Jon Blake Introduces Thimble…

An exclusive article by author Jon Blake to mark our first ever blog tour (#Lollies2017)
Jon Blake with his son

I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce Thimble Monkey Superstar to those who haven’t yet read it and after this introduction possibly never will.

Thimble Monkey Superstar is set in a bungalow.  This is important because ‘bungalow’ is one of my favourite words and also the type of house in which I grew up.  There were three bedrooms at one end of our bungalow and a kitchen and lounge at the other, joined by a brief hall.  My dad was a big man and if he took up a strategic position in this hall he was inescapable.  And believe me, there were times when we needed to escape.  Psychologists have theorised that children’s writers often suffer from arrested development due to their own bad experiences in childhood, and I can –  

I’m sorry, I’ve gone completely off the point.  Yes, Thimble is set in a bungalow, inhabited by failed children’s author Douglas Dawson, who is under the illusion he lives in a castle complete with portcullis and dancing bears.  Douglas is a kind of cross between Alan Partridge and Martin Amis.  He has a disabled son, Jams, who is a kind of cross between sunshine and Spongebob.  Jams is loosely based on my own son and chief cuddling partner, Jordi.  Last but not least there is Nora, Jams’ mum, on whose income as a green energy something-or-other they all depend.  How Nora became Douglas’s partner is a considerable mystery, but once Thimble arrives there is no doubt whose company she prefers.  Thimble, as you may have guessed from the title, is the star of the show, a kind of cross between a capuchin and Harpo Marx.

Douglas Dawson is less than happy playing second fiddle to a monkey and keen to remove him by any means necessary.  Jams, having the best friend he always dreamed of, is not.  Therein lies the basis of the tale, which features (among other things) nits, tarantulas, mechanical diggers, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, monkey charades and a near-death experience.  There is only one poo joke and I would modestly suggest it’s quite a good one.

Thimble Monkey Superstar is illustrated by the legendary Martin Chatterton and published by Welsh indie publishers Firefly Press. I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank them for rescuing my long career as a children’s writer from oblivion. In my own mind it’s a little bit like Heaven 17 resurrecting Tina Turner back in the 80s. Then again, my own mind is a little bit like Douglas Dawson’s: no stranger to fantasy.  

Find out more about Thimble Monkey Superstar here

Read our full Q and A with Jon Blake here

Follow Jon on Twitter @jonblakeauthor

Follow Firefly on Twitter @fireflypress

Author Q & A: Jon Blake

#Lollies2017 Blog Tour Post

As part of the Laugh Out Loud Blog Tour, we are thrilled to bring you an interview with Jon Blake, author of Thimble Monkey Superstar. Thimble is nominated in the category for Best Laugh Out Loud Book for 6-8 year olds. The full list of nominees is as follows:

Thimble Monkey Superstar by Jon Blake and Martin Chatterton (Firefly Press)
Hamish and the Neverpeople by Danny Wallace and Jamie Littler (Simon and Schuster)
Eddy Stone and the Epic Holiday Mash-Up by Simon Cherry (Usborne)
Future Ratboy and the Invasion of the Nom Noms by Jim Smith (Egmont)

Thimble is a rollicking, shoulder-heaving romp of a book with the tearaway monkey causing havoc from the outset. Calamity follows catastrophe as the Dawsons look after the monkey while the neighbours are away. Daddy Worm read this in school to a class of 8 year olds and they were rolling around on the floor with fits of the giggles. If you’d like to read Nina’s full review, it’s available here. Alternatively, Jon Blake has written an exclusive introduction to Thimble Monkey Superstar. 

Jon Blake has lived in Cardiff for the past 30 years and has built a reputation for quality, slightly absurd, children’s fiction. He teaches creative writing, specialising in writing for children although is also experienced at writing for TV and radio. He is delighted to be nominated for this major award and the worms (especially Nina) were overjoyed to be able to put their questions to him:

Your website describes you as an “egalitarian author”. What does this mean?

Broadly speaking, it means I’m on the side of the underdog, or sometimes the undermonkey!

Where and when do you write?

I’ve been thrown out of my office so my six-year-old can have a bedroom, so now write in what used to be the kids’ playroom, which has no windows!  I don’t write every day, unless I’m in the middle of a book, and then I write whenever my brain is working!

You’ve written a lot of books. Which was the quickest book to write and which book took the longest?

I’ve had 60 books published and have probably written as many which never made it.  I once wrote a book for the OUP called Rover (about a pet spider) which was about 80 words and took a day.  Then there was the Last Free Cat, my YA thriller, which I started in 2001 and finished in 2007.  But that was because I got stuck.

