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.

The Shark Caller

Blog Tour

Zillah Bethell’s stunning new novel is finally here and we are thrilled and delighted to be able to post a special blog on publication day.

We have a review of the book, plus some special musical content to mark the occasion.

Inspired by Bethell’s childhood, The Shark Caller is set against the backdrop of the islands of the South Pacific, and their traditional practice of shark-calling. Zillah was born in the shadow of the volcano Mount Lamington in Papua New Guinea. It’s a jaw-dropping story of friendship, forgiveness and bravery which is harvesting some remarkable reviews.

Reviews, as they say, have been ‘rave’. And before we get to ours, just take a look at what others are saying…

“Magnificent and beautiful.” Sophie Anderson @sophieinspace

“A master storyteller with an adventure that will catapult children into wildness & wonder.” Abi Elphinstone @moontrug

“Outstanding storytelling that is at once moving, heart-stirring and life-affirming.” Alison, Booksfortopics

“Beautiful and lyrical storytelling.” Shapes @shapes4schools

“Stunning and powerful. One of the best books I’ve ever read!” Mary Rees @marysimms72

“A beautifully written book” Emily Weston @primaryteachew

“Feels like it should be a classic.” Andrew Rough @teacher_mr_r

“Vividly depicted… cleverly told.” Rachael @BellisDoesBooks

Believe the hype!” Dean Boddington @Misterbodd

An elegiac and very beautiful book. An absolute winner!” Ben Harris @onetoread

The Shark Caller really is a remarkable book that will leave you completely stunned and totally in awe of the wonderful storytelling.


Blue Wing lives with her guardian Siringen, a shark-caller, on the outskirts of her village. She’s desperate to become a shark-caller herself to avenge the death of her parents, who were killed by notorious shark, Xok. But it’s against tradition for a girl to become one, and Siringen believes Blue Wing still harbours too much anger in her heart.

When two Americans arrive on the island – Professor Atlas Hamelin and his daughter Maple – Blue Wing is charged with looking after the prickly and infuriating Maple. But, slowly, Blue Wing finds that Maple might be the one person who can understand what she’s going through, having recently lost her own mother. And when they discover that Professor Hamelin is secretly searching for an ancient treasure, they find themselves on a journey to the depths of the ocean, where Xok lies waiting…


The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell, with cover art by Saara Katariina Söderlund

Review

The Shark Caller is really something! My first impression after reading the book was to sit in stunned silence. The book touches the heart, and speaks to the soul.

Let me lay my cards on the table. I am a big Zillah Bethell fan. The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare, her last book, is one of my absolute favourite novels of all time. I am a sucker for good storytelling, the best of which, for my money comes from Katherine Rundell, Gill Lewis, Kiran Millwood-Hargrave, Catherine Johnson, SF Said and Sophie Anderson. I’d put Zillah in this list. These are authors who have a magical ability to craft their stories, weaving the universal human condition with their enchanting threads.

The story is set in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea where Blue Wing and her guardian Siringen are charged with caring for a visiting professor and his daughter. The girls take an instant dislike to each other, but slowly realise they have things in common and a voyage of both self-discovery and learning the ways of friendship begins.

The landscape is beautifully portrayed and we are given a real sense of the geography of the country. A vista of small towns and mines is painted alongside the mountains, forests and shimmering Pacific seas. The flora and fauna of the island is an integral part of the book, not least the sharks, whales and dolphins that swim alongside Blue Wing and The Shark Caller.

The novel is a technicolour, cinematic delight. There are highly vivid, intense scenes; wide-screen viewing in 4D could not be more impactful. Yet this is the joy of reading and particularly the joy of Zillah’s writing – she somehow makes us feel the expansiveness of the landscapes alongside the intimate thoughts and deep emotions of the characters close-up.

There is a juxtaposition between the traditional island ways and the Westernisation of the culture. The ‘Bigman’ (village chief) is a symbol of this: swigging Coca Cola, disowning his heritage and admonishing those who take the remedies of the village witch doctor. His incompatibility and ineptitude with the old ways is often depicted with humour particularly in the awkwardness with which he wears his ceremonial dress.

