When you read Vivi Conway (and let’s make this clear from the beginning – you must read Vivi Conway, it is stupendous) there are several things that may strike you. It could be the fact that Vivi and her gang have the most incredible heart-racing adventures. It might be that the writing is so lively and engaging that it pulls you in completely and makes you feel instantly a part of Vivi’s world. It may be that this is undoubtedly one of the most inclusive books you have ever read. It would probably be that you fall in love with Gelert the protective ghost hound who speaks in a Welsh dialect that would make Lesley Parr proud, mun.
I was particularly enamoured by a couple of things: firstly, the constant inspiration of Welsh mythology cannot be underplayed here. I mean we’re single-mindedly here for authentic welsh contexts and it feels like Lizzie has pulled out all the stops to do the Wales Tourist Board proud. The book is completely teeming with legends, folk-tales, Arthurian and mabinogion-inspired references. It is excellently done – I love the part where Gelert describes his own demise whilst standing next to his own grave (macabre but extremely moving!); or where Nimuë the Lady of the Lake recounts the story of Pwyll and Rhiannon. Elsewhere, the inspiration is more subtle and the tales have been twisted, diluted or reshaped (just as they have been over centuries).
Secondly, there is great humour here. Real laugh-out loud stuff. Observational comedy and warm-hearted funnies that made me beam as I read. These kids are going through some wild episodes but their sense of humour is maintained throughout. My supposition is that there is a bit of author Lizzie Huxley-Jones in Vivi and that they had a ball writing the story; their warm personality certainly shines through the writing. By the end of the book, not only are you desperate for more, but you feel like you actually want to be in the company of these misfits, and by association, get to know Lizzie Huxley-Jones better. (We promise to try and get them to do a Q and A soon!)
However Vivi Conway floats your boat, one thing is sure; it is a completely joyous book that I will happily recommend to everyone for the rest of my life. The Sword of Legend is full of the most excellent fun.
At the start of the story, Vivi Conway is moving to London. But the night before she leaves, she hears a voice calling her to the lake. It is here that she is given Excalibur and a quest to contain Arawn, the King of the Underworld. She can’t do this alone, and finding her tribe is a central theme to the story – both for real-world Vivi as she settles into her new school in London, and for fantasy-world Vivi as she seeks out the other ‘calonnau’ who are charged with defending the mortal world.
What follows is a story full of magic, myth and monsters that will (mildly) terrify and thrill readers of all ages. There are missing children, seized by the horrifying spider-like Coraniaid who seem to have taken the job of the Tylwyth Teg in kidnapping youngsters and holding them captive in the Unlands (that space between our world and Annwn). As Vivi and her friends Dara, Stevie and Chia learn to tame and hone their magical powers ‘on the job’ the adventure to rescue the missing children takes in the Science Museum, the British Library and the Crystal Palace dinosaurs. It really is an education!
For a fantasy story full of the supernatural it’s also intensely real. Autistic Vivi was bullied in her previous school and is extremely wary of other kids – particularly as she’s now in a new city and feels she cannot give herself up to friendship due to previous experiences. Readers will enjoy following Vivi as she works these things out, opens up, conquers fear and becomes more content with her place in the world. She is battling supernatural demons by day but also inside her head. The parallel nature of Vivi in the human world and Vivi in the Unlands works phenomenally well.
An authentically Welsh, fun fantasy, expertly written with joy woven through every page. A story that encourages everyone to be themselves and to assure growing youngsters that they will find their place. Vivi Conway and the Sword of Legend is essential for every home, library and school; this is a special one I’m going to be recommending to a lot of people. Thanks Lizzie Huxley-Jones for writing.
Blog Tour Content
Lizzie Huxley- Jones recently tweeted about their research in the British Library. We thought it may be fun to pull out some of the myths and legends that have inspired Vivi Conway and the Sword of Legend and highlight some retellings for children. Hope you enjoy…
Gelert is a ghost dog in Vivi’s adventure and a faithful guardian to the children. This is the wiry hound Gelert of legend, and in one very moving scene he transports Vivi to Beddgelert and recounts his story right next to his grave. Try holding the tears in when you get to that part. A really lovely retelling of Gelert for children is the Cerys Matthews version but it also appears in the ‘Tales from Wales’ collection.
