Meet The… (Pirates and Ancient Greeks)

James Davies

Big Picture Press
Review written by Daddy Worm

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

Contents of Ancient Greeks

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

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

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

Endpapers of Meet The… Ancient Greeks

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

Page edges with design showing subtitles

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

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

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

Firefly Review 2018

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

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

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

Thrilling Series for Mature Readers

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

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

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

Middle Grade Masterpieces

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

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

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

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

For a full review of the book, click here.

Fart Gags and Funnybones

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

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

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

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

Gomer Review 2018

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

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

Three Tales by Cynan Jones (£5.99)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Big One, Dan Anthony (£8.99)

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

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

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

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

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

Bananabeeyumio by Laura Sheldon (£6.99)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Lonely Bwbach, Graham Howells (£5.99)

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

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

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

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

An unusual and absorbing tale with great illustrations.

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

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

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

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

Christmas Books of 2018

In this post, we take a look at our pick of essential Christmas books, all by authors of Wales.

The Newborn Child (Otter-Barry Books) tells the story of a child born to change the world. A special child; a baby born of a first-time mother. Jackie Morris’ detailed, thoughtful and glorious artwork accompanies her own tender poetry. The focus on the innocence and fragility of a newborn and the pure love and adoration of a mother, make this a book for life, not just for Christmas.

The Dog That Saved Christmas (Barrington Stoke) is Nicola Davies’ newly published book telling the story of someone who dislikes the festive season. There are plenty who feel uncomfortable, anxious or lonely at Christmas and this dyslexia-friendly tale shines a light and will help to develop empathy amongst its readers. Brilliantly illustrated by Mike Byrne, the titular dog comes to the rescue, making Christmas a more bearable, even loving time. (See our full reviews of this book).

There are more dogs in Sam Hay and Loretta Schauer’s A Very Corgi Christmas picture book (Simon & Schuster). And what gorgeous corgis they are! Belle keeps getting under everyone’s feet at Buckingham Palace so she sneaks out to explore the bright lights of the city. She’s given a fabulous guided tour by Pip, experiencing the various highs of London life. A simply wonderful story with irresistible illustrations make this an absolute delight (with a super cute ending).

A Child’s Christmas in Wales is one of the best read-alouds ever – Daddy Worm loves channelling Richard Burton and getting his tongue around the sing-song phrases and Thomasisms. Full of humour, dry and profound as the narrator reminisces on Christmases past, this classic short vignette is evergreen. Our own version (Puffin Books) contains the evocative illustrations of Edward Ardizzone which we cannot do without.

Santa’s Greatest Gift (Gwasg Gomer), was nominated for this year’s Tir na-nOg Award and is an excellent picture book about Gwydion who ends up helping Santa to deliver presents. However, Santa has forgotten Gwydion’s present so has to think on the spot! This is a real favourite in our house particularly due to the beautiful illustrations of Valériane Leblond. Tudur Dylan Jones rhyming verse is engaging and fast moving.

The Christmas Extravaganza Hotel (Little Tiger) is a new offering from Tracey Corderoy and Tony Neal. It’s a big, bold and bright picture book with real heart. Frog arrives at Bear’s house thinking he’s in for the time of his life at the amazing Christmas Extravaganza Hotel – but he’s not the best map reader and has taken more than a few wrong turns. Bear, being a kind and compassionate soul, doesn’t want Frog to be disappointed at Christmas time so tries to equal the promises of the glossy brochure. Here’s a book that shows there is awe and wonder in simple pleasures and that spending time together can bring fulfilment and joy.

The Clockwork Crow (Firefly Press) is destined to win yet more awards for Catherine Fisher and is a highly satisfying read by an extremely talented writer. A victorian Christmas in Wales promises to be everything Seren dreamed of, but there’s more to Plas-y-Fran than meets the eye. The Mid-Wales manor house has a gateway to the underworld which Seren must explore (with the flying, talking Clockwork Crow) if she is to solve the mystery of the missing Tomos. Enchanting, riveting, accomplished and highly enjoyable middle grade fiction.