Bethell’s narration inhabits the character Blue Wing, bringing life and love to her thoughts, actions and talk. Throughout, there is huge wisdom. I particularly like this:

People are like rocks on the shore. The sea will slam into the rocks day after day after day. Hour after hour after hour. Oltaim. But the rocks still look like rocks, they do not become something else. There might be a few scars and parts of the rock might crumble like dust into the sea.But they are still almost the way they were when they were created by Moroa.

The same is with people. There is nothing that can happen on this world that will stop a person being who they are. We are all born a certain way, and we all die a certain way.

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This is an astonishing book. An exceptional story from an incredibly talented writer. Read it open-mouthed in wonder at the storytelling, revel in the wisdom, the sage and salient thoughts of Blue Wing, the remarkable sensitivity and deftness of touch on essential human themes of life, death, love, family and friendship. More than anything, just read it.


Usborne have produced a great video in which Zillah talks about The Shark Caller – we thought it worth posting here.

In the review, we mention that the book is a vivid cinematic delight, told in technicolour and with Dolby Surround Sound. Quite often when I’m reading I hear a soundtrack in my head – accompanying music to suit the mood or reflect the emotions of the book. This was particularly true for The Shark Caller so I spoke to Zillah about her love of music and her Shark Caller Playlist.

“When I’m writing, I work in my head, so I need silence for that. Otherwise, especially when driving, I like music. Schubert’s Impromtu in G Flat No. 3 played by Horowitz and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, 2nd movement played by Zimmerman are my favourite classical pieces but I love all genres – particularly club and disco for dancing.

“My favourite song is Thieves Like Us by New Order, and I love Neil Young, Paul Simon, Morrisey and Marr, Kirsty MacColl, New Order, Manic Street Preachers, Neil Finn, Bill Withers, Blondie, John Legend, Kate Bush, Sia, Taylor Swift, I could go on…”

Below is The Shark Caller playlist as suggested by Zillah, featuring some of her favourite artists. We love the opening Bowie track and will be test-driving the whole playlist in car journeys.

As the final credits roll on The Shark Caller blog post, we need some accompanying music, so here is a new piece entitled ‘Blue Wing’. This is for Zillah and I hope she likes it! I hope she hears it full of contradictions and feels it as a physical and emotive reaction to the book.

The Shark Caller is available to buy now from your local bookshop. Thank you to Usborne, Zillah Bethell and Fritha Lindqvist for everything! Follow Zillah and Usborne on Twitter and seek out Saara Katariina Söderlund, the cover artist, on instagram. Also – go and check out the other blog posts in the tour – there are some brilliant pieces of new writing from Zillah to be found. Our review was originally published last year when we were sent a proof copy by Usborne.

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.

Q and A: Cathy Fisher

Cathy Fisher is the illustrator of the visually stunning collaboration with Nicola Davies, The New Girl. A tender and emotive artist, this is the third such collaboration published by Graffeg, following on from The Pond and Perfect.

Cathy has also illustrated Nicola’s Country Tales series, bringing their total output to 8 books, with more to come.

The New Girl addresses bullying, acceptance and inclusion through a simple yet powerful story of a young girl moving schools. The gorgeously sympathetic and thought-provoking compositions add to the narrative; the child who looks different is singled out, but the girl remains faceless and nameless, as do the bullies lurking in the shadows.

An act of kindness crosses a cultural divide, causes intrigue and invokes fascination and interest – the children watch and listen. Then kindness is given a face and a name. The beauty unfurls as the pages are turned – Cathy turns shadows to light, colours brighten and hard edges soften as Kiku warms cold hearts and opens closed minds; the transformation is evident through the change in palette and tones. The New Girl is a truly stunning picturebook.

You can see images from the book and hear Nicola Davies read an extract in this film made by publisher Graffeg.

We are thrilled to welcome Cathy Fisher to the bookworms’ blog today and have the opportunity to celebrate this superb book.

Hello Cathy, What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just read When The Whales Leave, by Yuri Rytkheu, (translated by Ilona Yazhbin,) published by Milkweed Editions – and I am half way through This is Happiness, by Niall Williams, published by Bloomsbury

Can you tell us a bit about how you started in illustration?