Vivi meets Dara at the lake – like Vivi, Dara has been gifted a magical power associated with a figure from mythology. Ceridwen is that mythical legend – a sorceress who had a magical cauldron. The story of how she brewed a potion to give her own hideous son great wisdom, but instead the potion inadvertently spilled on a servant boy, is told brilliantly by Jenny Nimmo in ‘Gwion and the Witch’, illustrated by Jac Jones.
The Lady of the Lake / Excalibur
Also known as Nimuë (or Viviane in some tales), the Lady of the Lake is the Arthurian story of the enchantress who, amongst other things, gives Arthur the Excalibur sword. Vivi and Nimuë are partnered souls and the discovery of Excalibur in Llyn Arian is the start of Vivi’s adventure. This is a story told many times in many ways. I’ve chosen three books which were all nominated for the Tir na nOg Award in their day.
The Afanc is a lake monster from Welsh mythology – an enormous supernatural beast sometimes described as resembling a crocodile, and often a scaly beaver – take your pick! Chapter 1 of Vivi gets us off to an uber-exciting start as Vivi has to wrestle with the Afanc in the lake. There is an afanc pool near Betws-y-Coed and the Showell Styles book provides a guided walk. The Claire Fayers collection recounts the legend of how the afanc was removed to a more remote lake away from the town, and the Dark is Rising sequence features the afanc in the final book.
The Coraniaid feature in the Mabinogion tale of Lludd and Llefelys. They are one of three plagues that descended on Britain during the reign of King Lludd – an undefined creature or people who were characterised by a remarkable sense of hearing – which meant that the land fell silent because no-one could take any action against them. In Vivi’s story the creatures take on an arachnid form and they learn about the Coraniaid plague from a pamphlet in the British Library. ‘The Three Plagues of Britain’ is recounted in Gwyn Jones’ Stories from Wales, while Zillah Bethell retells the story (wherein “even the fool daren’t tell his jokes”) in The Mab. In ‘Island of the Mighty’ Haydn Middleton’s version features tiny folk called the Corannies who were water-tamers (there’s another link to Vivi there, but I think we’ve given away enough spoilers!)
The third calon to be discovered in the story of Vivi Conway is that of Rhiannon – a character from the Mabinogion (though probably better known through the Fleetwood Mac song). Rhiannon is the intelligent, beautiful horse goddess. She features in the first branch of the Mabinogi, but also the third. Aside from The Mab, mentioned above, here are two other versions of the Mabinogion.
Thanks very much to Lizzie, Knights Of and Team ED for inviting us to be part of the blog tour and for sharing an early proof copy of Vivi.
What’s the strangest thing to be sent through the post? Well, after a few hours down several internet rabbit holes, I can tell you that there are no limits to the things that people have attempted to send through our beloved Royal Mail. Pets, children, suffragettes, bricks, shepherd’s pie (warm), game (just a label around the neck will do) and a severed ear have all been wrapped and sent in the history of the international postal service. “Mail artists” have sought to push the envelope (thank you very much) and write addresses on unwrapped items such as leaves, apples, potatoes and a piece of toast.
It appears Holly Rivers was inspired by these tales to write The Boy in The Post (charming and funny with a golden heart), her second novel with Chicken House. The book features children mailing themselves to New York in order to solve their problem. You see, the Shalloo siblings have taken on a job for the summer holidays. Their mum is too wrapped up in her second-hand car business to give them her attention and so they answer the call of Grandy Brock to help him establish a new kind of postal service. The kind of postal service that has animals delivering the mail. Animails. Yes that’s right – Grandy Brock has a menagerie of feathers and furs (as well as a rather impressive number of his own children) and is trying to get his new business venture off the ground.
Taber, the youngest of the Shalloo siblings, is responsible for training Geronimo, a pelican, to find it’s way home. Using inbuilt navigation systems, this all goes rather swimmingly (soaringly?) and the bird becomes the best homing pelican you can imagine. However, following an international flight, the bird fails to return home and Taber holds himself responsible. The young boy takes off in the middle of the night, posting himself with a shipment to New York. Taber’s brother and sister become very concerned for him and crate themselves off in a similar manner, embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.
