Tir na nOg Award Shortlist 2020

Tir na nOg Award Shortlist 2020

The shortlists for the Tir na nOg Award 2020 have been released. Organised by the Books Council of Wales and sponsored by CILIP Cymru, the awards celebrate the work of authors and illustrators published in 2019.

There are three categories – Welsh language books for primary age children, Welsh language books for secondary age children and English language books for all ages. The English language award celebrates books with an authentic Welsh background.

Chief Executive for the Books Council of Wales, Helgard Krause said, “The Tir na n-Og Awards are an opportunity for us to celebrate the talents of our writers and illustrators who are creating world-class content for our children and young people.”

We have to agree that the English language shortlist is very strong – there are books here that would win easily in a different year, and the decision of the judges will be difficult.

Last year’s winning author, Catherine Fisher, tweeted her congratulations to the shortlistees:

The 2020 Shortlist for the English Language Category is as follows:

The Secret Dragon, Ed Clarke (Puffin)

Set on the coastline of the Vale of Glamorgan, The Secret Dragon is a gorgeous story full of fun and fantasy. It’s great for those around aged 8 and above and has a real focus on science and discovery. Fossil hunter Mari Jones makes a remarkable discovery on the beach, and decides to keep it to herself. There’s an interesting and sensitive sub-plot about family breakups that makes this an absorbing tale for all.

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It, Susie Day (Puffin)

Max and his sisters escape Southend to the mountains of Snowdonia – 6 miles from Llanberis; without their dad, without any adult, without telling anyone. Max Kowalski is a fantastically original and heartfelt tale about growing up, dealing with siblings and inner dragons. This witty and emotional book takes on toxic masculinity and shows middle grade readers that empathy and stories make for a better world.

Storm Hound, Claire Fayers (Macmillan)

Storm (a hound from Odin’s Hunt) finds himself fallen to earth on the A40 a few miles from Abergavenny. This fast-paced and highly satisfying mash-up of Norse mythology and Welsh legend is firmly rooted in the Welsh landscape. Jess adopts the puppy but his magic is much sought-after by suspicious characters. It’s an accomplished, funny fantasy with a very human story at its heart.

Where Magic Hides, Cat Weatherill (Gomer)

Where Magic Hides is a collection of short stories anchored in the four corners of Wales. Ancient kings, trolls and unicorns bound through the pages but the real message is for the contemporary world: magic can be found if you know where to look.


Creating these short summaries has highlighted the many connections between the shortlisted books. Clearly, the Welsh landscape is a unifying factor but there is also the magic and fantasy element. See also: dragons and creatures of mythology; children battling inner demons; the humour and wit of the author. As we say above, all fully deserving of the shortlisting and all worthy of your time. There are some classics here and we look forward to the winner being announced in late May.

Chair of the judging panel, Eleri Twynog Davies said, “All four books on the shortlist are of very high quality. It is so important that the children of Wales can see themselves reflected in Welsh literature, and that children outside Wales have a window on another culture.”

Summer of the Dragons

The sequel to The Secret Dragon by Ed Clarke is released in April.

When The Secret Dragon was launched last year, it garnered a lot of praise for its joyous and enchanting story of keen fossil hunter and aspiring scientist, Mari Jones. We called it a “great adventure full of humour and heart”. We loved the setting of the heritage coast, making it eligible for this year’s Tir na n-Og Award shortlist, to be announced in the next few weeks.

Imagine our delight then to be tasked with the cover reveal for Summer of the Dragons, the follow-up coming to all good bookshops on 16 April 2020. And this is really special because it is, once again, illustrated by Ben Mantle. Ben is quickly gathering a reputation for some amazing MG and older fiction covers – see recent examples for stories by Jenny McLachlan, Fleur Hitchcock, Piers Torday and Carlie Sorosiak.

Ben Mantle comes up trumps again with this stunning sunshine design:

“I just love Ben’s artwork and feel so lucky to have him as the cover illustrator,” Ed told us. “On Summer of the Dragons he really captures that seaside holiday feeling too. Who wouldn’t want to have a summer holiday on the Welsh coast? Especially when there’s tiny dragons around…”

Ben was born in Leamington Spa in 1980, and developed a very early interest in things artistic. He studied animation at Surrey Institute of Art & Design, then gained valuable experience working on Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride” before moving to Brighton to work as Head of Animation in a media company.