Y Lolfa Review 2018

Y Lolfa celebrated 50 years in publishing in 2017. The Tal-y-bont-based company publishes books in English and Welsh for adults and children. Their 2018 releases are dominated by sports biographies by the likes of headline-makers Geraint Thomas and referee Nigel Owens. We’ll now take a look at Y Lolfa’s 2018 books in English for children, and there are some gems here:

Little Honey Bee by Caryl Lewis; Valériane Leblond (£5.99)

This is a tale of hope and healing, about looking forward to a brighter and warmer future.

Elsi is left to the care of her grandmother who tends her broken heart with patience, kindness and understanding.

When Grandmother shows a collection of beehives at the bottom of the garden, Elsi’s curiosity is awakened and so too, a  desire and interest that sparks her into being.

Accompanied by the compassionate and beautiful illustrations of Valériane Leblond, Caryl Lewis’ story is educational too, as Grandmother teaches Elsi the names of the flowers.

Originally written in Welsh, Caryl’s own translation encourages children to take notice of their surroundings and to appreciate what matters.

Echoing the sentiments of The Lost Words (Jackie Morris and Robert MacFarlane), Caryl explained, “I wrote the book partly to teach children about the seasons and the names of things in the countryside around them, words like foxgloves, bluebells, catkins. Children don’t get to learn the names of trees and flowers these days.”

This is reiterated by Valériane, “It’s so important to be aware of what’s around us, and children as well as adults should know and understand more about nature and its relationship with everything.”

Moonbeam’s Arctic Adventure, David Morgan Williams, Molly Holborn; Maria Moss (£5.99)

This hardback sees established author David Morgan Williams collaborate with his granddaughter Molly Holborn on a picture book with an essential environmental message. It features two bottle-nosed dolphins, Moonbeam and Sunbeam from Cardigan Bay who answer the distress signals from other creatures.

On their journey to the Northern ice caps, they meet a variety of species – and David and Molly take the opportunity to educate young readers on arctic terns, fin whales, polar bears and others.

Molly said “My grandfather and I have a mutual concern for endangered species and global warming. We wrote this book for young children to make them aware of the issues. Hopefully, by raising awareness, they can help prevent drastic environmental changes.”

Ultimately, the book is about doing what you can to make a difference, as Moonbeam and Sunbeam exert themselves to support and help others.

Teach Your Dog Welsh, Anne Cakebread (£4.99)

Here is a colourful, cleverly-designed book for Welsh learners – which works equally well for children and adults. We should know, as soon as it arrived, the Worms were using it to command our Tedi to Sit, Come, Stay and Fetch.

Each double page has a dynamic illustration on one side with the English and Welsh command on the other, together with a phonetic pronunciation guide.

The inspiration for the book came to Anne Cakebread when she rehomed Frieda, a rescue whippet. Frieda previous owner spoke Welsh to her, so Anne realised she would only respond to Welsh commands. Anne found the process of speaking Welsh to her dog helped her overcome her nerves about speaking Welsh aloud and recognised that her Welsh was improving.

Largely, the phrases are universal and are useful in many situations – lots about the weather and time of day – we’ve certainly had hours of fun and I can say that pronunciations are improving.

This would make a great stocking filler for Christmas!

When Ravens Screamed Over Blood, Williams Vaughan (£4.99)

When Ravens Screamed Over Blood, a novella for teenagers has its foundations in the magic and violence of the Welsh Mabinogion. As the author explains, “One of the main characters, The Prince, was inspired by a character and certain magical events in the ancient Welsh tales of the Mabinogion. The story also draws upon Irish mythology. The title is taken from a poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen, one of the icons of Welsh literature.”

The novella deals with issues such as sexuality, the joys of love and dealing with conflict. We have not read the book yet but it has garnered high praise from Phil Carradice for its lyrical quality and for handling some complex issues carefully and delicately.

