Cymru As You Are

Books to develop insight into the culture, people and history of Wales

This St. David’s Day, we’ve decided to take a look at some brilliant stories with a Welsh context. These are books that will fire the imagination and connect children to the landscape and the communities of Wales, both now and in the past. We hope that our suggested reading list is fuel for teachers, parents and reading enthusiasts from Holyhead to Haverfordwest and Highmoor Hill to Hawarden. We also have some suggestions for activities that will help to get to know these books better.

Reception (Age 5)

Tad-cu’s Bobble Hat was Malachy Doyle’s 100th book and was recently included in the Iechyd Da wellbeing pack from the Welsh Books Council delivered to all Welsh primaries. Set in the Cambrian Mountains not far from Machynlleth, the story features a boy and his tadcu (grandfather) on walks through the hills. On one particular trip the snow falls and tadcu lends his bobble hat which is then lost. The book, illustrated by Dorry Spikes, deals with the loss of a grandparent in a very gentle way and the symbolism of the changing seasons can be explored whilst connecting with the intergenerational theme and the welsh landscapes. ‘A touching story that conveys the warmth and joy between two generations, and handles the universal themes of love, loss and renewal with gentleness. On one walk, as Tadcu gets older, his special bobble hat is lost. Winter sets in and with it, life dies. When the thaw of spring arrives, the boy returns to the hillside walk to look for the hat. Its discovery brings comfort and a renewed sense of love and positive memories.’

Year 1 (Age 6)

The Quilt by Valeriane Leblond is a wonderful picturebook that can be read and enjoyed by any age. Children and adults will be captivated by the gorgeous illustrations that take us from rural Wales at the turn of the 20th century to the New World via Liverpool. This book connects us to our past but could also open up conversations about migration, homes, family, travel as well as Wales’ unique landscapes. ‘A beautifully illustrated story about emigration and homesickness. A little girl lives with her parents on a farm near the coast, around the turn of the twentieth century. Times are hard and the family decides to emigrate to the USA, raising the fare by selling all of their possessions except for a black and red quilt lovingly hand-made by the mother. The little girl feels homesick and sad at times, but the memories and love contained in the quilt help her overcome this and adapt to her new life. The book offers a message of hope which is sure to strike a chord with many adult readers: when things look bleak, remember that happy times will return.’

Little Honey Bee also has illustrations by Valeriane Leblond and is written by Caryl Lewis. The Welsh landscapes are evident throughout the story which will connect readers to the rich plantlife of their locality through a sensitive story about a bee-keeping grandma. ‘One wintry night, Elsi is left on her grandmother’s doorstep. Elsi is as silent as snow until Grandma shows her a secret at the bottom of the garden…’

Year 2 (Age 7)

Owen and the Mountain by Malachy Doyle and Giles Greenfield has echoes of Tadcu’s Bobble Hat in that it highlights a warm and loving relationship between a boy and his grandfather. Climbing the remote Welsh mountain can be seen as a metaphor that is difficult for both grandfather and grandson. Ultimately this is a story about love, achieving your heart’s desire and the glory of nature. ‘Owen is visiting his grandad and he wants to climb the mountain. But his grandad is not sure. The journey is long and tiring and when they succeed they are not only happy to have completed a difficult task but have also learnt a bit more about each other.’

The Seal Children by Jackie Morris is a story built on the celtic myth of half-woman half-seal selkies, and is set just above St. David’s Head. ‘When a fisherman falls in love with a selkie she gives him her sealskin as a sign of her love, and bears him two children, Ffion and Morlo, before returning to her own people. When a stranger comes to the village, telling of a land far away, the children remember their mother’s stories of the cities of gold and pearls beneath the waves…’ The Hamilton Trust have written teaching notes for The Seal Children aimed at Year 4, and you can hear Jackie read the book below.

Cities in the Sea

While considering books for this list, it became clear that there are many excellent quality stories about the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod – the prosperous land accidently flooded when the gates to the low-lying kingdom were left open. These three versions are suitable to read together (and work great as a read-aloud) to bridge the journey between Year 2 and Year 3.

Year 3 (Age 8)

Wendy White has some really brilliant stories all about Welsh communities. Short manageable chapters make these great books for newly independent readers to try for themselves. But there’s great humour to be had in reading aloud – especially the Welsh caricatures in the seasonally apt St. David’s Day Is Cancelled.

The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo is a classic story that has to be included in this list. About to mark its 35th birthday following the recent TV adaptation by Owen Sheers, The Snow Spider is another story that features the Welsh landscape almost as an additional character. It’s also great for empathy as readers have to come to terms with the reactions of different family members to the disappearance of Gwyn’s sister. More mature readers could be encouraged to investigate the links to the Mabinogion. ‘Gwyn’s grandmother leaves him five gifts: a brooch, a piece of dried seaweed, a tin whistle, a scarf, and a broken toy horse. She tells him they will help make him a magician – but can Gwyn use them to bring his missing sister, Bethan, home?’

Year 4 (Age 9)

Two books that have dual Italian-Welsh heritage are Sweet Pizza and King of the Sky. Both of these books provide opportunities for children to discover an important part of Welsh history – Italian cafes or ice-cream parlours were commonplace at one time. Sweet Pizza by G.R. Gemin, is about a South Wales valley café under threat; Joe, has an entrepreneurial spirit like his immigrant ancestors; he is unwilling to accept that the café is a lost cause and has ideas to breathe new life into it and make it the centre of the community once more. The pride that Joe feels for his own heritage, his ancestors and the valley in which he lives is obvious and infectious in this heart-warming book. ‘Joe loves his Italian heritage: the language, the opera, the lasagne! But it’s hard to celebrate his Italian roots in Bryn Mawr, South Wales, where his mam is sick of running the family’s tatty café. Just like his great-grandfather, who opened the café in 1929, Joe is an entrepreneur. He vows to save the family business, and to spice up the tired High Street with a little Italian flavour!’

