Illustrator Q and A: Nathan Collins

Nathan Collins is an illustrator born and bred in South Wales. He graduated from Swansea College of Art, with a degree in Illustration. He works with traditional and digital media. In 2018 he illustrated the Anthology of Amazing Women (20Watt) and also produced new cover art for new editions of The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs (Piccadilly) – the Lewis Barnavelt series. The third book in the series will be republished with new artwork by Nathan on 21 March.

What are you reading at the moment?

The “To Read” collection is certainly building up lately, I recently completed a handful of classic stories that I’ve always wanted to read such as The Jungle Book and Peter Pan. I’ve also been sinking my teeth into John Bellairs’ series lately with it being an on-going commission; the magical themes are right up my street.

Could you tell us how you got into drawing?

It’s hard to say; drawing was always a go-to hobby of mine as a kid and it just continued from casual doodles to now working on commissions. I remember loving Maurice Sendak’s book ‘Where the Wild things Are’, and obsessively drawing creatures from the book along with my own additions; some of them probably made my parents a little worried.

Where and when do you work?

I work in a little humble studio space at home, I do miss being part of an open studio space with other illustrators but I’m just as productive here at home. Working hours tend to be all over the place, but I work mostly everyday. On days when I do get to chill out, I’m probably still thinking about the next illustration idea or sketching for fun.

How would you describe your illustration style?

The past year I’ve become a lot more comfortable in my style. I like to illustrate with clear and simple shapes in mind, always thinking of ways to make the silhouettes a little easier to read. I also play a lot with textured brushes too, recreating traditional mediums in digital brush form and painting digitally.

Did you always want to be an illustrator of books for children?

Not really, I never had a set direction on which creative field I wanted to fully dive into. It took a lot of time for me to decide what to study at university – when I finally settled on illustration it became really overwhelming the different avenues you could go down. But after looking at what I enjoyed most in my final year and what my style lends itself to, it was an easy decision – picture books was the right fit for me.

How do you go about creating an illustration? What are your methods?

I’ll always start with sketching in my sketchbook, loosely playing around with thumbnails making really messy doodles that probably only make sense to me. After settling on a composition I like to move the sketching process to the computer and create a black and white tonal rough that’s much clearer. I concentrate a lot on this part because it makes the later colouring stage easier.

We love the Anthology of Amazing Women, which you illustrated. Who were your favourites to illustrate in that book?

So many! I could easily ramble and end up listing pretty much every amazing lady featured in the book, but to narrow it down to a few I’d have to say Aretha Franklin, Emmeline Pankhurst, Margaret Hardenbroeck Philipse, Mary Anning and Frida Kahlo. All were really fun challenges to capture their likeness in my style. Aretha Franklin and Frida Kahlo were also personal icons that I really wanted to make sure to nail perfectly for this book.

You’ve also illustrated covers for the John Bellairs ‘Lewis Barnavelt’ series. What was the process in designing a cover?

It always starts with a brief and a helpful rough from the design team over at Bonnier. I’ll dissect the brief and from there, like I’ve mentioned earlier loosely sketch thumbnails, character designs and key featured elements for the cover. I’ll settle on a final composition and create a digital rough ready for initial feedback. At this point there’s usually a few changes to make before moving onto the coloured rough and then the final.

Were you aware of any of the other illustrated covers for the books (particularly the rather gruesome pen and ink drawings by Edward Gorey)?

Yes! It’s certainly a little strange to be working on a project like this when I remember some of these covers from my childhood, particularly ‘The Ghost in the Mirror’; it was slightly intimating to illustrate this series since Edward Gorey is such a huge name and a personal favourite of mine!

Which books, authors, illustrators and artists inspire you?

Again, this could be a long list! I’m madly in love with Carson Ellis’s work, her stylistic choices are perfect and I’m just obsessed with her ink work, which is a strong influence texturally to me when it comes to working on internal black and white illustrations for books. Rebecca Green is another illustrator I strongly admire; like Carson the forms she draws are simplified perfectly and she plays with unique colour schemes in the same way as Ellis.

Are you inspired by Wales?

I’d say I’m pretty inspired by Wales, especially by the environment. I grew up in a small village surrounded by forests and hills and it became the main subject for a lot of my early work, even today I feel like I’m in my element when there’s a lot of greenery or foliage to illustrate.

What are your illustration ambitions?

In general my goal is to always better myself from the last illustration I made and to improve in so many different ways. But one goal I’d love to focus on this year would be to fully develop a picture book written and illustrated by myself. Mainly just as a fun project and for the portfolio but hopefully later down the line get something published that I’ve created from the start.

Looking back over your instagram snaps, your more recent work is focused on people, but you also draw birds and beasts (and we spotted goblins!). Do you have a favourite thing to draw?

I have without really realising it focused on people lately; I have a new found love for character design solely based on people, whereas before I shied away from drawing people and mainly focused on mythical creatures or woodland animals. A lot of the times I’ll often find inspiration from people in pop culture, TV shows and mainly books, but who knows I think a few more goblins might make a comeback along with a few more animal illustrations.


“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.” Stephen Hawking

Are there plans for more published illustrations? What can we expect from Nathan Collins next?