All of these titles are available to purchase direct from Y Lolfa online. We are extremely grateful to them for providing review copies and would especially like to thank them for supporting our Little Honey Bee giveaway. (See Twitter)

Football School Blog Tour

Football School Season 3

Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton

Walker Books

The Football School series has a new edition! This critically-acclaimed set (Book 1 shortlisted for Blue Peter Book Awards, Book 2 shortlisted for #Lollies2018), brings football facts, figures and bizarre insights to the fore. Noah (aged 11) has been able to enjoy the books at his own leisure, devouring the mysteries over the Jules Rimet Trophies, and the mathematical facts about tallest players, goal averages and circadian rhythms (yes, we have discussed this at the breakfast table!). Meanwhile Kit (aged 6) has enjoyed dipping into the book to pull out nuggets of information. With the help of Mum and Dad, he has been fascinated by the stories, science and trivia bursting from the pages. This really is a highly entertaining read; fast-paced, interesting and educational.

For many, football is a way to inspire children to read, and if you’ve seen any of the other blog posts, you will know that Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton are keen to emphasise the importance of reading for pleasure. On the Books for Topics blog, they say “What’s most important is that kids read the book – since reading anything brings benefits. But we also hope that the books make children curious about the world.” And on Booklover Jo’s blog, they say “We believed that one way to get kids reading was to provide them with a book on a subject they felt passionate about. Football School explains the world through the prism of football.”

Kit was delighted to put his questions to Alex and Ben (but disappointed that neither of them played Fifa 19).

 

Alex Bellos (on the left) and Ben Lyttleton

What are you reading at the moment?

Ben: I am reading a book about family and friendship called the Baltimore Boys but you’re probably more interested in what my children are reading. My eldest daughter is 9 and she is reading Death in the Spotlight by Robin Stevens. She loves these murder mysteries even if they are a bit gory! My youngest daughter is 7 and she is reading Daisy and the Trouble with Life. She also loves the Claude series by Alex T Smith. They have both read the Football School books and told me they liked them – I hope they weren’t just being polite! 

Could you tell us how you got into writing the Football School books?

Alex: Ben and I have been mates for ages and always wanted to work on a project together. We have both written football books for grown-ups, and thought that it would be really fun and worthwhile to write for younger readers. We were avid readers when we were kids, and we both know the advantages that reading brings.

Ben: We are passionate about getting children to enjoy reading – we know you already love it! – and we thought that writing books about football would help reluctant readers tap into their love of football and encourage them to develop a love of reading and a curiosity about the world. We have since been told by teachers and parents that the book has helped their children get into reading, which inspires us to work even harder!

Which football team/s do you support?

Alex: I grew up in Scotland and support Hearts (the Jam Tarts).

Ben: I support Spurs, because they were my local team when I grew up and my whole family supported them. I believe we should never boo any other teams, because supporting a team is often about family, community and being connected to a bigger group. I am proud of my team but also respect and appreciate other teams – especially if their nickname is a yummy food, like the Jam Tarts! 

Who’s the best footballer in the world right now? (Kit thinks it’s either Ronaldo or Rodriguez)

Ben: Good question. I watched Lionel Messi play for Barcelona against Spurs the other day and I haven’t seen many players play better than that and I’ve been going to matches for over 30 years.  I also really like Kylian Mbappe and think Raheem Sterling doesn’t get the credit he deserves. They are all great players.

Who are the best TV commentators?

Ben: There are lots of good ones but my favourite is Dave Farrar, because he is a friend of mine! His voice is wonderful, and he comes up with brilliant one-liners. I always remember when Greece beat France in Euro 2004, he said “And France lose! That’s Napoleon Blown-Apart!” It was a clever pun on Napoleon Bonaparte and he claims he thought of it on the spot! It still makes me chuckle…

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned when researching your books?

Alex: So many things! I love the fact that stadiums have vomitories, that eagles are the most popular mascot for football teams and that the coelacanth is a fish has limbs instead of fins! 