King of the Sky, meanwhile, features an Italian boy who is finding it hard to call Wales home. Only when he meets the pigeon-racing Mr Evans does he begin to connect and start to belong. Nicola Davies’ perfectly pitched prose and Laura Carlin’s earthy illustrations make this a delightfully evocative book about Wales’ recent past. The book is one of many on this list that would work with all ages, and there are lots of teacher notes available to download. We particularly like the ones from Walker and Amnesty. We made a video about King of the Sky when it was shortlisted for the Tir na n-Og Award in 2018. It made me smile to go back, so here it is again…

The most recent winner of the Tir na n-Og Award (an award for children’s books that have an authentic Welsh context), is Storm Hound by Claire Fayers. I have recently used Storm Hound as a Whole Class Read in my Year 4 class so can vouch that it totally engaged and enthused the children. Based on both Norse and Welsh mythology the story centres on a family new to Abergavenny who adopt a puppy from the Dog Centre; he just happens to be one of the Hounds of Odin’s Wild Hunt! Funny, fast-paced and hugely satisfying with lots of layers to unpeel. ‘Storm of Odin is the youngest stormhound of the Wild Hunt that haunts lightning-filled skies. He has longed for the time when he will be able to join his brothers and sisters but on his very first hunt he finds he can’t keep up and falls to earth, landing on the A40 just outside Abergavenny. Enter twelve-year-old Jessica Price, who finds and adopts a cute puppy from an animal rescue centre. And suddenly, a number of strange people seem very interested in her and her new pet, Storm. People who seem to know a lot about magic . . . Jessica starts to see that there’s something different about her beloved dog and will need to work out which of her new friends she can trust.’

Year 5

The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr was only published at the start of 2021 but it already feels like it belongs in this list. In fact, it feels like a classic as you read it and I’m sure many schools will be adopting it for their teaching as the word begins to spread. It’s a brilliant World War II evacuee story that we described as “a moving love song to the valleys”.

When Jimmy is evacuated to a small village in Wales, it couldn’t be more different from London. Green, quiet and full of strangers, he instantly feels out of place. But then he finds a skull hidden in a tree, and suddenly the valley is more frightening than the war. Who can Jimmy trust? His brother is too little; his best friend has changed. Finding an ally in someone he never expects, they set out together to uncover the secrets that lie with the skull. What they discover will change Jimmy – and the village – forever.

The Clockwork Crow is a world-class fantasy for children by Catherine Fisher, set at the end of the Victorian era. Taking the myth of the Tylwyth Teg and using it to inspire a trilogy of stories located in a Mid-Wales manor house, provides a treasure trove of interesting links. The eponymous Crow has a mystery of his own, but the talking corvid is not the central character. Seren is an orphan who seeks to belong and is determined to solve the central mystery of a missing child. ‘A magical story of snow and stars; a mysterious gothic Christmas tale set in a frost-bound Victorian country mansion. When orphaned Seren Rees is given a mysterious package by a strange and frightened man on her way to her new home, she reluctantly takes it with her. But what is in the parcel? Who are the Family who must not be spoken of, and can the Crow help Seren find Tomos, before the owner of the parcel finds her?’

Year 6

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day is an extraordinary book. A witty, gritty, profound adventure set in the heart of Snowdonia. It’s got sibling rivalry, dragons and mountains. It’s fresh, it’s real, it’ll make you cry. One reviewer described it as “Jacqueline Wilson meets Alan Garner” and there’s no doubt that this is a raw coming-of-age adventure. ‘Max wants to be just like his dad – fun, loud and strong. Instead, he always seems to be accidentally getting into fights and breaking things. But when his dad starts bringing home mysterious boxes, even more mysterious wads of cash starts turning up. Then Dad disappears. And it’s up to Max to look after his sisters until he comes home.

When they run away to a remote village in Wales, he’s convinced that no one will find them. He’s Max Kowalski. Of course he can look after three kids with no grownups around! Although, he can’t stop thinking about where Dad really went. And the whispers of a golden dragon, asleep under the Welsh mountains…’

Gaslight is a highly atmospheric and very dramatic historical fiction set in Victorian Cardiff. Wales’ Children’s Laureate, Eloise Williams has crafted a rich and vividly descriptive novel that will have you on the edge of your seat. Nansi is the central character, trying to solve the disappearance of her mother, whilst scraping a living between bit parts on the Empire Theatre stage and thieving from rich households. Nansi dreams of finding her own identity and freeing herself from the perilous life she leads. In parts bleak and brutal, this is a gripping tale that will fire many imaginations. ‘All Nansi knows is that her mother disappeared on the day she was fished out of Cardiff docks. Now, in 1899, she can’t remember anything else. With no other family to turn to, she works for Sid at the Empire Theatre, sometimes legally, sometimes thieving to order, trying to earn enough money to hire a detective to find her mother. Everything changes when Constance and Violet join the theatre, both with their own dark secrets. Nansi is forced to be part of Violet’s crooked psychic act. But it’s when Constance recognises her, and realises who her mother must be, that Nansi’s world is turned upside down forever. She is soon on the run for her life and she will have to risk everything if she’s going to find the truth.’

Year 7+ (Age 12 and up)

Traditionally our blog has focussed on the primary years, but as our children grow up (two of them are now over 12) we are learning more about books for more mature children and young adults. We are therefore delighted to recommend these titles for secondary age children.

Non-Fiction for all ages

The book Wales on the Map was published a couple of years ago, and is an indispensable guide to Wales, it’s regions, landscapes, culture and history. It really is essential reading for all and is presented with gorgeous double page spread illustrations in a large format book. Elin Meek has done the research and written the little facts in readable bitesize nuggets while illustrations are by the ridiculously talented Valeriane Leblond, who has several books on this page.

For those looking to explore specific periods of history in Wales, then the Wicked Wales series published by Gomer presents the information in a similar manner to the Horrible Histories books.

Folk Tales and Legends

We’d also like to recommend some folk tales and legends to spark your imagination – there are a number of really fantastic versions available. A special mention for the newly published Welsh Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends by Claire Fayers which is a cracking compilation of short stories – some familiar, some not so familiar, but all told with Claire’s friendly fireside storytelling voice – there’s a real focus on building each story and telling it well. It’s going down a storm in our house with all ages from 8 to 46 (am sure it appeals to older and younger too!).