Yep, I have plenty of plans for more published work in the future. At the moment there are still quite a few more books in the pipeline from the John Bellairs series, I’ll still be working on over the next few months, which I cant wait to show everyone!

Thank you to Nathan for taking the time to answer our questions. The Anthology of Amazing Women, written by Sandra Lawrence and illustrated by Nathan Collins, is published by 20 Watt and is available to buy in your local bookshop or online

The third book in the Lewis Barnavelt series, The Letter, The Witch and The Ring, will be published by Piccadilly Press on 21 March.

Author Q and A: Laura Baker

Laura Baker is a children’s book author currently celebrating the success of The Colour of Happy, a new picture book with Angie Rozelaar. She is also an editor with over twelve years experience.

Having grown up in Canada and moved to Wales to complete an MA in Creative Writing, she now lives in Wales with her husband, two young sons and basset hound.

She says that her career highlights so far include having her first picture book, I Love You When… (written as Annie Baker, illustrated by Barroux), read on CBeebies Bedtime Stories; reading her super-short stories (101 words each) at the Hay Festival and editing a number of award-winning children’s books.

We are delighted that Laura agreed to answer our questions and would like to thank her for her responses.

Where and when do you write?

I write mostly at a little desk in the corner of our dining room/lounge, or sometimes on the sofa with the dog curled up next to me. I try to write in my daytime working hours, but sometimes when I’m excited about an idea I carry on into the evening too. I remember pulling out my laptop at midnight to make some tweaks to The Colour of Happy

The Colour of Happy and My Friend Sleep are your first books as Laura Baker, but you’ve worked as an editor on many more books. Can you explain the difference between an author and an editor?

As the editor, you’re working with the author (and illustrator and designer) to pull the book together. It can involve everything from briefing an author on an idea to checking that the words flow to getting the book ready for print. Whereas, as the author, it’s the opposite! You supply the text and someone else takes over. It’s amazing seeing your words brought to life in that way, growing with the ideas from a team of editor, designer, illustrator and more. They often bring things to the story that you never thought about, making it even better. I feel so grateful to be able to work on both sides.

As an author, you are more visible – having book launches and more direct communication with readers. How has this been for you?

It’s been lovely! It’s a bit scary too, because everyone is reading the words you’ve so carefully chosen, but the publishing world is so friendly and encouraging. It was very special to celebrate the launch of The Colour of Happy with the team who brought it together, plus a wonderful group of supportive writer friends. I’m loving going into schools and connecting with readers directly too. Talking to them is giving me more and more ideas to write about!

You have written previously as Annie Baker – why the name change?

I wrote I Love You When… when I worked at the publisher, so I used the pseudonym Annie Baker. Now that I’ve branched out on my own, I’m using my real name! 

Your latest book, The Colour of Happy, explores emotions through colour. What brought you to this topic?

I wrote this story when my son was about two years old. I noticed that he and his friends could experience so many different emotions in a single day, and to them words like ‘mine’ and ‘share’ and ‘sad’ were huge. I’d also been trying to think visually about a book and wondered about using different colours on every spread. I combined the two ideas – along with the fact that my son would always pick a special flower for me whenever we went for a walk – and brought them together to use colour and emotions to frame the story. I love that Hodder understood what I was thinking, and the fact that they stuck to the single colour per page so strictly! I think it’s made for a really striking and different book. 

Can you tell us something about how you worked with your illustrator Angie Rozelaar? Because the book is so visual, we guess you must have been in contact quite a bit?

The editor and designer at Hodder took the reins on this. I think the designer and Angie were in very close contact about how they wanted the pages to look, and I got the lucky job of seeing everything when it came through! 

Which books and authors have inspired you in your career?

My favourite picture books as a child were by Shirley Hughes: Dogger and Alfie Gets in First. I still love them today, being drawn to real stories showing real emotions in everyday life. I could name loads of other inspiration as well: currently I love the Oi! series by Kes Gray and Jim Field because of its appeal to children, and I enjoy Rob Biddulph’s heartfelt stories and his inspiring career path towards children’s books.

You are originally from Canada, but came to Wales to do a Creative Writing MA. How supportive has the community been to your writing?

Very supportive! I started out in publishing straight from my MA, working with Parthian Books. This led me to work with other Welsh publishers, such as Firefly and Accent, and ultimately to my work in children’s publishing. Having the support of these publishers from the beginning really encouraged me along my path towards editing and writing. Now I’ve also met a very supportive group of writers and illustrators through Twitter, book launches, writing conferences and more – all of whom are happy to share both challenges and successes with each other.

Are you inspired by your Welsh surroundings?

Of course! We live in a lovely town by the coast, with everything you need for inspiration: green fields nearby, a local school down the road, parks full of children, the sea in view. I think being from Canada but moving to Wales provides inspiration of its own too.

As an editor, you have worked on some really interesting (and award-winning) projects with other authors. Which of these stand out?

Oh, there are so many! In picture books, I might have to say Scaredy Boo by Claire Freedman and Russell Julian. This was one of the first picture books I worked on as an editor, and I worked really hard to get amazing contributors on it. I remember reaching out to Claire through her website and was so pleased when she responded and was interested in the project! One other stand-out project worth mentioning is an adult travel book I edited for Parthian: Cloud Road: A Journey Through the Inca Heartland by John Harrison. It won Wales Book of the Year, and I got to attend the awards ceremony – red carpet and all! That was definitely a memorable moment early on in my career.  