He was part of the animation team creating the BAFTA winning ‘Big and Small’ CBeebies website and since 2008, has been working as a children’s book illustrator from his shared studio in Brighton. His picture book collaborations with Lucy Rowland, amongst many others, are well-loved and we look forward to the rest of 2020 when he will illustrate the follow up to The Land of Roar and publish a new picture book with Catherine Emmett, entitled King of the Swamp.


Book Synopsis

Set against the stunning seaside backdrop of the Welsh coast, Summer of the Dragons picks up the story of budding scientist Mari Jones and her pocket-sized dragon Gweeb. A year after she discovered Gweeb on the beach, life is getting back to normal for them both, when two unexpected events turn it upside down again. First comes the news that Mari’s mum Rhian is expecting a baby, meaning that her boyfriend Gareth and Mari’s best friend Dylan will be moving in with them on the farm. Even more incredibly, Gweeb’s family have returned to lay their eggs in the same cave where Mari first found her secret dragon.

With tourists flocking to the beach for the summer, Mari has her work cut out to keep the dragons hidden and safe, especially when disgraced scientist Dr Griff Griffiths turns up on the hunt for a story. And when Griff manages to find and steal Gweeb’s precious egg, Mari must stage a daring rescue mission before it’s too late . . .

Gweeb’s snout emerged once more from Mari’s hoodie, took a sniff of the sea air and nosed out into the open. A second later, the little dragon had sprung forth and rocketed off into the distance. Gweeb loved the beach almost as much as Mari did. With its slatted layers of rolling, undulating rock, it provided the perfect terrain for exhilarating , low-flying aerobatics, and the dark caves cut into the cliffs provided the perfect hiding places, should anyone appear unexpectedly.


About Ed

When Ed Clarke isn’t writing for kids, he is a film and television executive and producer, working with writers to make drama for grown ups. He lives in North London with his wife and two young daughters, who would both desperately like a pet. He realises they may be disappointed now if they get a rabbit rather than a dragon.

Thank you so much to Puffin for asking us to host this cover reveal. You can find links to pre-order Summer of the Dragons at their website. It is out on 16th April 2020. Please also take the time to follow Ed and Ben and Puffin on Twitter.

The Short Knife

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Synopsis

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

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


About Elen

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

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

My Name is River

We are delighted to reveal the cover to a new novel from Emma Rea to be published by Firefly Press in June 2020.

My Name is River is an exciting new adventure story with evocative locations and a powerful ecological theme.

Emma Rea lives in London. She lived in mid-Wales for many years and considers it home. Her father was a naval officer so she grew up all over the place but was inspired by a holiday to Wales and brought her children up in Powys. Emma has worked as a tractor driver and grain-lorry driver, a magazine editor, a journalist, a trader in Russian newsprint and cardboard and a festival organiser before she started writing.

Her new story takes Dylan, the protagonist from her first book, Top Dog (Gomer), and projects him into an audacious and intrepid adventure in the heart of South America.


Book Synopsis

Dylan’s mum thinks he’s with his friends on a residential geography trip.
His geography teacher thinks he’s at home with flu.
In fact, Dylan is 33,000 feet above the ocean on his way to Brazil...

When Dylan overhears his dad say that their farm has been sold to a global pharmaceutical company, he decides he has to make them change their minds. In Brazil, things don’t go at all to plan. Only when Lucia – a street child armed with a puppy and a thesaurus – saves his life, do they start to uncover the shocking truth about what the company is up to, and Dylan’s home problems suddenly seem dangerously far away.


We are completely thrilled to exclusively reveal the cover below. The image has been illustrated and designed by Brittany E Lakin.

Shortlisted for the Templar Illustration Prize, Brittany E. Lakin is an illustrator who draws inspiration from folk tales, and elements of nature. Emma told us,

“I love the excitement and danger Brittany has captured, using perspective and light brilliantly to draw the reader in to the Amazonian rainforest. My writing is accessible but the story has depth, and I think Brittany’s design, with the broad appeal of Dylan and Lucia looking out at the reader, and the rich colours and complexity of the background, reflects both these aspects of My Name is River.”