Claire is also contributing towards a new collection of stories from The Mabinogion. The Mab has now received full funding for publication and will feature stories from some of our best-loved authors, put together by Eloise Williams and Matt Brown. You can pre-order your copy here.

Here’s a gallery of other folk tales and legends that have captivated us:

5 Activities to encourage Reading for Pleasure with books from Wales

Many of these ideas are credited to research carried out by the Open University Reading for Pleasure groups, in association with the UKLA (UK Literacy Association). I have provided links to the examples of practice on their website, where relevant. These are all tried and tested methods in my own classroom and can be easily transferred to the home setting. This is not about comprehension tasks or analysis of writing – it’s about firing a spark and reading for pleasure!

1. Book Blanket

A book blanket of Welsh authors

A Book Blanket is essentially where you lay out books and encourage readers to look, read the blurbs, dip in, see what appeals and then, importantly, talk about it. If you’re in school you can do this with a whole class and have a little crib sheet that they fill in, or tick the ones they like the look of and want to read later. At home, you can engage in more detailed conversations about why books appeal; what do we think they will be about; have we read anything similar? Book blankets are normally carried out on a ‘theme’ so collecting together books about Wales is an ideal opportunity. If you don’t have many books about Wales, you could widen it to books by Welsh authors.

Example of Practice by Benjamin Harris: Book Blankets – Reading for Pleasure (ourfp.org)

2. Book Tasting

Similar to the Book Blanket, Book Tasting is a means to show children that there are more genres, more authors, more stories to be found. It is about widening their reading repertoires and showing them new stories in a fun and interesting way. Provide a selection of books for children to look at. Make it fun by turning the classroom into a cafe – tablecloths, menus, flowers… that kind of thing. You could put on an apron and be the waiter/waitress attending to the cafe customers. Children can write down the menu of books they have chosen and discuss with friends which ‘flavours’ they enjoyed most and would like more of. Again, it’s important to encourage ‘book talk’ – find out why particular books are chosen. A special Welsh cafe for St. David’s Day would be rather wonderful wouldn’t it?

Example of Practice by Sadie Phillips: Expanding Reading Repertoires – Book Tastings – Reading for Pleasure (ourfp.org)

3. Map the Bookish Community

Here’s one for the grown-ups. The research by Open University shows that a teacher who has good knowledge of the available books is much better placed to give a suitable recommendation and foster reading for pleasure in the classroom or home. If you want a vibrant and diverse collection of books for children to explore, which should include books from Wales, then you have to develop your knowledge of these texts.

Much has been written about the reliance on celebrity authors and also the reliance on the authors of our childhoods like Dahl and Blyton, but for many teachers it’s seen as a professional responsibility to increase their own knowledge of available books.

So how about this: get out a map of Wales and place the books in their geographical locations. Are there gaps on the map? Do you have books that children in your community can relate to? Are there some places in Wales that inspire more stories than others? Do the characters reflect the realities of the children you teach/parent? You may want to explore the Tir na n-Og shortlists of the past in conjunction with our blog post.

Example of Practice by Jo Bowers and Simon Fisher: EOP_Land_of_Our_Authors_-_Simon_Fisher_Jo_Bowers_May_2020_final-1.pdf (ourfp.org)

4. Adopt an Author

Adopt an author is an idea to engage with one author and find out more about their work. In the context of Books from Wales, you could choose any of the authors, although it would work particularly well with Claire Fayers, Eloise Williams, Jenny Nimmo, Valeriane Leblond, Catherine Fisher, Jenny Sullivan, Sian Lewis, Jackie Morris as these names have more than 1 book set in Wales. You could widen it to include authors from Wales – in which case this graphic will be useful…

Children could be encouraged to become an expert in that author and produce a presentation; make promotional posters; record readings (try to keep the focus on the book, themes and connections – this isn’t a biography.)

5. Write a Letter

This is a bit old school, but authors love to hear when children have enjoyed their books. Writing a letter helps to connect the child to the book and to the author. Why not get children to write to the author of their favourite book set in Wales, explaining why they like the book so much? P.G. Bell, Welsh author of The Train to Impossible Places, is a big fan of letter writing and has produced some supportive resources.

Composing a tweet is a similar idea – and sometimes more challenging for a child to express themselves in a limited number of words.

A House for Christmas Mouse

Rebecca Harry

Published by Nosy Crow

This delightfully shimmery new Christmas picture book comes from Cardiff author and illustrator, Rebecca Harry. Rebecca has published a number of well-loved stories with Nosy Crow and this tale featuring Christmas Mouse is a fantastic addition to the set.

Mouse is very excited for Christmas, but first she needs to find a home! On her way through the forest, she meets Fox, Bunny and Bear, all in need of a little help – which she gladly offers. Things don’t look good for Mouse though, the light is fading and it looks like she won’t have a cosy home for Christmas. Luckily, her new friends are about to reward her generosity with a very big surprise…

This is a wonderfully gentle and warm story perfect for 2 to 5 year olds – they will love the character of Mouse who shows great kindness to others and demonstrates how a community is built on caring, hospitality and friendship.

The story leaves you with a glow and the illustrations are equally soft and tender. Rebecca’s smouldering winterscapes set the Christmas scene, making the animal house interiors seem even more warm and inviting with cosy fires and hot chocolate. The added foils on every page bring a seasonal glint to this festive tale.

Grab a Christmassy drink, curl up with your little ones, get cosy and enjoy A House for Christmas Mouse, in which animals teach us all about humanity.

With thanks to Nosy Crow for this gifted copy of A House for Christmas Mouse which is available at your local independent bookshop – or direct from Nosy Crow. Why not follow Rebecca Harry on Twitter or visit her website.

Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell

A review and Q&A with Helen Docherty and Thomas Docherty.

Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell is the latest collaboration between husband and wife team Helen and Thomas Docherty. The pair have separate successful careers but have often worked together with amazing results.