What can we expect from Laura Baker next?

I’m keeping busy writing a variety of things, with some beautiful board books and fun activity books on the way. I’ve also got some picture books percolating and plenty of ideas brewing, so watch this space! 

Thanks again to Laura for agreeing to this Q and A, which was written and compiled by us with no financial payment or gifts received in return.

You can visit Laura’s website here or follow her on Twitter. The Colour of Happy is available in the shops now.

Author Q and A: Graham Howells

Graham Howells is an author and illustrator raised in Pembroke Dock and now living in Llanelli. He works in book illustration, television, film and board games. His book Merlin’s Magical Creatures won the Tir-na-nOg Award in 2009 and he was previously shortlisted with Jenny Sullivan for Two Left Feet. His illustrations for The Story of King Arthur (Rily, 2017) by Sian Lewis are fabulously shown off in a square hardback. He is clearly drawn to themes of fantasy and magic, as seen in his latest work The Lonely Bwback (Gomer, 2018).

The Lonely Bwbach is the story of a magical house-goblin who lives in a run-down cottage in North Wales. Every Bwbach needs two things – a house to take care of and a family to look after. So what’s a poor Bwbach to do when his home is literally dismantled around him? Go after it, of course! On the way, he will meet friendly foxes, helpful hawks, and a variety of mythical beasts, the most puzzling of which: human children. Will the poor Bwbach ever find his cottage again?

We wanted to find out more about the Bwbach, so sat down with his creator, Graham Howells, to learn all about this enchanting character.

How would you describe the Lonely Bwbach?

Nothing is more important to the lonely Bwbach than carrying out his duties, and his duties involve being the most loyal, caring friend you could ever have.

You have written and illustrated the book – which came first, the images or the words? 

I think the pictures came at the same time as the words. For example, the part where the Bwbach visits the school came to me as if I was watching the characters act it out in my imagination. I knew then how to describe it in words, but I could also ‘freeze-frame’ a scene from my mind, and that would become a picture in the book. 

When creating illustrations, how do you start the process?  Were there many versions of the Bwbach before he looked just as you wanted? 

There were a few versions of the Bwbach. Before he showed me what he looked like the Bwbach showed me what a few other Bwbachs looked like first. One of the most fun parts for me is to sit quietly and see what pops into my head, waiting to be surprised.

You have written and illustrated many books featuring folklore and legends. How did your interest in this begin and what keeps you fascinated? 

I have written a few books featuring folklore and legends, and I’ve illustrated even more that were written by other people. 

My interest began when I was growing up in Pembrokeshire and walking in the lovely countryside. After reading The Lord Of The Rings I then found out that Wales was full of stories about wizards, heroes and magical creatures.

What keeps me fascinated is the feeling that comes when walking on the coast, or on a high hill, that the strange, magical things are still so close.

St Fagan’s National Museum of History is a central part of this magical story, did you visit when writing the book? 

I’ve visited St Fagan’s many times, and it was on one particular visit that the story of the Bwbach came to me. 

In one of the cottages I got talking to an attendant who said he had lived in North Wales, and he told me that when he was young boy in school one of his teachers had lived in the actual cottage we were standing in. 

I can’t remember now whether he mentioned a Bwbach living in the house also, or did the Bwbach whisper it to me later?

Is there a particular house at the Museum on which the Bwbach’s home is based? 

The cottage where I met the attendant was Llainfadyn cottage, so that cottage became the Bwbach’s house.

You clearly enjoy the landscape and wilderness of Wales, which is your favourite area and why?

I do have a particular attachment to Pembrokeshire, as it’s where I grew up and where I started feeling the magic that was in the countryside. 

In Pembrokeshire there are standing stones, cromlechs, castles and ancient forests. There are stories everywhere of miraculous saints, dragons, knights on quests, and Fairy Folk. The land is so magical that thousands of years ago they dragged large Pembrokeshire stones hundreds of miles across Britain to build Stonehenge.

Do you find it easy to see the magical and the mythical in the everyday world?  Do you think that the presence of televisions, computers and phones have meant that we have actually lost a bit of magic in life? 

I think I do find it easy to see the magical and mystical in the everyday world. It just takes a little bit of imagination.

That’s why I wouldn’t blame modern technology for taking the magic away. The problem comes when we get lazy and allow the gadgets to do all the imagining for us.

Use the technology, but also go for a walk, look at the faces in tree trunks and stones, and read books that allow you to feel the magic. 

Do you have a Bwbach living in your house? 

Yes, I do have a Bwbach living in the house. He puts stories and magical pictures in my head and lets me think I came up with them myself. 

I wish he’d do the dishes sometimes, but he doesn’t, so I think he might be a bit lazy. 

Thank you to Graham Howells for answering these questions and for sharing some of his early sketches of The Lonely Bwbach. Thanks also to Gomer for organising the q and a.

The Lonely Bwbach is available now on-line and in bookshops across Wales for £5.99.

Mae fersiwn Cymraeg, Y Bwbach Bach Unig, hefyd ar gael ar-lein ac mewn siopau llyfrau ar draws Cymru am £5.99.