The book has a very classic, vintage feel. The characters are brilliant – written with so much joy you can’t fail to fall in love with them. Grandy Brock is a favourite. He’s eccentric and peculiar but has “a mischievous twinkle in his eyes that hinted at adventure and excitement and fun.” He’s warm and generous and shows kindness that the Shalloo siblings have rarely seen. The book is also laden with some of the best postal-related puns you are ever likely to feast on (it’s all in the delivery!) Now that’s definitely something to write home about.
We’re delighted to be able to share this Q and A with Holly Rivers which delves a bit further into the inspiration behind the book:
Tell us a little about your new novel, The Boy in the Post
The Boy in the Post is a postal-themed adventure story set across land, sea and sky! It follows the Shalloo siblings — adventurous twelve year old Orinthia; nature-loving five year old Taber; and sensible middle child Séafra.
During the summer holidays the three siblings accept a summer job from an eccentric old man called Grandy Brock who lives in a tumbledown windmill. He and his five adopted children are opening a very special postal service called The Mailbox Menagerie, which is to be staffed entirely by animals and birds! The Shalloo siblings become especially fond of Geronimo, a homing pelican. But when the big bird fails to return from a delivery to New York, the Shalloo siblings have no choice but to post themselves across the Atlantic to find her…
What inspired the story?
The story was inspired by a fascinating article published by The Smithsonian Institute, about children who were sent through the mail in the 1900s. Yes, back then it was legal to send your kids through the post! The first child delivered by the U.S. parcel post service was a boy in Ohio, in 1913 — his parents paid 15 cents for the stamps and insured their son for $50, who was then delivered to his Grandmother’s house a few miles away. Even though these children weren’t technically stuffed into mailbags (and instead travelled in the mail vans of trusted postmen) I couldn’t help but start imagining prospective characters being wrapped in brown paper and stamps being stuck to their foreheads; and the idea for The Boy in the Post was born!
What was your favourite piece of information that you uncovered in your research?
I loved reading about loads of other weird and wonderful things that have been sent through the post and intercepted over the years — a turnip with the recipient’s address carved into its flesh; a hive of live bees; false teeth; jars of scorpions; prosthetic limbs; a pair of underpants with an address scrawled across the crotch; a first edition copy of Ulysses deemed ‘obscene’; a brace of game birds; a tree trunk; a building’s worth of bricks; and two suffragettes hoping to get to Herbert Asquith! The bizarre and eccentric side of humanity never fails to inspire and entertain me!
Who were your favourite characters to write?
I had a hoot (excuse the pun) coming up with ideas for my animails — the animals and birds that work at The Mailbox Menagerie. I really let my imagination run wild and ended up penning a homing pelican who gets paid in sardines; a fruit bat who will only work the night shift; a pair of Sphynx cats in charge of licking stamps; an octopus who can deliver 8 parcels at a time; and snakes who cane spell out postcodes with their bodies. All the while I had my own pet chihuahua, Silver snuggled up on my lap — whose snores and farts and woofs made the experience all the richer! She even turns up in the last chapter of the book…..
What do you think the key message is to take away from the book?
I hope that the story inspires readers to embrace more old-school ways of communicating in their post-pandemic lives. During lockdown — a time dominated by zoom calls and emails — sending and receiving letters from family and friends during brought me so much joy; and there was nothing lovelier than hearing the postman coming up the garden path. I hope the book inspires children to switch off their screens, go buy some stamps and put pen to paper. I’m always open to receiving letters from new pen-pals!
You wrote the book during lockdown, how was that as an experience compared to writing your first novel Demelza and the Spectre Detectors?
When I was working on Demelza I was able to take my laptop to so many different locations to write — libraries, cosy pubs, cafes, parks, the northbound Piccadilly line, number 91 bus! But because of lockdown and the fact that all of our worlds had suddenly become a lot smaller, the entirety of The Boy in The Post was written at an antique desk gifted to me by Grandma. I was surprisingly focused and motivated during lockdown and managed to write the first draft of the book fairly quickly. Penning an epic transatlantic adventure also meant that I could travel the world and go on a journey even though I wasn’t allowed to leave the house — it felt like a real tonic!