Helen has always loved stories and as a child would make her own books (you can see some fine examples on her website). Her early career was as a languages teacher both in the UK and in South America. In 2010, encouraged by Thomas, she began writing again and they published ‘Ruby Nettleship and the Ice Lolly’ together. This was followed in 2013 by her first rhyming text, The Snatchabook, since translated into 22 languages, nominated for many awards and considered a classic by everyone from Booktrust to CBeebies.

Since he was very young, Thomas has always enjoyed drawing and keeping sketchbooks. He was a big Asterix fan. His first book, Little Boat was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2009. He has since written and illustrated 4 more solo works, 5 books with Helen and 5 books with other authors.

They live in Swansea with their two children and, through Storyopolis, enjoy helping children and young people to write their own Book in a Day.

Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell (Sourcebooks) is a charming and colourful rhyming story about independent Nell. Beautifully detailed illustrations capture the tumbling waves, sea monsters and idiosyncratic shipmates. Our eponymous heroine, the newest member of the pirate crew, relies on knowledge, learning and books to chart the seas and live the pirate life. Captain Gnash is too proud, dismissive and closed to new ideas, and he certainly doesn’t approve of books being on board! Cue Nell showing him the error of his ways, the joy of books and reading, and finding life’s real treasure.

We are delighted that Helen and Thomas have answered some of our questions. Huge thanks to them both.

What are you reading at the moment?

Helen: I’ve just finished Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, and I’m sorry it’s come to an end; it was a brilliant and absorbing read.

I still read to our girls (age 10 and 12) every night, though they’re both avid readers themselves. Over half term we enjoyed Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh – a Halloween gem from my own childhood. We’ve just started The Castle of Tangled Magic by Sophie Anderson and next up is Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day.

Thomas: In an attempt to keep my Welsh up over lockdown (we’ve been learning for a number of years) I’ve got through most of my daughter’s Welsh teen novels, most recently the Yma trilogy by Lleucu Roberts, but also her brilliant adult novel Saith Oes Efa (challenging Welsh but very rewarding). Before that I read two books by Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines and Among Muslims, both beautifully observed and poetic real journeys in words.

As a husband and wife picturebook team you must have more opportunity to discuss your ideas together?

Helen: Yes, we’re very lucky in that we can brainstorm ideas for stories, give each other feedback on story drafts and develop characters or plots together. The first book we collaborated on, Ruby Nettleship and the Ice Lolly Adventure, was very much a joint effort. Having said that, when Tom is working flat out illustrating a book, he doesn’t have a lot of free time (or headspace) to discuss new ideas – it’s such a time-consuming job!

Do your own children input into your ideas?

Helen: A few years ago, a conversation with our youngest daughter directly inspired me to write a picture book text. She asked me whether it’s possible for a parent to love a new baby as much as their other children, and I reassured her that we’re not born with a limited amount of love to give, and that You Can Never Run Out of Love. As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I was onto something, and I started working on the text that very night.

Similarly, our eldest daughter was feeling anxious at the beginning of lockdown this spring – as so many of us were – and missing her friends and grandparents. I wrote a new picture book text, All the Things We Carry, partly in response to this. The central message is that we don’t have to bear our worries alone; we carry one another, even when we are apart.

Thomas: I love our daughters’ pictures (all children’s pictures) and I sometimes wish my own illustrations could be as free and spontaneous as theirs. I’m still waiting for them to hand me a best seller on a plate though!

Helen, when you start to write a picturebook text, what are you hoping to achieve? (Do you have a set of overarching aims?)

Helen: Picture books are a child’s first encounter with books and stories. They can help to frame children’s understanding of the world, and they introduce them to new concepts and ideas. They can also be a vehicle for exploring different emotions and how we deal with them. That’s why writing picture books feels like such a privilege to me – and also a responsibility. I want each book I write to carry a positive message – not just for children, but for the adults reading it, too. I want children to care about the characters in each story. And, of course, I want to entertain my audience.

What, do you think, makes a successful picturebook?

Helen: There are so many different ways in which a picture book can be successful. I guess the ultimate litmus test is, do you want to read it – or have it read to you – again (and again)? The best picture books endure multiple readings, and become more loved over time.

Thomas, the endpapers are often a place of innovation, humour and thought-provocation. What is their importance?

Thomas: When creating the endpapers you are freed from the constraints of the story, but at the same time you have the chance to add something new or unexpected. It’s a chance to take the reader further into the visual world you have created, maybe in a different direction. I sometimes like the end papers more than the illustrations inside the book, possibly because they stand alone and speak for themselves.

Pirate Nell celebrates the power of reading. Sharing stories is also a central theme of The Knight Who Wouldn’t Fight and The Snatchabook. Are you on a mission?

Helen: Apparently so! Believe it or not, it’s never been intentional, in that I didn’t set out to write a series of ‘books about books.’ However, I’ve always been a bookworm and I strongly believe in the power of stories to bring people together and nurture empathy, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s become a recurring theme.

Captain Gnash is the ‘top dog’, yet he doesn’t listen and is quite arrogant. Is it too much to read a political message into the story?

Helen: What could a greedy, power-obsessed pirate captain with an over-inflated ego, a disdain for books and very few actual skills possibly have in common with any of the great political leaders of our time?

I hope our young readers will be more inspired by Pirate Nell’s example; she is brave, compassionate and eager to share and to help others.

Note: The character of Captain Gnash was first conceived in an earlier version of the story, Captain Gnash and the Wrong Treasure, which I started working on at the very end of 2016. Here are the opening verses:

Just two things mattered to Captain Gnash:

Making his fortune; and fame.

He was desperate to find some treasure,

And for all to know his name.

He worked very hard on his image

(He took selfies every day).

But woe betide any pirate

Who dared to get in his way.

His temper tantrums were famous;

You could hear them for miles around.

The other pirates did their best

To block out the terrible sound.

The book features some glorious seascapes and coastal illustrations. Are you inspired by your local Swansea shores?

Thomas: If I wasn’t a children’s book illustrator I would like to draw landscapes. In fact, I often sketch when we go out walking – so I’m definitely inspired by the Swansea shores. The Knight who Wouldn’t Fight is full of Brecon Beacons inspired hills, a nod to Castell Carreg Cennen and a twisty tree you can find half way up Skirrid Fawr.