Storm Hound Blog Tour

In Claire Fayer’s fourth novel, Storm Hound, one of the dogs from the Wild Hunt falls to earth and lands near Abergavenny. In a special blog post, marking the publication of this new fantasy adventure, Claire explores the legend of The Hunt.

The Wild Hunt

I am Storm of Odin, he said, Stormhound of the Wild Hunt, follower of Odin One-Eye, also known as Arawn of the Otherworld. I run with thunder and lighting and all creatures tremble when I pass.

The dogs didn’t look very impressed.

You have gravy on your nose, the old dog said.

Imagine, if you will, that you are standing on top of a mountain in the rain. Night is falling. (I have no idea why you’d want to climb a mountain in the rain, especially when it’s getting dark, but I’m sure you have a good reason.) Thunder rumbles close by, and then the sky is split with a flash of silver lightning. In that moment, as you gaze upward, your rain-filled eyes can just about make out shapes racing through the clouds. Horses and dogs. The next time the wind howls, it sounds like the ring of hunting horns.

Be very careful climbing back down that mountain. To see the Wild Hunt, according to legend, means that disaster and death is coming.

The Wild Hunt of Odin. Peter Nicolai Arbo, National Gallery of Norway

The Wild Hunt appears in many guises across northern European mythology. In most traditions, the Hunt represents chaos, the forces of the supernatural world. It is a presage of disaster. At the very least, the person who sees the Hunt is likely to die.

One of the things I like most about the legend is its ambiguity. A glimpse of riders hurtling across the sky. No one really knows who they are or what they are doing. The various legends can’t even agree about who leads the Hunt. In Germanic folklore, it is Odin, in some areas of England it’s Herne the Hunter or King Arthur. Here’s an extract from the Peterborough Chronicles, referring to a sighting of the Wild Hunt in 1127.

Many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen… rode on black horses, and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers and horrible.

Meanwhile, in Wales, you’ll find the Hounds of Annwn – the hunting hounds of the magical Otherworld, ruled by King Arawn. This is how they appear to Pwyll of Dyfed in the Mabinogi.

As he listened out for the cry of the pack he heard the cry of another pack, with a different bark, coming to meet his own… Of all the hunting dogs he had seen in this world, he had never seen dogs the same colour as those. The colouring they had was a dazzling bright white and with red ears. As bright was the dazzling whiteness as the brightness of the red.

I could have picked just one of these legends to use in Storm Hound, but one of the big themes of the book is that life is messy and you can’t put everything neatly into categories. In the end, I thought it was more fitting to use a combination of them all.

Ysgyryd Fawr or Skirrid Mountain near Abergavenny

So, if you’re standing on top of Mount Skirrid in the rain, look out for the dogs. Some will be black, some will be white, all will be fierce. And if you see one a bit smaller than the others, struggling to keep up, say hello to him for me. That will be Storm.

Huge thanks to Claire for preparing this blog post for us. To mark the release of Storm Hound, the worms have made a short book trailer. Click here to see their creation.

See the banner below for more details about where you can read more from Claire during the week.

More about Storm Hound…
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 12-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 . . .
In Claire Fayers’ electrifying adventure Storm Hound, 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.

Storm Hound is officially published on Thursday 21st February, and can be purchased from your local bookshop. Visit Claire Fayers’ website, and do follow her on Twitter.

The Closest Thing to Flying

Gill Lewis

Oxford University Press

Two girls, a century apart. Together they’ll find freedom.

Gill Lewis’ new novel is a compelling and powerful story that moved me to tears. The empathetic writing and emotive narrative is delivered with conviction by a writer of rare quality. It’s a wonderful story that manages to encompass so much, leaving you slightly dazed.

The story centres on Semira, a young refugee from Eritrea. There is little in the story about her journey to London; instead, the focus is on her struggle, several years since her arrival, to escape the clutches of the man who brought her to the UK. He is manipulative and overpowering, forcing Semira’s mum to work to earn him money; denying them food, stability and the freedom they have sought. Robel is an ugly piece of work.

He is furious when Semira buys an old hat on a market stall for a few pounds. She is attracted by a memory triggered by the small bird mounted on the brim. Semira discovers the diary of a Victorian girl and a connection is made that spans the century. Now look again at the cover of the book, and the amazing artwork of Paola Escobar – there is a symmetry to these girls’ lives – their stories seem to be reflections of each other as they find inspiration in a kindred spirit. They are linked by the hat, by their experiences and by their motivations and desires.

Hen’s lifestyle is a complete contrast to Semira – she is the daughter of a well-heeled businessman and his wife (who keeps the social diary). But this lifestyle, like Semira’s, is stifling and Hen finds hope and ambition in her Aunt Katherine. Dealing with votes for women and animal rights, the overarching theme of the novel is finding your place, knowing your worth, and having the freedom to be yourself.

Gill says, “The Closest Thing to Flying is a story about friendship and loyalty and standing up for others, and is set against a backdrop of women’s rights. Henrietta’s story made me question how far we have come since Victorian times. Women still face discrimination in many aspects of life. I wanted to write a story about the empowerment of women and celebrate those people, both female and male, who help to make it happen. I wanted Henrietta to reach through time to a modern girl and share her story. I needed to connect the two girls across a whole century, and find something that could link them both.