To mark this very special unveiling, we were given the opportunity to ask Emma a few questions. We started by asking her what she was reading right now.

I’m reading Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord to make sure my next book, set in Venice, doesn’t overlap with anything she’s written. And for the enormous pleasure of it.

Where and when do you write? 
I don’t have to look as though I’m working, so I can write on the sofa with my legs up. This means my arms don’t ache – endless typing at a desk wrecked one of them for a while. The sofa position, punctuated by quick walks round the park, seems to suit both arms and legs. I write all morning and part of the afternoon, but put writing second to my family, friends, jobs, dog etc, who provide me with plenty of welcome distraction.

Who or what inspires you?
When I’m in the zone, in the middle of editing a story, everything is inspiration. It’s as if the whole world is reflecting bits of my story back to me. When I’m not in the zone, it’s odd remarks, chance meetings, moments when someone says something surprising. Anecdotes from family history.

What are your favourite books for children? 
At the moment I prefer reality to fantasy – I find the real world difficult enough to navigate and I lose my footing in imagined worlds. I love Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, all of Eva Ibbotson’s books for their intricate plotting, but especially Journey to the River Sea, all of Geraldine McCaughrean’s books, The Airman by Eoin Colfer, Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot by Horatio Clare. When I was younger I loved E Nesbitt’s The Wouldbegoods (though I’ve never found anyone else who’s read it) and Five Children and It. 

Your new book, My Name is River, features a pharmaceutical company, a Machynlleth farm and a Brazilian street child. What more can you tell us? 
It features two rivers – a tributary of the Dovey River in Wales and the Amazon River in Brazil. These two rivers are tenuously,  mysteriously and indefinably connected by the world’s water cycle. Similarly, Dylan and Tochi, the indigenous boy he meets in the rainforest, are connected, by their love of treehouses and spending their time outdoors, independent of adults. Dylan sees himself in Tochi – though this is not overtly stated. Dylan has an epiphany while gazing out over the Amazon, which changes his world view entirely. 

My Name is River has the same character as your previous book, Top Dog. Is this part of a series? 
At present I don’t have plans to write another Dylan book, but if an idea surfaces I’ll go with it. I love Dylan and felt I’d only got him started in Top Dog. I wanted to explore whether his difficulties, and eventual peace, with Floyd at the end of Top Dog turned into a real friendship in My Name is River. If I wrote another Dylan book, I think I’d want Lucia to be in it too.

In the book, Lucia is “armed with a thesaurus”. Is a thesaurus an important part of your arsenal? 
In fact it’s not! Much as I love words generally, I prefer to use simple words. In My Name is River, Dylan and Lucia play a ‘word off’ game, in which he wins the battle because he knows slang. But she is open-minded to slang, so she wins the war in the end, as she learns both ends of the spectrum. 

Which of your own characters is most like you? 
Dylan is how I would have liked to be as a child – living with masses of freedom, often outside with a bunch of friends, getting muddy, building bike tracks and treehouses. I moved home every two years because of my dad’s work, so I’m curious about children who live in the same place for their entire childhood. But I admire Lucia’s drive and vision.

Dylan very much takes things into his own hands in the book and is passionate about affecting a change. Does he get this from you? What do you feel strongly about? 
I feel strongly that there is always a way forwards, and I wanted the book to offer this idea to children. It might not be easy and it might not be exactly the way forwards you expected, but like the river, Dylan doesn’t give up when he comes to an obstacle – he finds a way around, over or under it. I feel strongly that plans can change but that it’s important always to have a plan of some sort.

Can you tell us about your Welsh connections? 
My grandmother grew up in Mumbles in south Wales and this gave me a fondness for Wales. When our children were about to start primary school we moved near Machynlleth. I loved the community spirit as illustrated by the lantern procession, and the Centre for Alternative Technology nearby and the space and beauty of the whole area.  

Machynlleth Lantern Parade

Can you tell us something about your next book/idea/future plans? 
I’ve got three other children’s books in mind – two already written to first draft and one just scribbled notes. The one I’m working on is about a boy called Aled from Aberdovey who accidentally goes on an art trip to Venice during the Carnival and becomes embroiled in a family of wicked Venetians, obsessed with their own status. The next one is very different – a historical story about two girls in Portugal in the ‘50s, whose friendship is pulled apart by their families and political developments.

