put myself on their level but we do share a “this is fantasy but not quite how you remember it” tone I know children will love. Also, they’re hilarious.
Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
A few little things, but I’ll also be starting my
Creative Writing MA at Brunel University London this year so I’m going to be
busy either way!
What question have we forgotten to ask you?
What my favourite sweet is, and it’s
Terry’s Chocolate Oranges. And yes, if you see me in the street you should definitely hand me one and I will graciously
HIS ROYAL HOPELESS by Chloë Perrin is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House), available from all good bookshops including your local independent store.
Thank you to Chloë for answering our questions. Follow Chloë on Instagram @chloeperrin_author and Twitter @ChloePerrinUK
Ffion Jones’s new book, I Give You The Moon, will be published by Ventorros Press in November. It is inspired by a young boy from Bolton who died from a brain tumour and his younger sister Leyla. Baran Akarca, aged eight, died in January, having had a rare cancer since he was just two years old.
During lockdown Ffion set up a social enterprise called Fly Me Stories to send personalised stories to seriously unwell children in hospitals and hospices. Baran and his sister received a story when he was seriously ill and he sadly passed away shortly afterwards.
Ffion wanted to write a special story for them, celebrating the enduring bond between siblings. “I have two children myself and I really felt for them all. The pictures and videos of Baran and Leyla together really touched me and I wanted to write something special for the family celebrating that unique bond between siblings.”
The book is illustrated by fellow Welsh illustrator Gareth Jones, who also illustrated “Golden Flowers for Little Dragon,” Ffion’s book about sibling bereavement which is out in October with the Book Guild. Annabel, Baran and Leyla’s mum, said “We are so excited about the book and we feel it’s a wonderful way to keep Baran’s memory alive. He was a very special boy, not just to us as his family, but also to all who met him or heard about him.” http://ffijones.com
Ffion Jones is a children’s author and illustrator, focusing on books that deal with challenging subjects. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Wales, Bangor. She writes and illustrates the Nurse Ted series (www.nurseted.com), which is used worldwide to help parents explain serious illness such as cancer to children. More recently, she founded a social enterprise called Fly Me Stories (www.flymestories.com) which sends personalised stories to seriously unwell children all around the UK. Her other books include Emily is Being Bullied: What Can She Do? co-authored with Professor Helen Cowie and Dr Harriet Tenenbaum (Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 2018), A School for Everyone: Stories & Lesson Plans to Teach Inclusivity & Social Issues (Jones, Cowie, Tenenbaum, Jessica Kingsley Publisher, September 2021) and I Give You The Moon (Ventorros Press, November 2021). Ffion lives in Swansea.
The Song That Sings Us is an exhilarating new novel from Nicola Davies to be published in October by Firefly Press. We feel hugely privileged to be asked to reveal the cover which features stunning artwork by Jackie Morris.
The Song That Sings Us is the story of twins Ash and Xeno, and their older sister Harlon, who has been raised to protect her younger siblings because they have siardw: a power to communicate with animals that is outlawed by the state. But when the ruling sinister Automators attack their mountain home, they are forced to flee for their lives. It is an immediately gripping edge-of-the-seat first chapter, which sees the siblings escape on snowboards down a dangerous gully.
The thrilling and dangerous adventure continues as each must journey alone through the ice fields, forests and oceans of Rumyc to try to rescue the others and fulfil a mysterious promise about a lost island made to their mother.
Nicola told us: “The Song that Sings Us is rooted in all that I really know about animals; their ability to think, to feel and to communicate. But it is not set in the real world; it is a fantasy adventure with chases and escapes, fights and mysteries, death and miraculous life. It contains magic, but that part of the story is real – the real magic of nature with which every human has deep need to connect.
“I hope that, in travelling to this fantasy world, readers will see the truth of ours.”
The book has a touching dedication to Jackie Morris, Cathy Fisher and Molly Howell, and whilst Jackie Morris and Nicola Davies have been friends for years, this is the first time they have worked together. As well as the cover illustration, Jackie has created beautiful artwork for the chapter headings.
Jackie Morris said, “When you love a book so much it is the hardest thing to work on the cover. I try to give everything to every piece of work I do, but in this case there was the long friendship I have with Nicola Davies, a person I both love and admire, AND the fact that the story is amazing.