Helen: Absolutely! I grew up by the sea (in Weymouth, Dorset) and I’m so happy that we live by the sea on the beautiful Gower peninsula now. Knowing how much Tom loves to draw the sea, I wrote Pirate Nell’s Tale To Tell  for him to illustrate.

You’re both learning Welsh. Sut mae’n mynd?

Thomas: Da iawn diolch!

Helen: It’s been a real effort over many years, but we’re both so happy that we can now speak (and understand) Welsh – as can our daughters, who both attend Welsh medium schools. Cymraeg was my Granny’s first language, and she would be so proud – and pretty amazed – to see us all now. O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau!

Could you recommend any favourite picturebooks?

Thomas: Don’t Cross The Line! By Isabel Minhos Martins and Bernardo P. Carvalho

Anything illustrated by Christian Robinson

Helen: We have so many favourites in our house – too many to mention! Anything by Shirley Hughes. I would second Christian Robinson’s books – he’s a genius. When Tom and I first met, we found we had a favourite picture book from our respective childhoods in common: How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban and Quentin Blake. One of the books which has most inspired me over time is The Sneetches by the great Dr Seuss. And a book I always return to is Leon and Bob by Simon James. So understated, so much heart – and the best last line in any picture book I’ve ever read. Gets me every time.

The Screen Thief is coming in 2021. What can you tell us about it? Is it a follow-up to The Snatchabook?

Helen: The Screen Thief is about a little creature called the Snaffle who arrives in the city hoping to make friends to play with. Unfortunately, everyone is too busy looking at their screens. When the Snaffle eats a stray mobile phone out of curiosity, she develops a taste for screens… But will they ever really satisfy her hunger? This story was so much fun to write, and I love the world that Thomas has created with his illustrations. It wasn’t intended as a follow-up to The Snatchabook, but there are obvious similarities. And Snatchabook fans might enjoy spotting Eliza and her friend on a couple of pages in The Screen Thief.

Do you have any other projects on the horizon?

Thomas: I’ve got a new book of my own out with Egmont in April called The Horse That Jumped – it’s full of landscapes! Helen and I are also working on a new book together for Sourcebooks in the US called Orange Moon, Blue Baboon and I’m just starting the illustrations for that now.

Helen: I have three other picture books commissioned by different publishers, all soon to be illustrated (by different illustrators, not Thomas): All the Things We Carry, The Bee Who Loved Words and Someone Just Like You. And of course, I’m always working on new story ideas… Watch this space!

Thanks again to Helen and Thomas for taking the time to answer our questions. Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell is published by Sourcebooks and is available from your local independent bookshop.

Thomas’ new book, The Horse That Jumped is published in April 2021 by Egmont. The Screen Thief publishes with Alison Green Books in May 2021.

Follow Thomas on Twitter and visit his website. Follow Helen and click here for her website.

#TheMab

Earlier this week, a crowdfunding campaign was launched to finance a new version of The Mabinogion for young people. These are the earliest prose stories of Britain and have been hugely influential on storytelling across Europe. With contributions from 11 acclaimed Welsh writers for children, the new book promises to be an epic retelling for a new generation. Each tale will be written in English then translated into Welsh by Bethan Gwanas and will feature glorious illustrations from the incredible Max Low.

The book is being put together and edited by Children’s Laureate Wales, Eloise Williams and Matt Brown who will also contribute a story each. Matt posted this video to explain more about The Mab.

The book, which is not yet a reality, is seeking publication through Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher. Readers choose a reward – everything from a signed copy of the book to author virtual visits – pledge their money, and wait for the project to be 100% funded.

At Family Bookworms we are giving this project our full support and backing and would encourage you all to visit the unbound website to donate if you can. As one of our worms says:

“The Mabinogion is part of our cultural heritage and to have these amazing contemporary authors, representative of the very best in children’s writing from Wales, is a real coup. It promises to be an essential and important volume for a new generation.” 

Simon Fisher, Family Bookworms

Eloise Williams, Children’s Laureate Wales and author of 4 novels set in Wales, told us, “As far as we know, there isn’t another collection like it! We have so many amazing people working on the project and we are so excited to bring the stories to everyone.”

So let’s take a look at the amazing cast of contributors and hear directly about their involvement, their excitement and their motivations…

I am overjoyed to be collaborating on this magical project with a group of writers that are inspirational, artful and delicate in their gathering of words. As a poet, this opportunity opens up the page and offers me space to dreaming, space to unravel, unfold and stretch my ideas – and I’ll be listening to the whispers, to the mutterings of the old tales.

Alex wharton

I am delighted to have been invited to contribute to this project, especially as I have moved to Pembrokeshire where so much of the action of the Mabinogion takes place. The stories are so strange, like something translated with a slightly dodgy Rosetta stone; but what I love about them is the echos they carry of a long lost world where wolves howled on the Welsh hills and the landscape was populated not with humans but with wild species in abundance. Immersing myself in that world with its priorities so very different from our own, is going to be a deep pleasure.

nicola davies

I remember my primary school teacher reading the Mabinogion to us in class. The Owl Service (inspired by the story of Gronw and Blodeuwedd) was one of my favourite books growing up. I rediscovered my love for these tireless tales in adulthood, so much so I gifted my son with the middle name Lleu. I am honoured and excited to work on this project and weave myself even more closely to the legacy of these fascinating stories.