Ben: As a younger sibling, I liked learning that younger siblings are more likely to become professional footballers. That’s good news for Kit! Also that female players are less likely to be left-footed, that Iceland has 130 volcanoes, that paint is like a cake and that the Prime Minister of India once drank his own wee! 

Who is the best Welsh footballer?

Ben: Right now, or of all time? In both cases I would say Gareth Bale! An incredible player who has always shown how much Wales means to him. There is an exciting new generation of players coming through as well, so keep an eye on Harry Wilson and Ethan Ampadu – it’s a really exciting time for Welsh football.  

How many keepy-ups can you do?

Ben: I have got up to 96, but always lose my concentration as I get close to 100. Annoying! 

Alex: Not as many as Ben!

Apart from your books, what other books about football would you recommend?

Alex: My favourite football books are anything by Simon Kuper, Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby and Twelve Yards by Ben Lyttleton!

Ben: Alex is so nice! I would say Futebol by this guy called Alex Bellos, it’s all about Brazilian football and it’s Brazilliant!  

What’s next for Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton?

Alex: We have two new Football School books out next year: Football School Star Players out in the Spring, which has the stories of 50 inspirational players, and Football School Season 4 out in the Autumn, and there will be two more in the year following that too.

Ben: It’s really exciting! We also have our youtube channel which is youtube.com/FootballSchoolFacts and we upload new videos all the time so please check it out and subscribe!

 

Thank you to Alex and Ben for answering the questions and to Walker for sending us a review copy of the book. You can follow Alex and Ben on Twitter or visit the Football School website.

Author Q and A: Peter Bell

We are delighted to be part of The Train to Impossible Places blog tour and so pleased that Peter was able to answer our questions. The Train to Impossible Places was highly anticipated by the Worms and instantly cemented itself into Noah’s favourite books when he read it a few months back. It is a great story and, as Noah’s review implies, everything you could possibly want from a book – a thrilling fast-paced adventure with quirks that twist and reshape the fantasy genre. Read Noah’s review here. Now over to Peter…

What are you reading at the moment?

Orphan, Monster, Spy by Matt Killeen, and it’s every bit as good as I’d heard – tense, brutal and moving. I really can’t wait to see what Matt does next. I’m also working my way through the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, which are tremendous fun. He’s coming to Cardiff in November, and I want to be up to date before he gets here.

What are your favourite children’s books?

Too many to list here, but off the top of my head:

Pretty much the whole Roald Dahl cannon, especially The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr Fox. I loved them when I was young, and my son is now a big fan too. He dressed as a Vermicious Knid for World Book Day last year!

The Worst Witch books by Jill Murphy. Such a great and accessible fantasy series – the Harry Potter of its day. It’s so good to know it’s still going strong.

Murder Mystery is a genre that’s largely passed me by, but I’ve absolutely loved the Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens. She re-purposes all the tropes so cleverly, while keeping the stories grounded in character. I look forward to reading the new one.

The Accidental Pirates books by Claire Fayers are everything fantasy adventure stories should be – inventive, exciting and funny. Her most recent books, Mirror Magic and Stormhound are equally good, but I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for an end to the Pirates trilogy one day.

And finally, anything with Diana Wynne Jones’s name on the cover!

Where and when do you write?

I mostly write in the mornings after dropping the kids off at school. I’ve got a small study at the back of the house, and I’ll get a few hours done there before lunch, with maybe another hour or so in the evening after the kids have gone to bed. My favourite mornings are the ones when Claire Fayers and I meet up at a local coffee shop and sit in silence for two and a half hours, typing away. They serve coffee in pint mugs, which endears the place to me greatly, and they’ve got to know us so well that they know our orders off by heart. 

We know that The Train To Impossible Places began as a bedtime story for your children. Is the finished version much different? What didn’t make the final cut?