“Trying to do the words justice is always the problem. For this cover I worked on clapboard, a medium new to me, but one that made the colours of the starling really sing. They are such beautiful birds. And it was so important that the image sings, in every way possible. Finding the image for the book, that’s another problem, but somehow that little starling, so full of its own power, she is what sang out from the text.
“I heard this book first. Nicola and I often would call each other when we’d done the first drafts of a work, and read to each other. Restrictions had eased and Nicola, Cathy Fisher and I were a bubble, and Nicola would come around every week with the next ‘instalment’. How utterly amazing. It made images dance in my mind’s eye. It was an honour and a privilege to work on this cover. For now it’s the best it can be, and my hope is it’s the beginning of a series. I cannot wait for the next one.”
Special proof copies of The Song That Sings Us are landing on doormats this week. A limited edition deluxe gift hardback, is available to pre-order now and will be published on 14th October 2021. Visit the Firefly Press website to place your order.
Follow Nicola and Jackie and Firefly on Twitter for more updates. You can listen to Nicola read the first chapter of The Song That Sings Us below.
Golden Flowers for Little Dragon is the latest book by Dr Ffion Jones, a Swansea-based author whose books deal with challenging and difficult topics. The illustrations are by Gareth Jones. This book fills a need for child-friendly literature to support the thousands of families that are forced to deal with the devastating news that their child has a life-limiting disease.
Ffion’s previous books have dealt with bullying, inclusivity, social issues and the Nurse Ted series which is used to explain serious illnesses, such as cancer, to children.
Ffion told us, “Families supported by charities such as ‘Together for Short Lives’ said that their children had very few books with which they could identify. As one parent said, books can help you realise that your feelings after a bereavement are normal and that things can get better.
“Golden Flowers for Little Dragon focuses on the siblings’ feelings and looks at how they cope at different stages of bereavement. My hope is that children reading the book will identify with the characters, and that caregivers can use the book as a gentle way to open a dialogue about loss and grief.”
We are delighted to be asked to reveal the cover, and so without further ado, here is Gareth Jones’ artwork:
Golden Flowers for Little Dragon follows a dragon family’s journey through loss and grief following the death of the youngest sibling, Little Dragon. Covering life before Little Dragon dies, his death, and then the period of time after his death, the book supports children preparing for or coping with the death of a sibling, including those with rare or undiagnosed conditions. By focusing on how Little Dragon’s brother and sister, Tan and Dewi, are affected by his illness and death, the book normalises confusing emotions such as anger, guilt and sadness that may seem overwhelming to a child faced with these circumstances. The book also includes an information section, written by a paediatric palliative care nurse, incorporating questions for children to work through with adults.
Illustrator Gareth Jones, said, “It’s been a privilege to work with Ffion on Golden Flowers for Little Dragon. I felt it was important that the characters in the book were believable, expressive and reflected the story accurately. Living in Swansea it seemed fitting to champion Wales’ unique and magical landscapes such as Three Cliffs and Paviland Cave that are fit for dragons to roam.”
The book has already received high praise from professionals and healthcare organisations.
This beautifully written story gently explores the most difficult of topics; the death of a sibling. I look forward to recommending to families in the future and only wish it had been around for many families in the past.
Dr Jo Griffiths, Consultant in Paediatric Palliative Medicine
A key strength of the story is the overriding message that everyone responds to the loss of a loved one differently, but that all emotions are equally valid.
Ffion Jones is a children’s author and illustrator, focusing on books that deal with challenging subjects. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Wales, Bangor. She writes and illustrates the Nurse Ted series (www.nurseted.com), which is used worldwide to help parents explain serious illness such as cancer to children. More recently, she founded a social enterprise called Fly Me Stories (www.flymestories.com) which sends personalised stories to seriously unwell children all around the UK. Her other books include Emily is Being Bullied: What Can She Do? co-authored with Professor Helen Cowie and Dr Harriet Tenenbaum (Jessica Kingsley Publisher, 2018), A School for Everyone: Stories & Lesson Plans to Teach Inclusivity & Social Issues (Jones, Cowie, Tenenbaum, Jessica Kingsley Publisher, September 2021) and To the Moon and Back (Ventorros Press, November 2021). Ffion lives in Swansea.
We are absolutely thrilled to be taking part in this Blog Tour for Swansea-based author and illustrator, Helen and Thomas Docherty. They really are the perfect picturebook pairing and have just published yet another playful, engaging and colourful story that will entertain by the bucketload.