I trained in fashion and textile design (a very long time ago) and soon after was lucky to be teaching foundation art and design, a course to prepare students for an art degree. During this time I got my first commission to illustrate a series of book covers for stories for teens.

I left the UK to teach in an art school in the Seychelles and 4 years later moved to Australia, where I became a busy mum, while working as an artist. It wasn’t until my kids were older and we had moved back to the UK that I started illustrating again. I worked for a graphics company, illustrating small pictures for school books and educational resources.

I have always drawn and painted, but I have never been much good at selling my work. One day though, about 6 years ago, I met the lovely Nicola Davies. She had seen one of my pictures on my friend’s wall and had asked my friend for my details. The first time I met her I knew I had a lifelong friend and collaborator… she is amazing! Nicola introduced me to Graffeg Publishing and a year later Perfect was published – my first proper children’s picture book! Then the next year The Pond followed and so we continue to work together!

How do you describe your illustration process?

First I read the story over and over again and do a lot of thinking and research. I spend as much time thinking about the pictures as I do painting them. I try to imagine I am each of the characters, including the wildlife, and how that feels.

I draw lots of sketches, work out the page spreads in a roughly drawn storyboard, think about the space for the words and space for thought. I then send roughs to publishers.

For the final illustrations I prefer large sheets of heavyweight watercolour paper. I draw and paint with pencil, charcoal, watercolour paints, inks and crayons. I paint in layers of tone and colour with the different media, and sometimes make quite a mess. It is not always easy and I often have to struggle through a pain barrier, but, if I’m lucky, a picture will eventually start to sing. I sometimes find it difficult to know when to stop!

You’ve had a very successful picturebook partnership with the amazing Nicola Davies – what’s it like working with her?

It is always brilliant working with Nicola. She is a genius! She is a scientist as well as writer and artist. She knows so much! Her writing is so skilled. She can say so much, with so few words, with such perception and imagination. When thinking about pictures we are often on the same wave length, which makes working with her very easy as she trusts my illustrative response to her writing. She is a brilliant artist herself so won’t always need me, but I hope we will continue to collaborate together for a long time. We are currently very close to each other in Pembrokeshire, so I am very lucky to be able to see her frequently.

How did the latest book, The New Girl, come to fruition?

Nicola read me the story of The New Girl and asked if I’d like to illustrate it – of course I did! I was in Australia when I received the contract from Graffeg, so I starting thinking about the story then. I came to Pembrokeshire early this year and was staying with Jackie Morris when UK first went into lock-down. Jackie was wonderful and very kindly gave me the space and time to work in her home, while I worked on the New Girl every day. I would talk to Nicola and send her photos from my phone of the pictures as I did them. I finished the illustrations just as the first lockdown ended.

The book deals with unkindness and ostracisation at school. You become aware of this through the empathy-filled illustrations as well as the text. What techniques do you use to portray these strong emotions?

I purposely gave each double-page spread a lot of space, exaggerating the school walls and stairs, to illustrate the isolation Kiku, the new girl, might feel coming from another country to a strange new school. I thought about her posture and body language. I conveyed the unkindness of the other children with long shadows. I purposely kept the colours in the early spreads fairly minimal, then slowly added more colour and detail, as the new girl began to warm the hearts of the other children. I also used symbols, like the broken vase, which on the last page has been put back together again, (in Japanese it is called Kintsugi,) as a metaphor that something broken can be mended and made beautiful.

Growing up with 8 brothers and sisters you must have some good tips for dealing with conflict?

I was in the middle of my siblings, as the fourth child of nine, and learnt I could make myself almost invisible. This was sometimes a very useful trick, as it kept me out of trouble. But now, being invisible is no longer helpful to me, so perhaps it is not a good tip! I grew up in a fairly chaotic, noisy environment – but we lived by fields and woods and ran wild amongst nature. Although it could be difficult at home sometimes, there was escape and freedom in our surroundings and always a place outside to find peace. It is where I found my love of nature, which has always helped me when I feel troubled.

Previous picture-books The Pond and Perfect have also dealt with serious and important issues; the death of a parent and sibling disability. What is the place of picturebooks in tackling such themes?