That something became a bird. A small green bird. All the way, from the Horn of Africa.”

Gill writes with such intensity that you can often hear her voice and feel her passion for these subjects. The Closest Thing to Flying is most definitely from the heart. Stunning.

Thank you to OUP for sending us a copy of The Closest Thing to Flying in exchange for a review. The Closest Thing to Flying is available now from your local bookshop or direct from OUP. You can visit Gill’s website here or follow her on Twitter.

Anticipated Reads of 2019

January

We’ve already had a number of exciting releases to devour in 2019. The Colour of Happy by Laura Baker and Angie Rozelaar (Hodder) is a beautiful exploration of feelings for young children – allowing them to interpret and acknowledge their own emotions and develop empathy for others.
The Girls (Caterpillar), by Lauren Ace & Jenny Lovlie is a celebration of individuality and friendship. It follows the journey of four girls who meet under an apple tree and they form a bond that lasts a lifetime. The girls grow and follow their individual paths but know that they always have the love and friendship to share the good times and get them through the bad.
Meet The Pirates and Meet The Greeks by James Davies (Big Picture Press) are superb non-fiction hardbacks that everyone needs. Filled with hi-res humour these are perfect for any age and should be in every school library in the land.

February

Three MG novels of real quality are on offer this month. The Train to Impossible Places by PG Bell (Usborne) gets a paperback release. It deserves your attention as it’s one of the most inventive books we’ve read recently. Suzie is a bold heroine seeking justice as she traverses the Impossible Places on a train piloted by trolls. We’d say it’s best suited to ages 8 to 11. Buy it, you won’t regret it.
The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis (OUP) manages to cover so much ground with an incredible deftness. Topics covered include refugees, votes for women and the ethical treatment of animals, making this book a feast for the mind (and a treasure-trove for teachers’ planning). It’s highly emotive, engaging and intelligently written – but then if you’ve read any of Gill’s other books, you’d be expecting that.
We’ve just received our copy of Storm Hound, the new novel from Claire Fayers (Macmillan) that has already received a collection of favourable first reviews. We’re looking forward to reading this funny and fast-paced story of the mythical young bloodhound who falls to earth. Claire does magical adventure extremely well so we can’t wait to get stuck in.

March

The Wonder of Trees is published in March. Non-fiction expert Nicola Davies explores the extraordinary diversity of trees and forests with illustrations by Lorna Scobie (Hodder). This is the same duo who produced The Variety of Life last year, a gorgeous large-format celebration of biodiversity that we often goggle at for hours at a time.
We are very excited about Lubna and Pebble, written by Wendy Meddour and illustrated by Daniel Egneus (OUP). A picture book addressing the refugee crisis, it follows the story of Lubna who’s best friend is a pebble she finds on the beach when she arrives in the night. It’s a story that celebrates the human spirit, hope and friendship. We know that Daniel Egneus is a quality illustrator – and the images promise to be both sensitive and skillful.
Walker is a new story from Shoo Rayner (Firefly) about a boy who can talk to dogs. Shoo’s well-loved firefly trilogy about Dragons came to a close in 2017, and we’re excited to read this new story aimed at 8-10 year olds.

April

Several Welsh picture book authors seem to have found a happy home with Little Tiger – and there are two being published in April.
We’re very lucky to have seen an early proof of Stefano the Squid, by Wendy Meddour and Duncan Beedie (Little Tiger). The illustrations are top-notch – bold and bright underwater scenes compliment Wendy’s funny and sensitive text about finding the heroic in the ordinary. Stefano lacks confidence in his own appearance – the other creatures seem far more interesting, colourful, amazing even. When disaster strikes, Stefano steps into the limelight.
The One Stop Story Shop by Tracey Corderoy and Tony Neal (Little Tiger) is a fun frolic through the magical world of storytelling. We don’t have much more information about this one at the moment, but it’s another quality pairing with a great track record.
Graffeg have a number of books scheduled for release in April – the brilliant country tales series from Nicola Davies and Cathy Fisher continues with Mountain Lamb (Graffeg); Ceri and Deri Build a Birdhouse in Max Low’s third installment of the vibrant duo’s adventures; and Helping Hedgehog Home, by Celestine and the Hare (Graffeg) is the 9th little book with a big heart featuring the Tribe. Grandpa Burdock and Granny Dandelion must help Hedgehog get home when a new fence traps her outside the garden.
The Sea House (Firefly) written by newsreader Lucy Owen has an intriguing and striking premise. Grieving nine-year old Coral cries so much, she fills her house with tears and wakes to find a magical underwater world. This fantasy story has a focus on the magic of being able to swim through your own house. Rebecca Harry’s illustrations (her 40th book!) make this a fantasy story with a big heart that will appeal to children aged 5+.
A Little House in a Big Place (Kids Can Press) by Alison Acheson is illustrated by French-born, Aberystwyth-based Valeriane Leblond. A nominee for last year’s Tir na-nOg Award with Tudur Dylan Jones, Valeriane’s images are compassionate, soulful and beautiful. The ‘big place’ in the title is the prairie, where a little girl stands in a window waving to the engineer on a passing train. Canadian author Alison Acheson has written a deceptively simple book which deals with growing up and what may lie beyond our own familiar surroundings.