Hanan issa

We dream in myths and they in us. They are a society’s safety valve. All our taboos, our deepest fears and desires are played out through the symbolic language of myth and thereby rendered to some extent harmless.

zillah bethell

I’m relishing the opportunity to work on these historic stories with such a fantastic group of writers. Eloise has been doing wonderful things as Children’s Laureate Wales – so I was delighted when she asked me to be part of this.

darren chetty

My mother used to tell my brothers and I all kinds of stories when we were young, but the stories from the Mabinogion always felt extra special, because we knew they were stories from Wales, our home. To be invited to be part of this wonderful project is honestly a dream come true. I believe it is hugely important to preserve the stories from the past, because they are full of wisdom and magic and adventures that speak to our souls. But to preserve these tales, we need to keep retelling them in ways that ignite the interest of readers today. The talent and passion of the creatives working on this project is going to make this a very special book that I know will be treasured by generations of readers to come.

sophie anderson

I didn’t discover the stories from the Mabinogion until embarrassingly late in life, despite having grown up a stone’s throw from Caerleon, where Arthur holds court in many of the tales. For whatever reason, the Mabinogion just didn’t seem to feature in my cultural landscape at the time. That’s why I’m so happy to be part of this fantastic group of artists that Eloise and Matt have assembled. I can’t wait to help share all the magic and strangeness, the adventure and humour with a new generation of readers across Wales and beyond.

P g bell

This is my copy of The Mab from around 1976, maybe earlier. It’s got Olwen on the cover and it’s so floppy and old (although not as much as me) it’s losing pages. I loved it: Welshness was an important part of my identity growing up in London and this book with its weird weighty words is hardwired into my heart. I always always wanted to write something that used the bones of these stories and this is a brilliant brilliant opportunity.

catherine johnson

I’ve spent the past year immersed in Welsh folklore for my own books, so I’m tremendously excited to be a part of this project. What I love most about these ancient tales are the gaps – events that are never properly explained, threads of stories that are left dangling. It’s like seeing a landscape through mist, and it gives tremendous scope to interpret and reimagine. The stories of the Mabinogi explore everything that’s human, from family and friendship to cruelty and murder. Best of all is the sense that the Otherworld of magic is never far away. I’m looking forward to seeing these stories brought to life in a new way for today’s readers.

claire fayers

These stories are part of our heritage and should be in every classroom and every home. By crowdfunding the book we’re making it part of everyone who helps get it made.

matt brown

The Mab is an amazing new book retelling all 11 stories for young people. They are the oldest British stories and #TheMab will help new generations of children fall in love with them. But we need your help – please visit the Unbound page to pledge your support.

eloise williams

The Mab will feature illustrations by Max Low.

I’m really chuffed to be illustrating this wicked update to the legendary Welsh tales from The Mabinogion.

max low

It’s been a real pleasure to be involved in #TheMab launch. Please head over to Unbound to donate if you can. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the funding target over the coming months.

Thanks to all the authors and illustrator for giving us some exclusive content. While we wait for The Mab, and if you have any money left after donating on Unbound, you can head over to your local bookshop and buy a book by one of the contributors. Here’s our recommendations*:

*Firefly Press will publish Daydreams and Jellybeans by Alex Wharton in Spring 2021.

**Images on this page (the author profiles) were made by EW Graphic Designs and are not to be reproduced without permission.

Valériane Leblond

Popular illustrator and artist Valériane Leblond has written her first book for children, as well as painting the images that bring the story to life. Valeriane was brought up in Angers, France but moved to Wales in 2007 and now lives in a farmhouse near Aberystwyth. Valeriane speaks French, English and Welsh.

The Quilt (Y Lolfa) is a beautifully illustrated hardback offering a message of hope and hiraeth. The picturebook pages are captivating taking us from rural Wales at the turn of the 20th century to the New World via Liverpool. We love the colour palette and how this changes as the family enter America (reminiscent of Kyffin Williams’ tone in his Patagonian paintings) and the buzz of Liverpool is Lowry-esque in it’s industrious hustle and bustle. This truly is a stunning book and we felt compelled to get in touch with Valériane to find out more.

Could you tell us how you became an artist?

I’ve always enjoyed drawing, painting and being creative in general, so it happened quite naturally. I had another job for a few years before being able to go full time though.

What was your own journey to settling near Aberystwyth?

I had a Welsh boyfriend that I met at University in Brittany and I followed him home here to Ceredigion. I didn’t know much about Wales at the time, but I felt welcomed here, and I fell in love with the place and its people. Now I’ve got three sons who were born here, I’ve learnt the language and I feel that I can make a contribution through my art.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m reading a novel called Le Principe by Jérôme Ferrari about the physicist Heisenberg. It’s sometimes a bit too clever for me!

The Quilt is an incredible achievement. How long did it take to complete?

Thank you! It must have taken 6 to 8 months to write, and about 3 months to illustrate. I was working on other projects while writing, but I worked full time on the illustrations.

What attracted you to the story?

I always wanted to illustrate a story about a Welsh quilt, I think it is a fascinating craft, visually and historically. And I’ve always been interested in movements of people, especially to North America as my father was from there.

What are your methods of illustration?

I have several techniques, and I love varying and experimenting. I always use a sketchbook to draw roughly the silhouettes and plan the compositions. For The Quilt, I worked with gouache and coloured pencils on paper, and to obtain the muted palette and the sepia overall tone I dyed the paper with brown ink before painting. 

The story absolutely suits your illustration style – particularly the period and lifestyle – is this just coincidence?

No, it’s not just coincidence. Being both the author and illustrator has been a very interesting experience: the text has been feeding the illustrations, the illustrations have been modelling the text too. There are pictures that I just wanted to paint for a book some day, like the double page with a small ship in the big ocean, and this was the perfect opportunity. 

Did it involve a lot of research?

Yes, there was a lot of research involved. I got help from the historian Menna Morgan in the National Library, and from quilt expert Jen Jones of the Welsh Quilt Centre and I used pictures and paintings  from different archives as references for the illustrations.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from your research on The Quilt?

I loved learning about anything food-related : what people ate on the ship, the ‘discovery’ of different food like watermelons, pumpkins, sweetcorn in North America. I would love to explore further the relations between food, home, and place in the future, in a book or in my art.

What was the inspiration for the design and colours of the quilt itself?

I needed a quilt design that would be realistic for the period. After talking to Jen Jones I realised that a bold black and red flannel quilt would suit the story, and I used an existing quilt from her collection.

There is a symmetry between the family’s new life in America and the life they leave in Wales. How did you go about making these connections? 

I wanted to show that places have a lot in common rather than insist on the differences. I’m interested in the idea of “home”, and it is a universal theme we can all relate to, whether we are grown-up or not, wherever we live or come from. 