I am quite old now with quite a lot of experience. The most important thing we adults can do is to truly celebrate our children. To gently nurture them with love and kindness and share a joy for life and the natural world, teaching them all beings are equal and need looking after.

But we also have a duty to help them understand that life is not always fun and easy. I do not believe we are protecting our children by shielding them from the truth of serious and important issues – we need to be honest. Reading stories, sharing with them a love of words and pictures, and giving children the time to read, listen and talk, is one of the best gifts we can give our children. Picture books are incredibly important as they can teach empathy at an early age and help children understand difficult emotions. A good picture book can help children feel something that isn’t easy to say in words. Talking about death, grief, differences in each other, things we might feel bad about, painful emotions, is very important and needs to be approached with kindness and sensitivity… this is where good stories and pictures help.

There are a lot of hands in the book which are notoriously difficult to draw. Any tips?

I love children’s drawings. I love watching them draw. Hands are so expressive, that is why I drew a lot of them! I wanted to express joy, in the shape of a flower, with all the children’s hands in Kiku’s class. There are stories in the hands!

The only tip I can give is not to be scared of drawing!.. and do not care what other people think about your drawing! If I am finding something difficult to draw I try to forget the object or subject I am drawing and think of it more abstractly, looking at the negative shapes around it and thinking of it as patterns and tones and colours. If you like drawing keep drawing! I believe everyone can draw, they just think they can’t. Drawing doesn’t always have to look like something, it can be patterns or about feeling.

Handwriting is drawing. We all learn to write and each person’s handwriting is unique. The only difference between drawing and handwriting is you are taking handwriting on an adventure…into other shapes and places, all over the paper and sometimes filling it with colour…. Joy!

You’ve also worked with Nicola on the Country Tales series. Which has been your favourite to illustrate?

Hmm. That’s a hard question. I enjoyed doing all the covers. I illustrated the series while I was in Australia. There is still one more book to do. I think my favourite to illustrate was probably Pretend Cows. The cover is my friend’s daughter and she’s in a gum tree, not an apple tree… but don’t tell anyone!

You normally spend your time between Australia and the UK, but we understand you’ve been locked down in Pembrokeshire. Has this been a blessing or a curse?

I really appreciate that lockdown is an extremely difficult time for so many people. But I count myself as one of the very lucky ones. I am lucky to be in a beautiful place in Pembrokeshire, which is such a blessing. I have since become a bit of a hermit and am very happy to be working in the studio all day long and not go anywhere, except for walks. The sad thing for me is that the pandemic has separated me from my husband, he’s on the other side of the world in Western Australia, so we haven’t seen each other since February but we do talk every day and will eventually be reunited! The happy thing is I see Jackie Morris every day and Nicola Davies quite a lot.

Could you recommend any favourite picturebooks?

Oh my goodness, that is such a difficult question! There are so many beautiful picture books. If I start listing them I am bound to miss a favourite out! This year alone has produced some beautiful books. When I’m painting pictures and start to feel stuck, I often look at John Burningham’s books or Brian Wildsmith’s pictures. I love the whimsy, freedom and textures in their art.

But my recent favourites, in no particular order are:

  • Dog, Shaun Tan
  • The Promise, Nicola Davies and Laura Carling
  • I Talk Like a River, Jordon Scott and Sydney Smith
  • The House by The Lake, Thomas Harding and Britta Teckentrp
  • Lost Spells, Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane (all of her books and collaborations with other illustrators)
  • Mrs Noah’s Garden, Jackie Morris and James Mayhew
  • Last, Nicola Davies, (all of her books and collaborations with other illustrators!)
  • The Best Place in the World, by Petr Horacek (all of his books)
  • The Girl Who became Tree, by Joseph Coelho and Kate Milner

Images from your Twitter account show pandas and cockatoos – are these clues to future books?

They are! The panda pictures are for a story called The Panda Child, which Jackie Morris has written. It is very beautiful timeless story, but it is a bit daunting to illustrate a book with Jackie  as she has such an amazing reputation as an author and illustrator, she is an absolutely brilliant artist. I am very fortunate to be collaborating with her. Her agent is currently finding the right publisher for the book.