The Snaffle has arrived in the city and she just wants to play – but everyone is distracted by phones, tablets and devices. They don’t seem to have time for each other. So the Snaffle becomes The Screen Thief and embarks on a mission to change the city into a more playful and more caring place. Ultimately, eating screens doesn’t do this for her, and leaves her feeling lonely, but a wonderful friend called Max is kind and caring and together they put things right.
Clearly ‘screen time’ is a huge issue for parents and teachers and striking a balance is important in all our lives, so this book will appeal to everyone looking to provide more than a subtle dose of encouragement to adopt healthier habits.
Helen’s joyous rhyming text is funny and great fun to read aloud. Thomas’ illustrations are so vibrant and full of detail – we’ve been poring over them over several bedtimes, reading the emotions of the characters and looking how they change through the story.
It’s totally apt therefore that Thomas joins us on this blog tour to give an insight into the illustration process.
Creating the Snaffle: Thomas Docherty on illustrating THE SCREEN THIEF
Throughout the story, the Snaffle
goes through a whole range of emotions, so above all she had to be expressive. At
the same time she gets up to plenty of mischief, so she needed to be dynamic. I
also had to make sure that she was loveable. After all, she acts with the
innocent impulses of a small child and that vulnerability comes through at the
end of the story.
As always, she went through many
versions before we decided on the final design. From the start, her general
body shape remained more or less the same. The hard part was solving the
question of how to resolve her face and head.
In the end I found that the long ears helped to make her very expressive
and the trunk was fun and surprising. It was also good for sniffing and tasting
It mentions in the text that the
Snaffle is small and blue. I was going to be painting the illustrations by hand
and I wanted the Snaffle to stand out. I found a bottle of blue ink that I
particularly liked, renamed it SNAFFLE BLUE and used it only for painting the
I had a lot of fun hiding the Snaffle
in the library, the cinema and the TV shop and I hope children will enjoy
looking for her in the illustrations. My favourite moment where she eats a
screen is when she is walking away with the ice cream sign from outside the
When I’m creating a book, lots of the
ideas never get included. If there was one set of pictures I would have liked
to keep, it was of the Snaffle reacting to the different tastes and textures of
the screens. In the end there just wasn’t room for everything.
One early idea that I’m glad was
taken out was a moment where the Snaffle is arrested by the police for eating
everyone’s screens. It’s just too sad!
The city is full of so many other
characters. Originally I imagined these as made up creatures but in the end we
went for animals, which made the Snaffle stand out more.
I had so much fun drawing them all
glued to their screens, oblivious to everything around them.
Of course the Snaffle wants to join
Creating The City
One of the fun things about
illustrating The Screen Thief was
that it is set in a city. I hadn’t drawn a city before in a picture book and I
was excited about all the visual opportunities that this presented. It also
meant a huge amount of work as I had to plan the city from scratch.
At the beginning, I tried a slightly
futuristic city with rounded buildings and bubble cars. However, in the end we
decided that it would be more relatable to children if it was set in the
The most complicated image to compose
was the first page when the Snaffle arrives in the city. I tried lots of
options including a train station and coming out of a subway. In the end I
wanted to show all the main locations in the story on this page, so I went for
a roof top view of a square. You can see Max’s house, the Library, the cinema
and the park.
I even drew myself a map to make sure
I knew where all the other places the Snaffle visits made sense.
The city is full of shops selling all
sorts of things (I actually walked past a cactus shop just like this recently!).
Of course the Snaffle is only interested in the TV shop…
As always, some of my rough ideas
didn’t make it into the book. I did some sketches of inside the animal’s homes
and some other locations which would have been fun to include.
Although cities are full of life, the
Snaffle soon discovers that they can be lonely places too. There is a moment in
the story where despite all the screens the Snaffle has gobbled, she still
feels empty inside. What’s missing? Nothing that a screen can give her, what
the Snaffle needs is a friend. Setting this scene in a deserted ally seemed to
fit the Snaffle’s mood.
The park is not mentioned in the text,
but it seemed the perfect place to develop the key message of the story. At the
beginning, the Snaffle comes across children in the playground. They are so
absorbed in their screens that they are not even playing. However, by the end
of the story the park has been transformed into a magical space full of activity.
Max and the Snaffle have managed to bring everyone together.
Huge thanks to Thomas Docherty for preparing this blog and sharing his insight and these amazing images.
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.