Pretty much everything that was in the bedtime story ended up in the book, albeit in a much more polished form. The only thing that didn’t survive the jump was a flying visit to a supermarket, so the crew of the train could stock up on bananas. Every other change I made was adding material, rather than taking away – the whole sub plot of Captain Neoma, the observatory and Lord Meridian grew out of the editing process. The finished book is almost 15,000 words longer than my first draft.

How do you choose names for your characters?

I try to make their names reflect their nature or status in some way. So the Lady Crepuscula comes from the word “crepuscular”, which is an adjective describing anything to do with twilight. Her opposite number, Lord Meridian, takes his name from the point at which the sun is at its highest, suggesting enlightenment. He is a librarian, after all!

Some names, like Fletch and Wilmot, just came to me out of the blue and I’ve no idea why. But they stuck immediately.

We think the book has hints of The Magic Faraway Tree. What else has influenced the storyline?

Thank you for saying so! The Magic Faraway Tree books are the very first stories I remember from my childhood, and they’ve shaped all my reading ever since, so I guess it’s inevitable that there would be a dose of that in my writing.

I drew pretty heavily on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, but only in terms of tone – I like to think that Suzy and the trolls would feel at home making deliveries to Ankh Morpork. Because each of the Impossible Places is different, I can effectively make each one a genre – or at least a collection of genre tropes – unto itself. So the Obsidian Tower has strong echoes of Tolkien, while the Topaz Narrows are every pirate adventure story you’ve ever read.

Are we right in thinking you’d love to write an episode of Doctor Who?

Let’s just say that if they ever ask me, I wouldn’t refuse.

How important is a sense of place to your writing? In particular, has living in Wales any influence on your writing?

A sense of place is always important, especially if your characters are travelling from place to place, as mine are. I want the reader to get excited about exploring these strange new worlds, so I always try and include a few details to help ground them. Trollville is probably the most fully-realised world in the book, as we spend quite a bit of time there (and we’ll see even more of it in the sequel!) Its post-industrial feel is definitely informed by my childhood in south Wales. It was everywhere – in the architecture and the street layouts, in the art and in the chimneys of the Llanwern Steelworks, which was still active at the time. And you never had to go far to meet a retired miner.

Our school caretaker was an old man who had gone down the pits at the age of 11. I remember one day he showed our class his missing fingers and recounted each of the accidents that had claimed them. He was the basis of the Old Guard – the retired Posties who spend their time comparing tales of daring and disaster.

The Train To Impossible Places is the first in a series, called A Cursed Delivery. What is the appeal in writing a number of books rather than a single story?

It’s a tremendous privilege to be given the chance to tell more stories with these characters. It’s allowed me to think of new directions to take them in, and new and interesting parts of the Impossible Places to explore. It’s also allowed me to become a full time professional writer for the first time in my life, which is a childhood dream come true.

The finished hardback is delightfully illustrated by Flavia Sorrentino. Should we judge your book by its cover and how important was it for you to have some internal illustration?

You should definitely judge the book by BOTH its covers, because they’re gorgeous. My favourite is the hidden cover underneath the dust jacket – my editors at Usborne presented me with a framed print of it at the launch party, and it’s now got pride of place in my study. 

Usborne made the decision very early on to include interior illustrations, and I was very happy to go along with the plan – I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want a few illustrations with their text if given the chance. And Flavia’s work is just gorgeous. I love her expressionist style, and she’s absolutely nailed the characters.

What question have we forgotten to ask you?

You haven’t asked me who the best Doctor Who is. And the correct answer is: all of them. Although Sylvester McCoy is the best of the best.

 

There have been some really excellent blog posts as part of this tour. Why not check out some of the other hosts?