The same goes for the pictures with a sulphur-crested cockatoo, (my best friends in Australia.) These are early illustrations for a picture book written by Nicola Davies, called Mr Horstman’s Parrot. Nicola has left a lot of space in the story for me to elaborate visually which I’m looking forward to doing. It is another of her beautiful, powerful stories.

Anything else to declare?

Hmmm?… Occasionally I have times of great doubt, and I wonder why the work of making pictures feels so important to me? Unless you are very famous, an illustrator doesn’t earn very much money. But, when I push passed my doubt and insecurity, I always come back to remembering the influence that picture books had on me in my young life. How they were a place to escape, made me feel so much part of the picture, and how much they taught me.  So I feel such joy when I hear a parent, teacher or child say that a book with my pictures has opened up conversation they have never had before, or have made them feel emotions that open a new door, or simply that they just love the pictures.

The only other thing to declare is that I intend to keep making pictures.

Thank you so very much to Cathy for taking the time to answer our questions with such care and attention. The New Girl is published by Graffeg and is available from your local independent bookshop.

Follow Cathy on Twitter to see beautiful examples of her work (and sneak previews of future books).

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.

My Name Is River Blog Tour

My Name is River, the new novel from Emma Rea is published on Thursday 6th August by Firefly Press. Earlier this year, we hosted the cover reveal and Q and A with Emma – you can see that post by clicking here.

For the blog tour, we thought we’d ask Emma Rea for her favourite journey books seeing as main character Dylan journeys from Machynlleth to Brazil in this brilliant adventure. But first of all, let’s take a look at the story…

In My Name is River, 11 year old Dylan takes matters into his own hands when a pharmaceutical company plans to buy the family farm in Machynlleth. Dylan senses unfairness, injustice and there is more than a whiff of foul play so he sets off to the company headquarters in Brazil intent on uncovering the scandal.

This is a true adventure, probably unlike anything else you’re likely to read this year – My Name Is River is a dynamic ecological thriller with thought-provoking real world messaging. That may sound earnest – I promise it’s not – there’s plenty of action and adventure bursting through its pages, from speed boat chases to kidnappings and piles of peril in the Amazonian rainforest. This is James Bond with a conscience for 10 year olds.

What really makes the story though is the characters. Emma Rea kept Dylan from a previous book (Top Dog, published by Gwasg Gomer) and he’s likeable, determined and principled. However, it’s fair to say that the Brazilian characters steal the show. Lucia is a street child; a bold, resourceful and gutsy girl who has fought and found her own way. She is written with great warmth and humour by Emma who clearly has a soft spot for her. The relationship with Dylan is honest, caring, respectful and loyal – readers will love this demonstration of friendship.

If you’re looking for exciting and compelling entertainment it’s here in spades in this accomplished and thrilling novel.


Emma’s Favourite Journey Books

In My Name Is River, Dylan embarks on an incredible journey. We asked Emma to tell us about her choice of books that all contain journeys…

I absolutely love Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo, not only for the family voyage across the world’s seas, nor just for Michael’s long stop on an island before he can continue his journey home, but for the way Michael and Kensuke make friends very slowly, fall out badly, and manage to restore their faith in each other. I defy anyone to finish this book without needing six handkerchiefs.

I Am David by Anne Holm is unbeatable. Twelve-year-old David escapes from a concentration camp and travels alone across Europe, armed with nothing but a compass and a bar of soap. Crackling with tension and dotted with small kindnesses, this is a book with an emotional punch you never forget. More handkerchiefs needed.

Holes by Louis Sachar is full of eventful journeys: from Latvia to the US, all over Texas, across the desert and up to the top of a mountain that resembles ‘God’s Thumb’. The plot reaches back four generations, encompasses powerful themes, and is leavened with mystery, humour and several endearing nicknames: Armpit, Zero, Squid and Barf Bag to name a few.

What are your favourite journey books? Get involved and let us know in the conversation on Twitter.

You can buy My Name Is River by Emma Rea on the Firefly website or from your local independent bookshop. Follow Emma on Twitter, or visit her website.