You work as a children’s workshop facilitator, does this help to inform your writing?
As you can see from the acknowledgments sections of both Demelza and The Boy In The Post, the children I work with are a huge inspiration to me and my writing. They buoy me with their ideas, energy, humour, warmth and imagination, and I’m always jotting down the unusual and funny things they come out with! Being around children so much reminds me to remain playful, and they stop me from turning into too much of a grumpy old grown-up!
Thank you to Holly and Laura for the Q and A and for allowing us to host today’s post on the Blog Tour. The Boy in The Post is available now to buy in your local independent bookshop, published by Chicken House. You can follow Holly on Twitter.
The Queen on our Corner is a very special picture book written by Lucy Christopher and illustrated by Nia Tudor. Both Lucy and Nia were born in Wales so we are delighted to take part in this book tour (and even without the Welsh connection, we’d jump at the chance to celebrate such a lovely book!).
The Queen in question is a homeless lady who lives on the corner of the street with her pet dog. She is ignored by most, feared by some and often seen as a nuisance. But as Lucy Christopher writes, “She is just tired from all the battles she has fought and won, and the ones she has fought and lost too.” The adult reader may see real-world problems in this statement, but the child narrator imagines the fascinating adventures that the Queen may have had combatting dragons and journeying to the far reaches of the globe. It is clear that illustrator Nia Tudor enjoyed these flights of fancy too and these imaginings form the basis for the wonderful endpapers.
Later in the book, the Queen is responsible for an act of extreme braveness and kindness which averts a certain disaster in the street. Suddenly, attitudes change and the residents want to give their thanks and support to the lady who they now acknowledge. But what can they do to show their gratitude? The child narrator has a wonderfully generous and heart-warming thought, but you’ll need to read or listen to the book yourself to find out!
Lucy Christopher was inspired to write this story by the compassion and charity of her friends. She urges all readers to look for the queens in their lives and to reach out. Don’t you think we should treat everyone like a queen? You never know the adventures they have had in their lives.
We absolutely adore Nia’s illustrations in The Queen On Our Corner, her first published picture book. The autumnal palette is just gorgeous and we love the characterisation of the people in the street and have enjoyed spotting the nods to adventure through hidden items in the wonderful spreads. Nia was very kind and answered a few questions from bookworms Kit and Nina to mark the occasion.
What was your first reaction to Lucy Christopher’s words? I thought it was a beautiful story with an important message, and I instantly started imagining the possibilities for the illustrations.
What is your favourite illustration in the book? The picture that shows the whole street. I loved how much detail I was able to put into it.
How do you illustrate? I illustrate digitally using my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil in Procreate.
What is your reaction to seeing the book in the shops? It’s very surreal! I’m just really flattered that there are people out there who are enjoying the book.
We love the dragons and mountains that you included in the book. Are you inspired by Wales? Yes, it was great to include a little homage to my heritage through the dragon!
THE QUEEN ON OUR CORNER is now available in all good bookshops! OR, buy your copy from Lantana’s online shop and donate a book to children who need books the most with your purchase.
Thank you to Katrina and Lantana for inviting us to participate in the book tour. You can follow Lucy, Nia and Lantana on Twitter, and find out more about the author and illustrator at their websites.
We are absolutely thrilled to be taking part in this Blog Tour for Swansea-based author and illustrator, Helen and Thomas Docherty. They really are the perfect picturebook pairing and have just published yet another playful, engaging and colourful story that will entertain by the bucketload.
The Snaffle has arrived in the city and she just wants to play – but everyone is distracted by phones, tablets and devices. They don’t seem to have time for each other. So the Snaffle becomes The Screen Thief and embarks on a mission to change the city into a more playful and more caring place. Ultimately, eating screens doesn’t do this for her, and leaves her feeling lonely, but a wonderful friend called Max is kind and caring and together they put things right.
Clearly ‘screen time’ is a huge issue for parents and teachers and striking a balance is important in all our lives, so this book will appeal to everyone looking to provide more than a subtle dose of encouragement to adopt healthier habits.