How do you choose names for your characters?

These usually come to me with very little conscious thought: the name ‘Thimble’ for example.  On the other hand, ‘Jams’ is a homage to the writer Flann O’Brien, and ‘Douglas Dawson’ was the name of a boy in my primary school who regularly fainted in assembly.

Which books (apart from your own!) make you laugh out loud?

The last book which made me laugh out loud was ‘Rich’, the biography of Richard Burton.  It was extracts from his diary.  Flann O’Brien always makes me laugh, especially ‘The Third Policeman’. As to children’s authors, for me Mark Twain is way the funniest, followed by Lewis Carroll and A.A.Milne. 

Which books and authors have inspired you in your career?

Besides those already mentioned I have to pay respect to Barrie Hines, author of ‘Kes’, who sadly died last year.  As an English teacher in the 80s I was indebted to him for engaging comprehensive school pupils who didn’t like anything else!  I must also mention Erica Jong, who inspired me to write my first (adult) novel, and Robert Leeson, who wrote a brilliant history of children’s fiction, ‘Reading and Righting’.  But the writer who obsessed me as a young man was one of the least humourous authors to set pen to paper, D.H. Lawrence! 

How important is Wales and the Cardiff community to your writing?

I’m rarely specific about place in my books, but there’s a whole lot of Wales under the surface of most of them.  Several scenes in Thimble were inspired by what was going on around me in Canton, Cardiff – the demolition of the police station for example.  And ‘The Last Free Cat’ begins in a fictionalised Adamsdown, where I lived to nineteen years. As the story moves on you might spot Twmbarlwm, Talybont-on-Usk and a few other places if you’re observant!

Thimble Monkey Superstar features a character with cerebral palsy and the book has been included in several lists that encourage diversity in children’s fiction. How important is it that Thimble promotes disability awareness?

My son Jordi has cerebral palsy so obviously it’s a big issue for me.  It’s important that children understand disability and regard it as an everyday fact of life, not something alien, funny or frightening. I hope Thimble will contribute to that worldview, not by preaching, but by readers identifying with Jams.  

If someone really enjoys Thimble, which other books by Jon Blake can you recommend to them?

The next Thimble!  ‘Thimble Holiday Havoc’ comes out on November 9.  From my back catalogue, there’s ‘One Girl School’ and ‘Stinky Finger’s House of Fun’. For older kids, ‘The Last Free Cat’.  But check out the list at www.jonblake.co.uk, as there are so many!

Do you ever laugh out loud when you’re writing your own books?

Oh yes.  Fortunately we have very understanding neighbours.

 

Thank you so much to Jon Blake for this interview. If you’d like to win a copy of Thimble Monkey Superstar (courtesy of Firefly Press), we’ll be launching a competition on our Twitter feed today. You can catch up with the other nominees for the #Lollies2017 by visiting the other wonderful blogging sites shown below.

The winning book in each Lollies category will be decided solely by children’s votes, with schools and parents encouraged to help kids get involved and vote via the Lollies website, www.scholastic.co.uk/lollies, or via the Scholastic channel on the PopJam app.

Eyes of Me

Through The Eyes of Me

Jon Roberts

Illustrations: Hannah Rounding

Graffeg

Through The Eyes of Me is an adorable, heartwarming celebration of a child with autism. Written by Jon Roberts and inspired by his daughter, we learn of the everyday pleasures and quirks of four year old Kya. Broader than this, it is a celebration of the individual and what makes us who we are.

The picture book is brimming with delightfully playful illustrations by Hannah Rounding who expertly conveys Kya’s world with charm and love. Author Jon Roberts talks more about the book in this video:

I shared the book with Nina (age 8) who empathised greatly with Kya and recognised the characteristics of autism before it was made clear. She has friends in school who are diagnosed with autism and knows individuals who share some of Kya’s dislikes – particularly loud noises and strangely textured food. She also recognised that she was like Kya in some ways and we were able to have a conversation about similarities and differences between individuals.

The book warrants endorsement by an autism charity – Jon Roberts’ text encourages empathy and understanding and the book should be available everywhere it might educate, inform and help as broad an audience as possible.