#Lollies2018 Blog Tour: Joe Berger

Lollies 2018 Blog Tour: Joe Berger

The Pudding Problem by Joe Berger is nominated for the #Lollies2018 in the age 6-8 category. Kit (6), Nina (9) and Noah (11) have all read this hilarious graphic novel and enjoyed it very very much! They got caught up in the misadventures of Sam Lyttle, a boy who keeps getting into trouble though it has nothing to do with lying (honest)! The eponymous ‘Pudding’ is Sam’s cat – and the ingenious story of how Pudding came to be the family pet and get her name is worth the entry fee alone. Noah picked up on the subtle humour in the illustrations – sometimes it’s unmitigated ‘out there’ humour, which had Kit and Nina in fits of giggles and outbursts of belly-laughs, and sometimes it’s just in a ‘look’ or more understated reference in the brilliant drawings. There’s something in this book for everyone, adults included, so the age 6-8 tag is a bit misleading. Either way, all five worms loved The Pudding Problem and its follow-up The Stinky Truth. Here’s the book trailer from Joe’s website:

Joe Berger lives in Bristol with his wife, three daughters, cat and dog. He regularly collaborates with Pascal Wyse, as Berger & Wyse on a weekly cartoon published in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine. He says “telling jokes in cartoon form remains one of my favourite things ever”. He has written two Lyttle Lies books and illustrated many more. We were delighted that he agreed to answer the Worms’ questions, so here are his answers…

What are you reading at the moment?

At the moment I’m reading Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle vol 1 – it’s a grown-up book but I’d recommend it once you’re older. Also reading some comics, including Greatest Ever Marlys by Lynda Barry, which is brilliant.

Could you tell us how you got into writing and drawing?

When I was little my mum used to read fashion magazines like Vogue, and she would sometimes show me an illustration she liked and ask me to make her a version of it. So I learned a huge amount from copying other people’s drawings and techniques – it’s a brilliant way to learn, to unpick how drawings and paintings are made. From a young age I was also obsessed with comics, and always wanted to do my own comic strip. In 2002 my friend and I landed a job of doing a 4 panel comic in the Guardian newspaper – and co-writing that each week gave me the confidence to write children’s books, which was a long-held ambition. Although the 4 panel strip stopped in 2009, we continue to do a single panel cartoon in the Guardian every week – so far that’s nearly 900 cartoons!

Where and when do you work?

I work in my studio, which is a 20 minute walk from home, in the centre of Bristol. It’s a lovely room with lots of natural light, and room to play the VERY OCCASIONAL board game, which is my big hobby when I’m not making books and cartoons. I usually work 9-5 Monday to Friday, as I find keeping regular hours helps me organise my time. Many mornings I’ll spend an hour or so dreaming up cartoon ideas, and then switch to writing or book illustration later in the day.

Can you tell us about your methods?

All my work starts with drawing on paper. I usually do rough drawings in pencil, and then final drawing in brush pen and ink on a clean sheet of paper  which is just thin enough to see a bit of the rough drawing underneath. But for cartoons I like to draw straight in ink, and see where the drawing goes. It’s harder to be that spontaneous with drawing for children’s books because there are often a lot of changes to make.

What advice would you give to budding young illustrators?

Copy the stuff you love! I don’t mean trace it, that wouldn’t teach you much – but copying really makes you focus on how the artist/illustrator was able to achieve what they did. It’s an invaluable way to learn – and of course, your own style will start to seep in to those drawings, and you’ll naturally start to create your own work.

Is it difficult to do funny some days?

Yes it is! It can be very frustrating if you don’t feel like you’re in the right mood. See next answer . . .

Is being funny a serious business?

It is serious and silly in equal amounts. It’s serious in that you have to be able to be funny on demand, even if you don’t feel like it. For this reason, I carry a small notebook wherever I go, to note down any funny ideas. So then when I need to be funny but don’t feel like it, can look in my notebooks for inspiration. These are not really sketchbooks, though I have those too. I have a collection of about 40 old notebooks which I am always looking in for thoughts and ideas I might not have used yet. But I have to keep writing in new ones too!

How do you choose names for your characters?