Helen’s joyous rhyming text is funny and great fun to read aloud. Thomas’ illustrations are so vibrant and full of detail – we’ve been poring over them over several bedtimes, reading the emotions of the characters and looking how they change through the story.
It’s totally apt therefore that Thomas joins us on this blog tour to give an insight into the illustration process.
Creating the Snaffle: Thomas Docherty on illustrating THE SCREEN THIEF
Throughout the story, the Snaffle
goes through a whole range of emotions, so above all she had to be expressive. At
the same time she gets up to plenty of mischief, so she needed to be dynamic. I
also had to make sure that she was loveable. After all, she acts with the
innocent impulses of a small child and that vulnerability comes through at the
end of the story.
As always, she went through many
versions before we decided on the final design. From the start, her general
body shape remained more or less the same. The hard part was solving the
question of how to resolve her face and head.
In the end I found that the long ears helped to make her very expressive
and the trunk was fun and surprising. It was also good for sniffing and tasting
It mentions in the text that the
Snaffle is small and blue. I was going to be painting the illustrations by hand
and I wanted the Snaffle to stand out. I found a bottle of blue ink that I
particularly liked, renamed it SNAFFLE BLUE and used it only for painting the
I had a lot of fun hiding the Snaffle
in the library, the cinema and the TV shop and I hope children will enjoy
looking for her in the illustrations. My favourite moment where she eats a
screen is when she is walking away with the ice cream sign from outside the
When I’m creating a book, lots of the
ideas never get included. If there was one set of pictures I would have liked
to keep, it was of the Snaffle reacting to the different tastes and textures of
the screens. In the end there just wasn’t room for everything.
One early idea that I’m glad was
taken out was a moment where the Snaffle is arrested by the police for eating
everyone’s screens. It’s just too sad!
The city is full of so many other
characters. Originally I imagined these as made up creatures but in the end we
went for animals, which made the Snaffle stand out more.
I had so much fun drawing them all
glued to their screens, oblivious to everything around them.
Of course the Snaffle wants to join
Creating The City
One of the fun things about
illustrating The Screen Thief was
that it is set in a city. I hadn’t drawn a city before in a picture book and I
was excited about all the visual opportunities that this presented. It also
meant a huge amount of work as I had to plan the city from scratch.
At the beginning, I tried a slightly
futuristic city with rounded buildings and bubble cars. However, in the end we
decided that it would be more relatable to children if it was set in the
The most complicated image to compose
was the first page when the Snaffle arrives in the city. I tried lots of
options including a train station and coming out of a subway. In the end I
wanted to show all the main locations in the story on this page, so I went for
a roof top view of a square. You can see Max’s house, the Library, the cinema
and the park.
I even drew myself a map to make sure
I knew where all the other places the Snaffle visits made sense.
The city is full of shops selling all
sorts of things (I actually walked past a cactus shop just like this recently!).
Of course the Snaffle is only interested in the TV shop…
As always, some of my rough ideas
didn’t make it into the book. I did some sketches of inside the animal’s homes
and some other locations which would have been fun to include.
Although cities are full of life, the
Snaffle soon discovers that they can be lonely places too. There is a moment in
the story where despite all the screens the Snaffle has gobbled, she still
feels empty inside. What’s missing? Nothing that a screen can give her, what
the Snaffle needs is a friend. Setting this scene in a deserted ally seemed to
fit the Snaffle’s mood.
The park is not mentioned in the text,
but it seemed the perfect place to develop the key message of the story. At the
beginning, the Snaffle comes across children in the playground. They are so
absorbed in their screens that they are not even playing. However, by the end
of the story the park has been transformed into a magical space full of activity.
Max and the Snaffle have managed to bring everyone together.
Huge thanks to Thomas Docherty for preparing this blog and sharing his insight and these amazing images.
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.’
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?’
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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
“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 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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).
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?)
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?
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?
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
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?
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?
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.
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.
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
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
Could you recommend any favourite picturebooks?
Cross The Line! By Isabel Minhos Martins and Bernardo P. Carvalho
illustrated by Christian Robinson
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?
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
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.
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…
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.
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!