Thank you to Fireflies Leonie and Megan for supporting us with materials and a proof copy of My Name Is River, given in exchange for the review. Lastly, thanks to Emma for her engagement and for writing such a brilliant book!

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.

Wilde About Eloise

Our Children’s Laureate Wales publishes a new book today. And what a book. Wilde is a brilliant story full of excitement, anguish, humour, fantasy and weirdness. Wilde moves in with her Aunt Mae, but struggles to fit in. Odd things keep happening – the birds are following her, she wakes up in strange places, other children keep their distance. Does Wilde have a connection to the legend of The Witch Called Winter? It’s a completely engrossing tale of belonging and acceptance that would appeal to readers age 9+. It’s written by one of our most favourite authors so we thought we’d give you 5 Reasons why we’re Wilde about Eloise Williams:

1 Eloise is a fantastic writer. From the dramatic and tempestuous opening chapters of Elen’s Island, her first book published in 2015, to the poignant and tender close of her latest Wilde, Eloise gets under the skin. She gets under the skin of the reader, compelling them to drop everything and devour every word. Descriptions of landscapes are a real draw; whether it’s the wild and windswept coastline of Pembrokeshire in Seaglass, the grimy Victorian backstreets of Cardiff in Gaslight, or the waterfalls of the Brecon Beacons in Wilde.

What’s impressive though is how she gets under the skin of her characters, producing very real depictions of isolation, loneliness, the frustrations and fears of teenage years, and the joys too. Elen is plucky. Nansi is feisty. Lark is confused. Wilde is lonely. Eloise writes with real empathy for her female protagonists and portrays real understanding for her readers.

2 Eloise works non-stop. Even before she was appointed Children’s Laureate for Wales, Eloise Williams spent a lot of time in schools, libraries and book festivals. She delivers courses like those at Ty Newydd, and is invited to attend courses like the Writers At Work scheme at Hay Festival. And despite claiming to be a procrastinator, on top of all this travelling, publishing four books in 5 years is quite an achievement. Hard work deserves to be recognised and rewarded. Even in lockdown, she is producing weekly challenges to motivate and engage young people…

https://twitter.com/Laureate_Wales/status/1254695958757195776?s=20

3 Eloise passionately promotes reading and writing for pleasure. Now, as Children’s Laureate for Wales, Eloise is a strong voice for the children of Wales. She travels the length and breadth of the country (and that takes some time!) enthusing about reading and writing. She talks fervently about the writing process and nurtures strong relationships with the children in her workshops. She is an inspiration to watch in these situations and has a lasting impact on those she meets.

4 Eloise is a tireless advocate for Welsh writers and writing from Wales. As Children’s Laureate for Wales, Eloise encourages and supports other writers for children, sharing her passion for the wealth of talent in Wales. Good stories and excellent writing has no borders, and Eloise pushes the view that books from Wales are books for everyone, raising the visibility of children’s literature in Wales and beyond.

5 Wilde is her best book yet. It’s creating a stir amongst readers and we’d strongly recommend you order a copy this weekend (direct from Firefly Press or from your local independent bookshop). Don’t take our word for it, just look at these quotes…

  • ‘A spookily good adventure that will hold children spellbound. Bewitching.’ Zoe Williams, South Wales Evening Post 
  • ‘I loved this contemporary adventure of witches, curses, identity and belonging, from Wales’ children’s laureate.’ Fiona Noble, The Bookseller 
  • ‘An inspirational book. She just keeps getting better.’ Claire Fayers
  • ‘Packed with chills and thrills, but is also full of heart. I loved it!’ Kat Ellis
  • ‘A TRULY BRAVE AND BEAUTIFUL BOOK! … Utterly beguiling.’ Zillah Bethel
  • ‘Thrilling throughout … her best yet.’ Scott Evans, the Reader Teacher

Synopsis

Being different can be dangerous. Wilde is afraid strange things are happening around her. Are the birds following her? Is she flying in her sleep? Moving to live with her aunt seems to make it all worse. Wilde is desperate to fit in at her new school, but things keep getting stranger. In a fierce heatwave, in rehearsals for a school play telling the old, local legend of a witch called Winter, ‘The Witch’ starts leaving pupils frightening letters cursing them. Can Wilde find out what’s happening before everyone blames her? Or will she always be the outcast?