If you weren’t an author what would you do? 
I’d be a tractor driver. I worked on a farm for two summers as a tractor driver, and loved the physical exhaustion after a day’s work, living in rough clothes and being outside all day (it was an old tractor with no doors and no radio and one idle thought would keep me going for hours). These days I teach creative writing to children and I work as a proofreader – in order to be an author I’ve burnt all my bridges to a proper career, which at times has felt insane. It’s taken me all my life to get here – it’s always been this or nothing. 

Thank you so much to Emma for answering our questions, and thank you to Firefly Press for asking us to host this cover reveal. Do click on the hyperlinks to follow them on Twitter.

My Name is River is out on 25 June 2020, and you will be able to pre-order your copy from the Firefly Press website soon. We can’t wait to get our hands on a copy!

The Shark Caller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Synopsis

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

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

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


Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q and A: Sharon Marie Jones

Sharon Marie Jones, author of Grace-Ella: Spells for Beginners and Grace Ella: Witch Camp has kindly answered our questions as part of the Witch Camp Blog Tour. She grew up in North Wales and now lives near Aberystwyth with her family, close to the sea and countryside. Having worked as a Primary School Teacher for 13 years, Sharon is now a full time author.

What are you reading at the moment?
I’m currently reading ‘The Girl who Speaks Bear’ by Sophie Anderson. I loved her first book, ‘The House with Chicken Legs’, so I couldn’t wait to start this one and it definitely doesn’t disappoint! It’s a magical mix of folklore and adventure, friendship and being true to yourself; utterly enchanting.

Could you tell us how you got into writing?
It has always been my dream to become an author, from a very young age. I loved writing stories and spent much of my early childhood living in my imagination! In Secondary School, I won the school’s R S Thomas prize for creative writing.

But once I decided on a career as a teacher, my job and life in general took over and writing was pushed to the back of my mind – but it was always there, lingering, never completely gone.

I was on my second maternity leave when I decided that I would chase that dream of being a writer. I sat down determined to write. I wrote a short story, which was placed second in a competition and published in Writers’ Forum magazine. This was a huge boost to my confidence. I then had a further seven short stories make the shortlist.

I was enjoying writing short stories but knew that my real passion was to write a book for children. I had just returned to my teaching job by then, and as was driving to work one morning, when the name Grace-Ella popped into my head. I pulled into a lay-by and started to scribble frantically in my notebook.

The following morning I set my alarm for 4.30am and I started to write my first Grace-Ella story. I continued like this, writing for a couple of hours every morning, before real life had to take over. It took me a year, by the end of which I was exhausted, but I had finished writing my first ever book. I sent it to Firefly Press with no expectation at all of hearing back from them … but after three months an email pinged into my inbox and my journey with Grace-Ella truly began.

Why writing for children?
I think you just know if you want to write for children. It’s something intrinsic. I wanted to dive back into that imaginary world that I would escape to as a child. I wanted to let my imagination take over again and lead me on a magical journey.

Because children’s books are just that – they’re magical. I loved reading aloud to my class when I was a teacher; looking at the children mesmerised by the words, and loving the, ‘Oh, please just one more chapter’ chorus at the end of a reading session.

I knew once I started to write that my heart lay with children’s fiction. Seeing a child engrossed in a book is so wonderful and to think that a child could pick up a book that I have written and become lost between its pages is an amazing feeling.

Where and when do you write?
I write at home, in my office. I’ve decorated the room so that it feels relaxing and peaceful, a room that I enjoy being in. I can only concentrate fully on my writing when the house is empty and silent, so my writing time happens when my boys are at school.

Sharon’s Office

Now that I write full time, I don’t set my alarm for 4.30am! But my writing is at its best in the mornings, so I aim to be at my desk by 10am, after dropping my boys off at school and doing a quick tidy up of the house. I can usually ‘write’ for 3-4 hours – I say ‘write’ because I don’t necessarily mean I’m typing away continuously for 3-4 hours. There’s a lot of staring out of the window, allowing ideas to brew and scribbling notes in a notebook. It’s all part of the process of ‘writing’.