Goodly and Grave

Goodly and Grave in a Deadly Case of Murder

Justine Windsor

Harper Collins

In the first Goodly and Grave, we are introduced to the characters and learn how Lucy Goodly and Lord Grave become the unlikeliest of crime-cracking partners. It’s a fast-paced, madcap adventure full of warmth and humour (as well as plenty of weird and wonderful plot twists and more than a splash of mayhem). Oh and they have magical powers. I guess the books would appeal to children around the age of 7 to 10; and as a teacher I couldn’t wait to share this book with my Year 4 class, who lapped it up, laughed out loud and were eager to learn of a sequel.

So for the second book, we follow Lucy’s adventures as she joins Magicians Against the Abuse of Magic (MAAM), hosted by Lord Grave. Soil is being stolen from freshly-dug burial grounds and it’s up to Lucy, Bertie (Lord Grave’s son), Smell the cat and the rest of the cast of Grave Hall to piece together the mystery.

As you may suspect from the title, this second book has a darker and more sinister tone; episodes in graveyards at midnight, a disreputable inn, and the creation of powerful creatures that can be used to carry out your will. Not to mention the murders. This is all great news for the plot which zips along with plenty of momentum and a number of surprising turns. The whodunnit element will be guessed early on by the mature reader, but that doesn’t detract from the entertaining chase.

Throughout, Justine Windsor continues to add detail to the magical world she has created. Lucy is constantly learning of new powers and magical phenomenon as the book (and the series) develops. Windsor’s writing is full of verve and seems effortless; I really admire the vocabulary choices which will challenge and inspire the young reader.

 

Illustrations by Becka Moor really support the identity of the book – hilarious depictions of zombie giraffes are one of the highlights and there are plenty of other comedic episodes. Becka has done a great job in anchoring a victorian ambience to the book, particularly through the Penny Dreadfuls, picture frames, character costumes and endpapers.

This all adds up to a very amusing, slightly eccentric and thoroughly entertaining read. Recommended.

Hope

Hope

Rhian Ivory

Firefly Press

Review by Mummy Worm

The opening to “Hope” is gripping: teenage angst at a perilous climax. Rhian Ivory encapsulates the emotional turmoil of dashed dreams perfectly and this will not only resonate with 12+ girls, but also their parents and hopefully boyfriends and brothers too!  But Hope is the eponymous character and the essence of ‘hope’ is what drives this story.

Rhain Ivory has created a potent representation of a teenager struggling with PMDD. Hope is thoroughly convincing; brittle, bruised but equally stoic – her characteristics are inspiring and her struggles engage our empathy. From its perilous introduction, through to the unravelling and rebuilding of the protagonist we root for Hope to find her place of calm and contentment. It was a real pleasure to read this novel and I was particularly drawn to the setting of Birmingham Children’s Hospital and the Singing Medicine Team. This group, formed in part by Hope’s Mum, uses music to soothe sick children. This part of the story is very clever in the layers of emotion it draws from the reader.

Another high point, amongst the many, was Ivory’s understanding of the wannabe drama student’s psyche. Hope’s best friend Callie is a glorious example and her journey through the novel is also compelling.

Rhain Ivory should be congratulated on bringing a little talked about issue to the forefront; but this is not just a novel to supplement a Personal, Social and Health Education curriculum, it is a key to opening up teenage identity for a much wider audience.

 

Buy Hope direct from Firefly or from your local independent bookshop.

We are grateful to Firefly Press for this proof copy of Hope, which we received in exchange for an honest review.

Thimble Monkey Superstar

Thimble Monkey Superstar

Jon Blake (illustrated by Martin Chatterton)

Firefly Press

Review by Nina Worm

Thimble Monkey Superstar is hilarious. It’s a book I enjoyed very much and one with an unusual and weird story. Jams and his family answer the door one day to their neighbours who ask if they will look after their guinea pig. Except it’s not a guinea pig; it’s a monkey. Daddy says this kind of weird is called ‘surreal’. Straight away, Jams’ dad doesn’t like Thimble the monkey and tries all sorts of ways to get rid of him – with no luck!

The funniest moment was when a plastic box with pooey pants inside got confused for Mum’s sandwiches. Disgusting, but really funny. Jon Blake writes these funny stories amazingly well – but what I found most interesting was that the dad in the story is an author, just like Jon Blake. I found this inspiring and wondered how many other similarities there were.

The illustrations by Martin Chatterton are astonishing – I cannot believe they are actually drawn – wow!

Thimble Monkey Superstar is nominated for the Laugh Out Loud Award 2017 (The Lollies). There is no doubt that I found the book extremely funny – I’m going to read Future Ratboy next before I decide on my vote. If you want to vote for Thimble Monkey Superstar, click here.