Do you consider yourself an artist or an illustrator?

It’s difficult to answer, but I would say both. When I work with another author, I am definitively an illustrator, but for The Quilt, I might tend towards being an artist!

The Quilt is a fine example of a picturebook where the images give as much information as the words. Do you have any favourite picturebooks?

My all-time favourite is The Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall and Barbara Cooney. The text is beautifully written and works by itself, and Barbara Cooney’s pictures are extraordinary. I also love Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. When pictures go beyond the text it literally creates a new dimension.

The book was published in Welsh first then English. Are there any differences between the two versions? Which language did you originally write it in?

I wrote it in French, my mother’s tongue, first. Then I re-wrote it in English, and finally in Welsh. I also worked on the pictures before finishing the text, so it’s difficult to say what is the original version! I think the Welsh text might be more poetic, but it might be down to the language itself!

Can you tell us something about your next book/idea/future plans?

I’m currently working on a language book with Rily Publications, which involves thousands of small pictures, and I’m also about to start on a very exciting book about Siani Pob Man, an eccentric woman who lived on the beach near New Quay in the 1900s’.

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

Maybe a teacher? Or a researcher of some kind? There are a lot of things I would enjoy doing I think!

Thank you / diolch / merci Valériane for answering our questions. The Quilt by Valériane Leblond (£5.99, Y Lolfa) is available now from your local independent bookshop. You could also order it direct from Y Lolfa.

Follow Valériane on Twitter and visit her website.

ABC of Opera: The Academy of Barmy Composers

Baroque

Mark Llewelyn Evans and Karl Davies

Graffeg

Here is a unique book, the first in a series, that aims to tell the story of baroque music to a new, young (8+) audience. It’s an eye-catching and engaging volume and educational too. Further books on classical, romantic and modern music styles will follow.

The books have been put together by Mark Llewelyn Evans, himself an opera star with a successful career and wealth of experience with Welsh National Opera and other UK-wide companies. Mark is the creative director of ABC of Opera; an organisation offering educational workshops around the country (more info here). Established landscape artist Karl Davies has ventured into the world of illustration and has brought the words to life with incredibly sparky artwork in this colourful and vibrant book.

Mark Llewelyn Evans says: ‘I was 14 when I saw my first opera and was blown away by the whole experience. To this day opera still captivates me, and I wanted to introduce the next generation to this incredible art form in a unique way – one that would not only engage them with the beautiful music but also with the genius composers who created this world. I wanted each composer to come alive, step out of the book and into the hearts of the children. With 97% of the children we have met through the ABC of Opera workshops asking to meet the composers, we knew it was time to open the doors to The Academy of Barmy Composers.’

With Karl Davies, Mark has created a storybook that takes us back in time to learn factual information about the baroque period and its composers. Jack and Megan find a forgotten trunk in an old music hall which takes them back to 1597. They meet the inventor of opera, Professor Peri, who introduces them to the likes of Monteverdi, Handel and Purcell. The narrative text, in many ways, makes this an accessible book to a wide audience. Little footnotes and wry nuggets of explanation adorn the pages making it great fun. There follows some extremely informative pages at the back of the book where fact-seekers will revel in learning about other baroque composers, baroque instruments, operatic voices and more!

Opera is defined as a story set to music and this thrilling history of baroque music is aptly wrapped in a story that will delight and educate in equal measure. We can’t wait to read the rest of the series!

An A to Z of Welsh Authors and Illustrators

On this page, we list published authors and illustrators from Wales. These brilliant folk are either born in Wales, raised in Wales or established in Wales. If there’s anyone missing, please let us know.

Daddy Worm thought that an A to Z of Welsh authors would be a great way to develop knowledge of children’s writers – particularly as he is a teacher and is now better informed in those all-important discussions at Book Club.

Research by the Open University has shown that a teacher’s knowledge of children’s literature is highly significant in developing children as readers who can and DO choose to read. You can read more at this link.

A Huw Aaron
Lauren Ace
Sophie Anderson
Dan Anthony

B Laura Baker
P.G. Bell
Zillah Bethell
Jon Blake
Karla Brading
Stephanie Burgis

C Anne Cakebread
Elen Caldecott
Phil Carradice
Karin Celestine
Lucy Christopher
Horatio Clare
Nathan Collins
Tracey Corderoy

D Huw Davies
James Davies
Karl Davies
Nicola Davies
Helen Docherty
Thomas Docherty
Diane Doona
Jonny Duddle
Heather Dyer

E Fran Evans
John Evans
Mark Llewelyn Evans

F Claire Fayers
Catherine Fisher
Helen Flook

G G.R. Gemin
Maria Grace
Robert Graves

H Maggie Harcourt
Rebecca Harry
Sam Hay
Eric Heyman
Graham Howells

I Rhian Ivory

J Gilly John
Catherine Johnson
Cynan Jones
Jac Jones
Tudur Dylan Jones

K Sarah Kilbride

L Valériane Leblond
Emma Levey
Caryl Lewis
Gill Lewis
Rob Lewis
Siân Lewis
Helen Liscombe
T Llew Jones
Jenny Løvlie
Max Low

M Paul Manship
Sharon Marie-Jones
Wendy Meddour
Elin Meek
Daniel Morden
Ruth Morgan
Jackie Morris

N Jenny Nimmo

O Lucy Owens

P Julie Pike
Gavin Puckett

R Shoo Rayner
Emma Rea

S Laura Sheldon
Jenny Sullivan

T Frances Thomas
Sarah Todd Taylor

V William Vaughan

W Wendy White
Eloise Williams
Justine Windsor

Ceri & Deri

Build a Birdhouse / The Treasure Map

Max Low

Graffeg

“Ceri is a cat, and Deri is a dog. Ceri has stripes and Deri has spots. They live in a small town near a big hill and they do everything together. They are best friends.”

So begins each of the four Ceri and Deri books by Max Low – an opening reminiscent of the comforting familiarity of Lauren Child’s Charlie and Lola series. Across the four books, Max, a graduate of Hereford School of Art, ensures that friendship and fun is at the heart of the duo’s adventures. The latest two titles have just been published by Graffeg and they are beautifully produced.