Follow Eloise on Twitter, she also has a Children’s Laureate Wales account. Why not visit her website too?

The Short Knife

A new novel from Elen Caldecott publishing with Andersen Press in July 2020.

The Short Knife is a totally absorbing, powerful story of belonging and identity set in the 5th century as the Saxons invade Britain.

We are lucky to have received a proof copy of the book and it is an absolute triumph – not least in the poetic richness of Elen’s writing, this is a treat for all readers. David Almond calls it a “distinctive and engrossing tale”; Tanya Landman describes it as “grim and gritty but ultimately uplifting – a beautiful tribute to the courage and ingenuity of sisters”; Hilary McKay says it is as “bright and real as the midsummer sunshine”.

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We are in total agreement and thought it an awesome achievement. An awesome book deserves an awesome cover – so, with illustration by Miko Maciaszek here it is…

Miko Maciaszek is a graduate of illustration at Sheridan College in Oakville, Canada. He is currently based in Warsaw and has illustrated for The Washington Post, medium and Sports Illustrated. Miko told us, “It was an exciting challenge to capture the essence of this grand adventure. The great art direction from the team and the abundance of beautiful material I was given to work with inspired the illustration.”

The cover perfectly evokes the atmosphere of the novel and the forthright power of Mai. Elen reacted with glee at the cover, “I’ve loved seeing the different roughs. They’ve been bold, full of adventure and the final version is just so blinking gorgeous!” she told us. “Huge thanks to all the team, especially Miko.” You can find out more about Miko’s work on his Instagram, Twitter or visit his website.


Book Synopsis

Young Mai and her sister, Haf, are suspicious of the Saxon soldiers arriving in their village. Proved rightly so by a brutal attack on their family home, the sisters must seek a new place to belong, encountering betrayal, love, and everything in between in the process. A celebration of difference and finding your own way, when even speaking your mother tongue can be dangerous. 

“They crossed the yard, coming closer. I had my back to the hall door. Behind the hall was the storage barn. To my right, the old byre, long since empty of cows, though still standing, built as it was with sweat and good Roman nails reused. I stood alone to guard it all, with only the useless short knife at my waist; it was meant for eating, cutting cheese and bread, no more.


About Elen

Dr. Elen Caldecott graduated with an MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University and was highly commended in the PFD Prize for Most Promising Writer for Young People. Before becoming a writer, she was an archaeologist, a nurse, a theatre usher and a museum security guard. Elen’s debut novel, How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant, was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Prize and longlisted for the 2010 Carnegie Award.

Thank you so much to Andersen Press for asking us to host this cover reveal. You can find links to pre-order The Short Knife at their website. Please also take the time to follow Elen and Miko and Andersen Press on Twitter.

The Shark Caller

A new novel from Zillah Bethell to be published by Usborne in July 2020.

The Shark Caller is Zillah Bethell’s remarkable new book that leaves you completely stunned and totally in awe of the wonderful storytelling.

Inspired by Bethell’s childhood, The Shark Caller is set against the backdrop of the islands of the South Pacific, and their traditional practice of shark-calling. Zillah was born in the shadow of the volcano Mount Lamington in Papua New Guinea. She grew up without shoes, toys or technology, and consequently spent a lot of time swimming and canoeing in the sea. Zillah’s family returned to the UK when she was ten, she went on to study at Oxford University and now lives in South Wales, but vivid memories of Oceania stayed with her.

Such a stunning book deserves a glorious cover and we are absolutely delighted to exclusively reveal the image below. The cover has been illustrated by Saara Katariina Söderlund, and designed by Katharine Millichope.

Saara Katariina Söderlund is a freelance illustrator. She paints with gouache, sometimes mixing coloured pencil or digital tools into the process. Her own paintings often focus on her love of nature – so for a book set in Papua New Guinea, she was a perfect choice. Saara told us, “I absolutely loved working on this cover. The book has such a special mood and I think it really takes you to the island. I truly enjoyed interpreting that feeling for the cover – and painting all the colourful fish of course!” Saara has also recently illustrated The House of One Hundred Clocks by A M Howell.