Hmmm, that’s a good question – names for characters are so important. Sam in the Lyttle Lies books was originally called Joe, because the stories are loosely based on my misadventures as a boy. But I wanted to distance the character from me because other bits are totally made up. I have a friend called Sam, and Sam seems like a similar name to Joe – one syllable, 3 letters etc. So that’s how Sam was named. Pudding is called Pudding because of what happens in the story – I wish I could remember how or when I came up with that idea. But I can’t.

Which books, authors and illustrators inspire you?

I love Just William stories, and Petit Nicolas stories too, which are kind of a French version of Just William, with drawings by one of my favourite artists, Sempé. I find other cartoonists very inspiring too – Charles Shultz who made Peanuts (Snoopy and Charlie Brown) every day for 50 years – as well as other single panel cartoonists like Charles Addams and Edward Steed.

Ever been to Wales?

Yes, I love WALES! I live in Bristol, so not far from South Wales, and we go at least once a year. We often stay in a place called Capel y Fin in the black mountains, which is an area I love, near Abergavenny. There’s a hill there called The Tumper which we love to climb.

You’ve illustrated work for others – what’s been your favourite of these projects to work on?

Hmmm, it’s hard to pick favourites. One that stands out is the recent Chitty Chitty Bang Bang series I worked on with Frank Cottrell Boyce – I grew up watching the film in the 1970s, so it was a real thrill to get to work on the three new books. I was worried about it because I’m not good at drawing cars, but it helped me get better I think.

Are you an animal person?

Yes I am. We have a cat called Spooky (she’s white like a ghost) and a dog called Sybil. Sybil is a Cairn terrier, and she’s quite naughty – she loves to race out into the garden and bark at birds (and hot air balloons), which gets us in trouble with the neighbours.

What’s the weirdest doodle in your doodle book?

There are so many to choose from. I’m going to open a notebook at random and see what I find, ready? Here goes . . .

Hmmm,  a roll-mop herring driving a car? That’s pretty weird.

Let me try again . . . ok, a robot punching a sandwich, saying “I love you, sandwich”. There’s two weird ones right there.

What’s the biggest lie you’ve ever told?

The worst lie is too long to put here, but it might end up in a book one day :-/ But I stopped lying when I was about 12, so nothing too bad since. It’s a habit I learned to break, because it takes a lot of energy to stick to your story in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, and anyway you always end up getting in trouble twice – once for the thing you covered up by lying, and once for lying about it. It takes less energy, but more bravery, to tell the truth. In my case it also took a large box of Smarties, offered to me as an incentive to own up.

What’s next for Joe Berger?

I don’t know If I’ll get to write more Lyttle Lies books, but I want to tell more stories with cartoons, so I’m working on a couple of ideas. At the same time I’m still drawing my cartoons, and hope to find more places that are willing to publish them.

 

 

Thank you to Joe for answering the worms’ questions. We’re really grateful for the time he gave us and are thrilled with his answers. You can vote for the Pudding Problem in the #Lollies2018 here. You can follow Joe on Twitter or visit his website. Thanks to the #Lollies2018 team for inviting us to be part of the Blog Tour again. Check out the other posts:

The Clockwork Crow

The Clockwork Crow

Catherine Fisher

Firefly Press

Catherine Fisher is an author of great talent who’s skillful writing draws praise for its ability to entrance the reader with its atmospheric prose. Often mysterious, sometimes dark, continually gripping, the publication of a new Catherine Fisher novel is always something to look forward to. Since hearing of the book deal last year, and revealing the cover to The Clockwork Crow in May, we have been guessing what lay beyond the gorgeous colours of the jacket.

We’re pleased to say it doesn’t disappoint! Whilst The Clockwork Crow is lighter than Catherine’s other books – it’s aimed at the blossoming 9-12 MG market – it is no less thrilling. It’s actually a perfect introduction to our national treasure for this age group. Noah (aged 11) loved the book and is already seeking out other books to devour. He calls it a “banger” – borrowed from the description of a fresh new song, unbelievably awesome and destined to become a popular, well-loved hit.