On days where the words are hiding from me and I know I won’t add anything to a story I’m working on, I’ll settle down to read a book and allow another author’s words to carry me away. Some days I need this break and find that I’m ready to get going again with my own story, the following day.

Who are your favourite authors for children?
As a child, my favourite author was Enid Blyton. I devoured her books. My favourite being ‘The Enchanted Wood’ and ‘The Faraway Tree’, which I read over and over.

Now … there are so many! There is such a wealth of children’s authors writing today, which is wonderful. I strongly believe that there is a book out there for every young reader. I have far too many authors I currently love, so I’ll choose the ones who I know for definite that I’ll always rush out to buy their next book:

  • Eloise Williams – her writing is so beautifully atmospheric, I feel like I’m in the story with her characters
  • Sophie Anderson – I love folktales and her books bring a new twist to old folktales and are utterly charming
  • Lisa Thompson – she’s a master at tackling difficult issues, weaving them into a sparkling plot that always keep me gripped till the end
  • Onjali Q Rauf – again, she tackles real-life issues perfectly, with wonderfully believable and relatable characters.

Grace-Ella is a witch in training. What drew you to her story?
I think it’s because it’s the kind of story I would have loved as a child. I was entranced by Enid Blyton’s magic, and discovered that I had my very own fairy door on the trunk of the crab apple tree at the bottom of our garden. If I closed my eyes and tapped on the tiny door three times, I would be transported to the kingdom of the Crabble Fairies.
I was always mixing up my own ‘potions’ in the garden – mixing wildflowers and berries with water in empty jam jars. I would line them up on the outside kitchen windowsill.

So once the name Grace-Ella popped into my head, I knew that she was going to be a magical character. Her story began to flow once I started to write the words. I didn’t plot the story, I let the story take me where it wanted to go. Grace-Ella is the girl I would have loved to have had as a friend when I was 9 years old.

Did you ever go to camp as a child?
No, I never went to a Camp as such. I was a painfully shy child and had low self-esteem and confidence. I loved school and was happy playing with my friends, but away from that security, I always stayed close to home.

I was a Brownie, and they went to Camp every year, but I was always too nervous to go. I do remember us going to Brown Owl’s home one evening where we toasted marshmallows on an open-fire. I remember it feeling magical – being wrapped up warm in the dusky darkness, the smell of smoke floating in the air and the sweet taste of the sticky marshmallows.

I spent a lot of time outdoors as a child. I loved pressing wildflowers after going for a walk in the woods with my dad. These memories came flooding back as I wrote ‘Witch Camp’.

Will there be more Grace-Ella?
I hope so! I still have plenty of adventures for her to go on, so fingers crossed…

How does Wales inspire you?
The first thing I loved about Firefly Press was that they were looking for stories for children aged 7-9 years, specifically based in Wales. Wales is rich in stories. As a child, I listened in wide-eyed wonderment to folktales about giants and the tylwyth teg.

The Arch at Devil’s Bridge

The landscape is a constant source of inspiration. There are so many wonderfully wild places to walk, where stories whisper in the rustle of leaves. The setting for ‘Witch Camp’ is very much based on places I have visited. The map of ‘Witch Camp’ at the start of the book shows ‘The Old Stone Archway’, which is based on ‘The Arch’ at Devil’s Bridge, just outside Aberystwyth.

I often read about authors travelling the world on magnificent adventures, which then feed into their writing. For me, Wales is such a beautiful country and is full of inspiration for stories, I don’t feel the need to stray far. T Llew Jones, Wales’ most famous Welsh children’s writer, wrote stories based in Wales for over half a century!

I feel strongly that stories based in Wales should reach young audiences far and wide. Every child should experience the magic and wonder of this beautiful country, and one way for them to do that, is by reading stories from Wales.

One of your own mottos, as signalled on your website is “be proud of your achievements”. This comes across in Grace-Ella: Witch Camp. Was it a conscious decision to allow these messages to filter through your writing and Grace-Ella’s character?
I hadn’t even thought about that so no, it hasn’t been a conscious decision. I’m a perfectionist and my own worst critic in everything I do. As a child, I never felt quite good enough, even though I was often ‘top of the class’ in terms of my work. I’ve also taught children who found it difficult to feel a sense of achievement, often comparing themselves to others and in their minds, finding themselves lacking.