Daddy Worm says: This is a truly engaging book, full of hilarious slapstick episodes which invariably end with egg on Dad’s face. Thimble continually gets the upper hand and Dad is left cursing each time. As a newly independent reader, Nina thoroughly enjoyed this book; Martin Chatterton’s fabulous illustrations break up the writing which is divided into manageable chapters. She read it in about 8 days and is keen to hear of more adventures from Thimble (Thimble Holiday Havoc is coming by the end of the year).

 

Nina has been provided with the Laugh Out Loud Shortlist for ages 6-8 in return for honest reviews. You can buy Thimble Monkey Superstar from your local independent bookshop or direct from Firefly Press.

Author Q&A: Claire Fayers

Claire Fayers is the celebrated author of two books about the Accidental Pirates – ‘Voyage to Magical North’ and ‘The Journey to Dragon Island’. The first instalment is highly praised and recently made the shortlist of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ annual award. The much-anticipated second book in the trilogy is just available in the shops and had us spellbound from the outset.

Claire is very keen on her allotment and also enjoys skiing, flying kites and music – particularly cello and piano.

Born and raised in South Wales, Claire used to work at the Cardiff University science library; she also wrote short stories for women’s magazines before weighing anchor and writing her brilliant books for children. So avast shipmates, and greet your captain…

You’ve just launched ‘Dragon Island’. How do you feel when you release a book into the wild?

Excited. Terrified. When my first book came out last year I felt like the biggest fraud imaginable because every other author was so professional and capable, and then there was me floundering about incompetently. Now that I have two books out, I’m feeling less like a beginner, though still not quite like a proper author yet!

What are you reading at the moment?

Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds by Horatio Clare. It’s a terrific read, funny and adventurous whilst dealing with some very serious issues about family, friendship and the environment. And it had a German time-travelling spider – what more could you want?

Where and when do you write?

I have an office at home with a desk that I bought off ebay with my first advance payment. I do most of my writing in the mornings and keep the afternoons free for editing, admin and watering my allotment. This year I’ve been meeting a friend for writing sessions twice a week. We go to a local coffee shop where we sit in near silence and drink vast amounts of coffee, hunched over laptops for two hours. It is fantastic for productivity.

Who or what inspires you?

My books are firmly inspired by the stories I loved as a child. I read voraciously – sci-fi, fantasy, myth and legend, adventure and comedy. And then there were the films with special effects by Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts is my all-time favourite.) The best inspiration happens when completely random ideas collide and turn into something quite unexpected. When I’m starting to write a new book, I spend a few hours making a list of everything I’d like to include, then I try to connect them. Like pirates, librarians and penguins.

What is your favourite children’s book of all time?

Such a difficult question! My favourite book changes daily depending on my mood, the weather and what I’m currently reading. But, as a prototype of all those books I’ve ever loved, I’m going with Enid Blyton’s wishing chair stories. They have adventure, danger, humour, magic, travel to strange places, and the hero is even called Peter. I can still remember my teacher reading the books to us in primary school, one chapter a day, and I was always desperate to know what happened next.

How long did it take you to write Dragon Island?

It took about six months to write the first draft, then another six months on edits to produce the final version. It’s the fastest I’ve ever written a book. Voyage to Magical North took about four years, but of course I didn’t have a deadline then.

The Accidental Pirates have some peculiar names. How do you choose character names?

I started with Cassie O’Pia and thought if I was going to mangle constellations I might as well see if there were any others I could use, so I bought The Dummies Guide to Astronomy and went through the index. It gave me Marfak West (a star in the Cassiopeia constellation) and Aldebran Boswell (the star Aldebaran, but I kept mistyping it.) And, of course Orion and the Onion.

Some of the pirates have names that are awful puns – Trudi Storme, for example. And I chose other names as the punchlines to awful jokes – apologies to Tim Burre and Ewan Hughes.

Character names are very important: wherever I get them from, they have to feel right and fit the personality of the character.

How important is Wales and being Welsh to your writing? Does it have any influence?

It’s very important. The off-beat humour, the love of a good song, dragons! I love the way Welsh legends and folktales are often tied to places – Llyn y Fan Fach, Beddgelert, Caer Idris – and I tried to do the same thing in my books. The people of Dragon Island have a legend of Orion, but it’s grown out of the landscape of the island and is very different to the legend of Orion the mariner from book one.

I haven’t set any books in real-life Wales yet, but my next book is set in a fictional town on the border of Wales and England, so I’m getting closer.

What other authors are you friends with and how do they support you (or are they a hindrance)?