May

Another exciting pairing of author and illustrator will be seen with the release of Hummingbird (Walker) by Nicola Davies and Jane Ray. This promises to be a spellbinding nature book. These tiny birds travel huge distances (from wintertime in Mexico to a spring nesting as far north as Alaska and Canada) and this book follow’s one bird’s migration. Jane Ray is a talented and distinctive illustrator, regularly shortlisted for major prizes – a worthy partner for the incredible Nicola Davies.

June

The hysterical Fables from the Stables get a new addition in Hayley the Hairy Horse, by Gavin Puckett and Tor Freeman (Faber & Faber). These rhyming tales are perfect for the 5 – 7 year olds who are after a chapter book of their own. We’ve loved every edition so far, and can’t wait for more.

July

Tracey Corderoy and Tony Neal release their second book of the year with Little Tiger entitled Sneaky Beak, a warning fable about materialism.
Ant Clancy Games Detective is new from Ruth Morgan (Firefly). Her last novel Alien Rain was nominated for the Tir na-nOg and was a sophisticated, well-crafted, compelling story, so we’re naturally including this new story in our ‘ones to watch’. Race-Chase is the new virtual reality game that everyone’s playing but gamers are starting to get hurt. Could the problem identified by the game’s creators turn out to be something deadlier? Ant Clancy and his friends set out to investigate.
Ariki and the Island of Wonders is the follow-up to last year’s Ariki and the Giant Shark by Nicola Davies and Nicola Kinnear (Walker). We loved this informative fiction – with descriptions of the reef, the wildlife and the geography of the pacific island featured – but it’s the feisty heroine who will get young readers hooked. It’s well-suited to 8 to 10 year olds, but the joy of nature will not be lost on any age.

And in the second half of the year…

There’s a lot more to come from the authors and illustrators of Wales in the second half of the year. News of the following publications is floating our boat at the moment:

The Last Spell Breather, Julie Pike; Every Child a Song, Nicola Davies & Marc Martin; The Princess Who Flew with Dragons, Stephanie Burgis (Bloomsbury); Max Low publishes a book with Otter Barry; a second Grace-Ella story is due from Sharon Marie-Jones (Firefly); a third (and final?) Aubrey book from Horatio Clare (Firefly); a second novel from Sophie Anderson; Peril en Pointe from Helen Lipscombe (Chicken House); there may be a new book from Wendy White, and new books from Dan Anthony and Ruth Morgan will be published with Gomer; a follow up to Through the Eyes of Me by Jon Robinson (Graffeg); Teach Your Cat Welsh and Find the Dragon from Lolfa; and a new Max the Detective book from Sarah Todd Taylor (Nosy Crow).

Meet The… (Pirates and Ancient Greeks)

James Davies

Big Picture Press
Review written by Daddy Worm

These two hardback non-fiction releases follow in the footsteps of Meet The Ancient Romans and Meet The Ancient Egyptians. In our house these books are beloved by 6 year old Kit and Mum and Dad too. The same should be true in the rest of the world as they have wide appeal.

Contents of Ancient Greeks

Funny, engaging and stylish, their primary aim is surely to entertain and inform. But this is no fuddy-duddy school textbook – James Davies brings new life to well-worn topics, and finds quirky extras to amuse, shock and surprise (Kit’s favourite part of Ancient Egyptians is the mummification of pets!) The factual information is delivered concisely and backed up with the most amazing illustrations. So in Meet The Pirates, we learn who they were, where they came from, parts of the ship, how they navigated and so on. In Ancient Greeks, we are taken through the buildings, the myths, education, art, games and more – both volumes stretch to around 64 pages.

The illustrations (I said they were amazing), add humour and humanity to each page – so we get Homer writing an epic blog; pirates claiming “This looks nothing like the brochure”; Athens’ Got Talent; parrots squawking “Who’s a pretty boy then?” to pirates on a catwalk; Alexander the Great sticking Post-It notes all over the countries of a map claiming ‘Mine’; oh, and some cat references (follow James on Twitter for updates on his own cat, Audrey). Sometimes the humour is hysterically childish, sometimes it makes you laugh out loud, but it will always bring a smile to your face, no matter how old you are.

Within the books we particularly enjoyed the cartoon retellings of historical sagas. Here James really excels with a traditional-looking cartoon format for Pandora’s Box (Ancient Greeks) or The Strange Case of Alexander Selkirk (Pirates). We’d love to see James get the opportunity to work on a comic or graphic novel.

Endpapers of Meet The… Ancient Greeks

We should also mention the design of this series which has been very well-considered. Olivia Cook and Marty Cleary get the credit at the front of the books – James has designed his own font, and it’s clear that the whole book, from endpapers to maps, timelines, subheadings and page edges, have been thought about in great detail.

Page edges with design showing subtitles

Perfect for all ages; from inquisitive 5 year olds, fact-seeking 8 year olds, eager 12 year olds, unashamed 43 year olds and older – we can’t live without these books at the moment, and don’t think you should have to either.

James Davies is from Wales, now living in Bristol. You can see more of his bold, graphic style at his website. You can also follow him on Twitter.