Zillah says, “Saara Söderlund has given the greatest gift of allowing me to reinhabit the landscape I left when I was ten. Papua New Guinea in all its fierce, mercurial, quixotic beauty. And I am so very grateful to her.”

You can find out more about Saara’s work on her Instagram, @saarainfeathers or visit her website.


Book Synopsis

The sea is always there,” I say. “It always has been. It always will be. People are born and people die. All the taim they are being born and dying, and all the taim in between, the sea is moving up and down, up and down. All the taim. It never ever stops. Never in all taim.”

Blue Wing lives with her guardian Siringen, a shark-caller, on the outskirts of her village. She’s desperate to become a shark-caller herself to avenge the death of her parents, who were killed by a notorious shark, Xok. But it’s against tradition for a girl to become one, and Siringen believes Blue Wing still harbours too much anger in her heart.

When two Americans arrive on the island – Professor Atlas Hamelin and his daughter Maple – Blue Wing is charged with looking after the prickly and infuriating Maple. But, slowly, Blue Wing finds that Maple might be the one person who can understand what she’s going through, having recently lost her own mother. And when they discover that Professor Hamelin is secretly searching for an ancient treasure, they find themselves on a journey to the depths of the ocean, where Xok lies waiting…


Review

The Shark Caller is really something! My first impression after reading the book was to sit, jaw dropped in stunned silence. The book touches the heart, and speaks to the soul.

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Let me lay my cards on the table. I am a big Zillah Bethell fan. The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare, her last book, is one of my absolute favourite novels of all time. I am a sucker for good storytelling, the best of which, for my money comes from Katherine Rundell, Gill Lewis, Kiran Millwood-Hargrave, Catherine Johnson, SF Said and Sophie Anderson. I’d put Zillah in this list. These are authors who have a magical ability to craft their stories. Before you read the review, know that I loved it and want you to love it too.

The story is set in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea where Blue Wing and her guardian Siringen are charged with caring for a visiting professor and his daughter. The girls take an instant dislike to each other, but slowly realise they have things in common and a voyage of both self-discovery and learning the ways of friendship begins.

The landscape is beautifully portrayed and we are given a real sense of the geography of the country. A vista of small towns and mines is painted alongside the mountains, forests and shimmering Pacific seas. The flora and fauna of the island is an integral part of the book, not least the sharks, whales and dolphins that swim alongside Blue Wing and The Shark Caller.

The novel is a technicolour, cinematic delight. There are highly vivid, intense scenes; wide-screen viewing in 4D could not be more impactful. Yet this is the joy of reading and particularly the joy of Zillah’s writing – she somehow makes us feel the expansiveness of the landscapes alongside the intimate thoughts and deep emotions of the characters close-up.

There is a juxtaposition between the traditional island ways and the Westernisation of the culture. The ‘Bigman’ (village chief) is a symbol of this: swigging Coca Cola, disowning his heritage and admonishing those who take the remedies of the village witch doctor. His incompatibility and ineptitude with the old ways is often depicted with humour particularly in the awkwardness with which he wears his ceremonial dress.

Bethell’s narration inhabits the character Blue Wing, bringing life and love to her thoughts, actions and talk. Throughout, there is huge wisdom. I particularly like this:

People are like rocks on the shore. The sea will slam into the rocks day after day after day. Hour after hour after hour. Oltaim. But the rocks still look like rocks, they do not become something else. There might be a few scars and parts of the rock might crumble like dust into the sea.But they are still almost the way they were when they were created by Moroa.

The same is with people. There is nothing that can happen on this world that will stop a person being who they are. We are all born a certain way, and we all die a certain way.

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This is an astonishing book. An exceptional story from an incredibly talented writer. Read it open-mouthed in wonder at the storytelling, revel in the wisdom, the sage and salient thoughts of Blue Wing, the remarkable sensitivity and deftness of touch on essential human themes of life, death, love, family and friendship. More than anything, just read it.

Thank you to Usborne, Zillah Bethell and Stevie Hopwood for choosing us to reveal the cover and for gifting a proof copy of the book. Follow Zillah and Usborne on Twitter and seek out Saara Katariina Söderlund on instagram.