They’re only a hindrance when I have to drop everything to read their books, which happens often. Seriously, children’s authors are a wonderful, supportive group and I’ve made many friends in Wales and beyond.

We understand that you will be releasing another book before the third pirate book, which sounds like it may be for slightly older readers. Was it a conscious decision to do something different? (and what more can you tell us about that book?)

It was a decision made with my editors. I have a third pirate book in my head but I also had an idea for something very different and my editors loved it, so we decided I should write that one first. It’s a Victorian mystery, set in the fictional town of Wyse, the only town in Britain where fairy magic still works. Twelve-year-old Ava and her brother go there to work, and they soon find themselves in the middle of a very sinsiter plot. The story has the humour of the pirate books, but it’s a touch darker, with some very creepy villains and a sarcastic talking book of prophecy.

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

I used to work in the science library at Cardiff University and I had planned to get my professional qualifications and become a subject librarian. It was a great place to work and I’m still friends will all my ex-colleagues. If I hadn’t got my book deal I’d still be there.

What’s your best pirate joke?

What’s the pirate capital of Wales?  Carrrrrrrdiff!

 

The Voyage to Dragon Island is published by Macmillan Children’s Books and is available online or in your local bookshop.

“This is a great series for readers of nine or ten who want fun, page-turning fantasy adventure!” Barnes & Noble

“With an ocean full of danger, dragons, dinosaurs, plenty of knockabout humour, some brilliant plot twists, heartwarming friendships and a brilliant bunch of pirates, you really wouldn’t want to miss the boat!” Lancashire Post

“At the heart of this riotous book there are life-affirming messages of resilience, self-belief and friendship. We loved it!” Family Bookworms

The House on March Lane

The House on March Lane

Michelle Briscombe

Candy Jar Books

Journey to Dragon Island

The Accidental Pirates: Journey to Dragon Island

Claire Fayers

Macmillan

This book is a romp! A raucous and rapturous, riotous romp. It is full of mirth, brimming with humour and has more adventure than you thought possible!

Following on from the successful first instalment, ‘The Voyage to Magical North’, Brine Seaborne and her accidental pirate crew set off on The Onion in search of dragons and to discover her true home. The crew is quite a large one, and if you haven’t read the first book, you may want to start there to ensure you’re familiar with everyone. Amongst them, you’ll meet anxious Peter, who can do magic, a special almost spiritual kind of magic, but is nervous that it will all go wrong (because it has done in the past); and you’ll meet Tom, a librarian with many wise words.

The plot moves quickly and is full of twists and turns; sometimes coming in quick succession, and always keeping you on your toes. There is a ghost; there are dragons, dinosaurs, volcanos, and at one point they fall off the end of the world. This really is life or death stuff, but it’s imbued throughout with a great deal of fun and Claire Fayers stays in total control as she steers us through quicksand, flesh-eating vines and that terrifying volcano.

The characters are extremely likeable and despite the fantastical situations, their emotions and relationships are very real. At the heart of the book there are life-affirming messages of resilience, self-belief and friendship, as the crew work together to discover Brine’s true heritage.

A brilliant comic-mystery-adventure that leaves us yearning for the final book in the trilogy.

Grace-Ella: Spells for Beginners

Grace Ella: Spells for Beginners

Sharon Marie Jones

Illustrated by Adriana J Puglisi

Dragonfly

Reviewed by Nina Worm

Grace-Ella is a super amazing and very imaginative book. It is full of fun and I really loved it. Grace-Ella finds out that she is a witch and she starts to learn how to do lots of spells properly. I would love to be able to do magic spells – I’d especially like to be able to fly so that I can get away more quickly in a game of tag!

Grace-Ella has some good friends in the book, Bedwyr and Fflur, and they share Grace-Ella’s adventures. My favourite part of the book was when the friends were getting ready for the Halloween party and Grace-Ella was using her magic to make everyone’s costumes extra realistic. Unfortunately, Amelia is also in the book. She is a nasty, sneaky, boastful, show-off bully who does unkind things and never ever gets caught. But you’ll be glad to know that she does get what she deserves in the end!

I think this book would be great for Year 2 and up and there definitely needs to be more books about Grace-Ella. Maybe – Grace-Ella: Spells for Juniors?

Daddy Worm says: There’s not a lot I can add to Nina’s review – as you can tell she really enjoyed it and was uber-keen to read. The short chapters interspersed with a few illustrations by Adriana Puglisi really encouraged her to read on her own with a lot of success. She has also now started to read short passages in her head – so thank you Sharon Marie Jones for the encouragement, and we look forward to more magical adventures in the future.