The Meet The… series is published by Big Picture Press and can be bought from your local independent bookshop or direct from the publisher.

Firefly Review 2018

Firefly Press was launched in Cardiff in 2013. Spearheaded by publisher Penny Thomas and a team of editors, writers and enthusiasts, they develop around 10 books a year. At the time of launch, Janet Thomas, editor, was quoted as saying, “We aim to publish the best in storytelling, writing and design for a Welsh, UK and world market. Our stories may be funny, scary, magical, shocking, thrilling, sad or happy, but always aim to entertain and inspire.” (The Bookseller, 21 May 2013)

Anyone who’s read a Firefly-published book in 2018 would probably concur that those aims have been met, with aplomb. For us, it’s fabulous that Firefly publish books for children only, as this allows for an intensely focussed approach on successfully selling the authors and design. We’re really pleased that the design of the books receives due attention – with Firefly, you really can judge the book by its cover – and from what we’ve seen of the 2019 releases, this is going to continue, and rightly so.

We’ll draw your attention to a number of 2018 Firefly books here – not all by Welsh authors, but all deserving of universal recognition. (Writing in italics is directly from press information.)

Thrilling Series for Mature Readers

Two compelling Firefly trilogies came to a close in 2018 – both to be appreciated by readers of middle-grade, young adult and adult fiction. The Heart of Mars is the conclusion of a sci-fi thriller centered on protagonist Lora. After trekking the Martian deserts and battling against many dangers, Lora and Peter bravely set off to find the Ancient Heart of Mars and rescue Ma and Hannah. This acclaimed, inventive book delights its readers with scares and surprises – a brilliantly written fight for survival.

The Territory: Truth also grips the attention with its dystopian plotline and powerful characterisations. The year is 2059. Noa lives in what’s left of a Britain where flooding means land is scarce. Everyone must sit an exam at 15: if you pass you can stay in the Territory, if you fail you must go to the Wetlands. Will Noa, Jack and Raf be able to defeat the wall and the authorities and finally uncover the truth?

Critically acclaimed and award-winning, Sarah Govett has succeeded in delivering an accomplished, distinctive and contemporary series.

Middle Grade Masterpieces

Eloise Williams may well be regarded as one of Wales’ heavy-hitters, in terms of literary punch. 2017’s Gaslight struck a chord with readers all over the country keen on historical fiction, and it was ideal for teachers looking for something gritty and realistic to use in their Victorian planning. Since then, Eloise has received Literature Wales support, been one of the Hay Festival Writers at Work, had a nomination for the Tir na-nOg Award and been in the Western Mail! Seaglass, therefore, was always highly anticipated and does not disappoint.

It does, however, surprise. Seaglass stands out amongst the crop of 2018’s MG crowd as it is an eerie ghost story. Chilling, atmospheric, and cleverly focussed on building mood. Totally absorbing characters and wild, windy landscapes had us wholly gripped. Lark is brilliantly realistic and relatable; a strong yet complex heroine determined to resolve a serious family drama. And that means facing the supernatural. A totally captivating and satisfying read!

The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher may well be the jewel in the crown for Firefly. The nomination for the Blue Peter Award is surely the start of many shortlistings. There’s not a lot left to be said about this book, which has been met with praise from all quarters.

As an established writer from Wales, Catherine Fisher has always been held dear in the hearts of so many – even before her days as Young People’s Laureate. Her books for children have always tended to be best enjoyed by those of secondary age, but with Clockwork Crow she has reached a younger audience with a sophisticated narrative and sparkling prose. Catherine Fisher sits comfortably alongside Kiran Millwood-Hargrave and Abi Elphinstone as an essential author for 8-12 year olds.

For a full review of the book, click here.

Fart Gags and Funnybones

Firefly also sees the importance of making us giggle – whether it’s the quirky humour of Dog Town or Jennifer Killick’s Alex Sparrow series, they are serious about good quality humour. Alex Sparrow and the Furry Fury is a highly entertaining read, thoroughly enjoyed by Noah last year. Alex Sparrow is a super-agent in training. He’s also a human lie detector. Can he control his unexpectedly smelly superpowers and save his friends? In this second book of the series (the third is coming soon), Alex and Jess’s  turbulent friendship continues as they aim to solve a mystery centered on an animal sanctuary. Cue warmth and wisdom as well as wit in this pacey gem.

Originally published in Latvian, Dog Town is a heart-warming novel about Jacob Bird, who is fighting to save a run-down area of Riga from developers, with the help of the district’s very own gang of talking dogs. The book won The Annual Latvian Literature Prize for The Best Children’s Book 2014. Latvian National Radio has created a radio play version, and it is also currently being made into an animation film. Readers will approve of the excellent translation which retains a quirkiness and charm that delights and engages.

Like Furry Fury, Dog Town contains serious themes – friendship and community – showing that comedy is a great vehicle for encouraging thought and empathy.

You may have seen some of Firefly’s announcements about upcoming books in 2019. It continues to be an exciting time and we will be taking a look at our most anticipated reads in 2019 over the next few weeks. In the meantime, there’s plenty to enjoy from Firefly – all can be purchased directly through their website.