There is an immediacy and vibrancy to Max’s illustrations that radiates so much joy and youthful energy I want to hang the pages on every wall in the house. It’s fresh and fun and I love the way Max plays with shape and line and limits his palette to shades of the same colours. He makes some bold choices too – a favourite page has to be the illustration of the sea in The Treasure Map.

https://twitter.com/bookwormswales/status/1124655984348102661

The stories have an educational edge too – not that these are text books, but reading these books with young children will support their understanding of directions (Treasure Map), time (No Time for Clocks), counting, sharing and design. The emphasis, though, is most definitely on fun.

In The Treasure Map, the two friends follow directions in search of pirate treasure, helped along the way by their companions. In Build a Birdhouse, we see Max at his imaginative and creative best as Ceri and Deri design a perfect (read: wacky and wonderfully weird) house for a homeless bird. It’s in this book that Max hits on a universal truth: “No one actually uses dining rooms do they? So let’s fill it full of balloons!”

Playful, engaging and full of humour, the Ceri and Deri books are fabulous picture books made for sharing. Max Low is an extremely talented illustrator and we can’t wait to see what comes next – which is another book, ‘My Friends’ due to be published by Otter Barry in July!

Photograph from Max’s Instagram

To buy the Ceri and Deri books, visit Graffeg’s website. You can follow Max on Twitter.

Helping Hedgehog Home

Celestine and the Hare

Graffeg

Helping Hedgehog Home is the ninth book in this wonderful series of tales about the felted creatures undertaking simple acts of kindness. In this installment, Hedgehog is locked out of her home when a fence is erected. In an attempt to make a return, she builds a hot-air balloon to sail over the garden obstacle. Unfortunately, she crash lands into Grandpa Burdock’s domain who then tries to ‘help her home’.

All of Celestine’s books overflow with kindness, but this one is extra special. I think it has something to do with the character of Grandpa Burdock – he is keen, talkative, enthusiastic and ever so lovable. Hedgehog is fed (freshly baked bramble biscuits and a cup of tea!) and taken care of while Grandpa thinks of ways to overcome the fence. Karin Celestine has a wicked sense of fun and mischief – seen in the inventive drawings of Grandpa’s suggestions. Hedgehog is naturally concerned when she hears of the ‘hedgehogapult’. Thankfully, Granny Burdock returns at the right moment with a far more sensible solution for returning Hedgehog to her home.

Helping Hedgehog Home made us giggle; it made us fall in love with Grandpa Burdock; it encourages us to show warmth and kindness to neighbours; it tells us of the importance of taking time to sit and stare; and, thanks to the informative pages at the back, taught us some groovy facts about hedgehogs.

Helping Hedgehog Home was enjoyed by the whole family and we were delighted to meet Karin at a workshop as part of the Cardiff Kids Literature Festival a few weeks ago. She kindly gave us some time to ask her some questions. We began by asking about the name ‘Celestine and the Hare’:

“Celestine was my great grandmother – I come from a line of strong Swedish women – Karin is my mother and her mother was also Karin, and her mother was Celestine. I have a bust of Celestine in my studio, which I inherited from my mum, and she’s always looked over me as a matriarch – reminding me of the line of strong, adventurous and very creative women. I was looking for a name for my business so Celestine appealed and I also like hares – they are magical and I particularly love the mythology associated with women shape-shifting into hares. I’d also made a hare which sits next to Celestine and it was as simple as that – Celestine and the hare.”

Karin also uses a pen name (we’re not quite sure what her real name is!), which came about by mistake. She explains, “I had been dithering over what to call myself and I went to an event where they had mistakenly made a name badge for me saying ‘Karin Celestine’ and I thought ‘That’s quite nice!’

The Karin Celestine books came about after Karin had been making the felt animals and selling them, but as she was making the characters she gave them backstories and invented silly narratives. “I did a calendar and cards for Graffeg and they asked if I had considered writing a story. I was also encouraged by Jackie (Morris) to have a go. It was strange because I had never been encouraged in school to write – in fact I was told I couldn’t write and was the worst at crafts! So I wrote ‘Paper Boat for Panda’ and cried as I submitted it.”

Whilst the felted creatures get up to all sorts of hijinks and tomfoolery (especially in the films and photos Karin shares on social media), the books turned out with added empathy, “I have a huge thing about kindness – it is so important; kindness and mischief – that’s my strapline and the books turned out gentler. And because I’d been a teacher there are messages – I’ve slipped things in that I know children need to hear.”

Nine books on, and Karin brings us her new story about Hedgehog. She told us, “There is more humour in this one, but still with an ecological message.”

“A lot of the environmental issues in the news can be too big and too frightening for young children – as a child you can feel completely helpless to do anything about it. I remember the ‘Save the Tiger’ campaign from when I was younger, and short of buying a membership to the World Wildlife Fund there was nothing I could do – and for me, that’s not very positive. I want everybody to feel they are able to do something to help.”

In the back of all of Karin’s books there are some craft activities, many with an ecological theme – building bug houses, weaving, making suncatchers. “We should all be back garden eco warriors – the activities are something that any child can do and feel good about. They then grow up thinking they can make a difference.”

Making a difference is exactly what Karin’s books inspire through the actions of Grandpa, Grandma, Bert, Bertram, Emily, Small, Panda, King Norty, Baby Weasus and all the tribe. Kindness and mischief and making a difference.

To buy copies of Karin’s books with personalised dedications, visit her website where you can find lots of other information and activities. Huge thanks to Karin for giving her time so generously and thank you to Graffeg for the copy of Helping Hedgehog Home, given in return for an honest review.

For more Weasel Wednesday and Choklit stealing, follow Karin on Twitter or Facebook.

Tir na n-Og Award Shortlist 2019

Every day this week we’ll be publishing a video for each of the shortlisted titles in this year’s English language Tir na n-Og Award.

Seaglass by Eloise Williams

The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher

The Storm Child by Gill Lewis

Wales on the Map
by Elin Meek and Valériane Leblond