The story follows Seren, an orphan girl dreaming of a beautiful home and a loving, happy family. As she waits in the train station a nervous stranger asks her to guard a mysterious package. He doesn’t return and Seren feels compelled to take the package with her to Plas y Fran, the large manor house belonging to her new guardians, Captain Jones and Lady Mair. However, when she arrives, the grand house is shrouded in mystery – all furniture covered, minimal (and seemingly unfriendly) staff, and no sign of the loving family she was hoping for. A cold, bare residence brings her back down to earth with a bump and her dreams are shattered. The young boy she had wanted to befriend and play with has gone, and in time Seren learns that Tomos has been missing for a year and a day and the house is in mourning.

With the aid of the eponymous talking, walking, humorously irritable Clockwork Crow (who very nearly steals the show), Seren sets out to solve the mystery and put things right. In doing so, we learn that she is a determined and gutsy heroine, not afraid to stand up to the grown-ups, nor afraid to put her own security and future happiness at risk.

The world described by Catherine is beautifully wintry – filled with snow and stars, it sparkles like an ice-capped marvel. Featuring a cast of endearing characters, it reminded me of a wonderfully warm and entertaining Christmas period drama for all the family. Drawing on Welsh folklore, the story is magical and fantastic and such a great read. It’s got to be one of THE books of 2018.

Whilst reading and digesting, one constantly feels that this is a book that entertains and inspires in bucketloads.

We’re delighted that Catherine Fisher has revealed there will be a follow-up to The Clockwork Crow. We’re also thrilled that she recently answered the Worms’ questions in a Q and A.

 

Thank you to Firefly Press for the copy of Clockwork Crow, given in exchange for this review. Note that the cover has been designed by Anne Glenn. If you’d like to visit Catherine Fisher’s website, click here. If you want to follow her on Twitter, click here. If you want to buy The Clockwork Crow from Firefly, click here. That’s enough clicking.

 

Storm Witch

Storm Witch

Ellen Renner

Nosy Crow

Review by Noah (age 11)

Storm Witch is an amazing book full of imagination and great ideas. It is one of the best books I have ever read. I love reading about characters in books – and most are pretty cool – but Storm, the hero in this book, is really cool.

Wow is all I could say after reading Storm Witch; it is exactly what I dream of and Ellen has made my dreams come true.

Storm Witch is a book with elemental fantasy magic, a stowaway pirate, witches and wildlife. Be prepared for battles with savage sea-dwellers, and much much more – it’s a story that will make you laugh and cry.

An amazing book that me and my Mum fought over.

More about Storm Witch

The first book in an epic children’s fantasy series full of magic, adversity and adventure.

Child of Air, Water, Earth or Fire? Now that she is thirteen Storm must undertake The Choosing and be claimed by one of the Elementals, which will determine her whole life’s work. But she is bestowed with a great and terrible gift. Storm, the daughter of a murdered father, has unnatural powers that no one can understand… Storm-bringer. Storm-rider. Storm-queller.

When a savage band of pirates – the Drowned Ones – attack her people, Storm faces a decision that will change the islanders’ lives forever. Will her powers help her to save those she loves, or is her fate to betray everything she holds dear?

More about Ellen Renner

Ellen Renner was born in the USA’s mountains of Missouri, but came to England in her twenties, and now lives in an old house in Devon with her husband and son. Ellen originally trained as a painter and surrounds herself with sketches of her characters as she writes. Her acclaimed novels include Castle of Shadows (winner of the Cornerstone & Writers News Competition) and City of Thieves. She spins wool as well as stories, plays the violin, fences (badly!), collects teapots and is a keen motorcyclist.

Ellen wrote Storm Witch within sight of the sea in Devon, and now lives in the Midlands.

 

Thank you to Nosy Crow for sending Noah a copy of Storm Witch in exchange for this review. Storm Witch is available now from your local bookshop or direct from Nosy Crow. You can visit Ellen’s website here or follow her on Twitter.