Gomer Review 2018

Gomer Press is the largest independent publisher in Wales and one of the oldest. Established in 1892 and still owned by the same family, it focusses on books with a distinctive Welsh identity and publishes books for adults and children in both languages.

We’ll focus on the books for children released during 2018 in English:

Three Tales by Cynan Jones (£5.99)

Award-winning and respected writer for adults, Cynan Jones turns his hand to three folk tales or fables for children.

Inspiring discussion, ideal for school assemblies or in-class debates, Malachy Doyle exclaims these are “treats of the imagination for child and adult alike.”

Mamgu’s Campervan, Wendy White; Helen Flook (£5.99)

Wendy White is a real favourite of Nina’s. Her previous volumes, Welsh Cakes and Custard and St. David’s Day is Cancelled are both adored in our house.

Mamgu’s Campervan is a short volume following the adventures of Betsi Wynn and Mamgu around a castle.

Mamgu and Betsi Wyn get the camper van out of hibernation but it doesn’t seem to be working properly! They finally get it going and take it out for a spin. This is a heartwarming adventure story that children in Year 2 and Year 3 will love.

Nina says “I really liked all the Welsh words that Wendy White used – castell, diolch, da iawn, Ych a fi! – it gave the book a definite Welsh feel! I also loved the pictures: Helen Flook’s illustrations made the story come to life – the colourful front cover is especially good.”

This book comes highly recommended and we are looking forward to more from Wendy White soon.

The Last Big One, Dan Anthony (£8.99)

The Last Big One is an emotive and gritty story for older readers from trusted and accomplished author, Dan Anthony.

It follows the story of Clint, a teenager whose life seems to go from bad to worse – a school expulsion, a mother grieving, feelings of guilt and injustice and not belonging. He runs away to Parchman Farm.

Here he has to find himself and learn who to trust. Daddy Worm thought this was a brilliant book from a talented writer.

Wil and the Welsh Black Cattle, Phil Okwedy (£5.99)

Wil and the Welsh Black Cattle weaves together six Welsh tales to tell the story of how Wil cheats death and finds true love – but not before losing his fortune twice. Interwoven is the story of Al Capone’s Welsh right-hand man, Murray the Hump. The story takes us from Wales to London and the USA, mixing the real lives of cattle drovers with fantastical fairy elements.

Bananabeeyumio by Laura Sheldon (£6.99)

Bananabeeyumio is a bit of a mouthful – and maybe that’s how it’s meant to be, as here is a story about a secret recipe for a secret sweet treat. Take a bite of bananabeeyumio and you suddenly become able to jump to Olympic standards. But here’s the rub: bananabeeyumio must remain a secret – only to be known by the residents of Cwmbach.

However, one day 11 year old Charlie is spotted by a talent scout for a sports academy and is unable to reveal the real reason for his extreme jumping abilities. The story follows Charlie as he is heralded as the “next big thing” in junior athletics. Clearly things don’t go to plan and there are lessons to be learned about being honest, trustworthy and respecting the hard work of others. Should keeping a secret get you into so much hot water?

Well, the secret is in danger of being revealed several times during the book, as there are more twists and turns in this story than there are on the roads to Cwmbach. An engaging and well-written tale.

The Inn of Waking Shadows, Karla Brading (£6.99)


Emlyn has always stood out at school, and living at the Skirrid Inn doesn’t help. Other kids live with siblings or pets – but Emlyn shares his home with ghosts! Or so they say.

Emlyn doesn’t believe the stories that his home is the most haunted inn in Wales – that is, until he rings a servant’s bell and accidentally summons Fanny Price. Fanny’s presence disturbs some of the Inn’s angrier residents – namely ‘Hanging’ Judge Jeffries, a much older and more powerful ghost who is determined to add Fanny to his collection of feeble spirits.

With flesh-and-blood bullies making his school life miserable, and a ghostly one making his home life down right dangerous, will Emlyn be strong enough to help Fanny move on? And if he does… will he have lost his only friend?

The Lonely Bwbach, Graham Howells (£5.99)

This short tale tells of a little creature from Welsh folklore – the bwbach, a little hobgoblin who would live with a family and care for the home, doing chores in return for a bowl of cream.

The bwbach in this tale has been left alone for years in the house as it was abandoned and fell into disrepair.

Ultimately the cottage was dismantled brick by brick and the bwbach is left distraught.

All is not lost however has he learns that his house has been relocated to St Ffagans and it is his duty to protect it so he sets off on a quest…

An unusual and absorbing tale with great illustrations.

Juliet Jones and the Ginger Pig, Sue Reardon-Smith (£5.99)

Aberteg is a little village in the west of Wales, tucked between the hills and the sea. If you were to go there yourself, you might see Mansel Roberts going up the mountain to look for owls. You could bump into the Bevan twins or come across Mostyn, watching a pair of otters in the river. And if you stayed by the sea, you may see Sian and Juliet playing rounders on the beach. You might even catch a glimpse of Dabby Davies.

In these stories are eight children for you to meet. All of them are different, but all of them are just a little bit like you, too. They will help you learn why friendship is special, how good it is to believe in yourself, and why you must always, always be kind.

All of these titles are available to purchase direct from Gomer online. We are extremely grateful to them for providing review copies of many of these books and would like to thank them for their continued support.