With Grace-Ella, I wanted her to be able to shine at something. She struggles a little with schoolwork and worries that she won’t be able to do her work well, so I wanted to give her something new that she would be good at.

I’ll always remember a young girl I taught, who felt her schoolwork wasn’t good enough and would get herself into a worried mess when having to do tests. She would compare herself to her sister and friends and feel that she wasn’t as good as them. I wanted to help her find that something that she sparkled at. It came when the class were put into groups to work on creating a stall for the school’s Summer Fair. One of the items her group decided to make was bunting. Once this girl started sewing, there was no stopping her! The other three members of the group worked on other items whilst she developed her sewing talent and made all the bunting herself. On her last day of school, she gave me a handmade cushion which was perfect in every way.

We all have the ability to shine at something, it’s just a matter of finding what that is.

What else should we ask you?
Can I do magic? Yes! I can make a coin disappear…

What comes next for Sharon Marie Jones?
Lots of published books I hope! I have stories other than ‘Grace-Ella’ that I want to write, and it would be wonderful for some of them to become published books.

But right now, what comes next for me is a cup of coffee and diving back into writing Grace-Ella Book 3…

Thanks again to Sharon for answering our questions! You can follow her on Twitter and should visit her website.

To read a full review of Grace-Ella: Witch Camp, click here.

Blog Tour: Grace-Ella Witch Camp

Witch Camp

Sharon Marie Jones

Firefly Press

We are enchanted to be the final stop on Sharon Marie-Jones’ Witch Camp Blog Tour. Grace Ella has a special place in all our hearts but is loved especially by Nina who was absolutely thrilled to read an early copy of Witch Camp.

The books are aimed at young readers and are probably best suited to 7-8 year olds; although Nina is 10 and counts Witch Camp amongst her favourites (along with Malory Towers, Amelia Fang and Wendy White’s books). Short chapter books of this quality are few and far between, but Sharon has created a likeable and realistic character with depth for us all to relate to. In fact, we’re keen to read more about Grace Ella and are thrilled that book 3 is being written.

In this episode, Grace-Ella gets invited to Witch Camp and makes friends with others in her cabin. An adventure is on the cards when the friends go into the woods against the rules. But do they have any choice if they are to make amends for the broomstick incident? Friendships and making right choices are explored through this engaging and irresistible story.

The text is interspersed with Adriana Puglisi’s delightful illustrations and give the story another dimension and added interest. It’s a bewitching and beguiling story that will charm and delight. In Nina’s words, “an awesome read!”

To celebrate the Blog Tour, Sharon Marie Jones has kindly answered our Q and A which you can find here.

To buy a copy of Witch Camp, visit the Firefly website or visit your local independent bookshop.

With huge thanks to all at Firefly Press and to Sharon for their support with these posts. We received a copy of Witch Camp in return for this honest review and book cover endorsement.

Review: The Comet and the Thief

We are delighted, enthralled and completely enraptured to be taking part in The Comet and the Thief Blog Tour. We are pleased because The Comet and the Thief was written by Ruth Morgan, one of our favourite authors. We are pleased because today is launch day for The Comet and the Thief. And we are pleased because the book is really rather good.

So before we get to the blog tour extras, let’s tell you about the book. I, Daddy Worm, was given an early digital copy of the book by publishers Gomer and I absolutely loved it.

The story centres on Kit, the eponymous Georgian thief, who finds a mysterious and magical medieval book which connects him to the inhabitants of a cursed village 300 years in the past. Evil Lord Colwich is also after the book, having initially hired Kit to steal it for him, and a tense chase ensues.

It’s an intriguing and engrossing adventure as Kit flees London and affiliates with Saroni, a travelling puppeteer in Bath; which proves to be a decent hiding place if only for a short amount of time. It gives Kit some breathing space to be able to explore the book and the villagers who each have their own page. Kit strikes a bond with Zannah and ultimately works out a way to go through the book and into the village. Colwich is no quitter though and he is determined to find the book. Will Kit work out how to save the villagers or will Colwich catch him before he can?

If you are familiar with Ruth Morgan’s other recent release, Ant Clancy Games Detective (Firefly Press) then you will know that it is a brilliantly fun and immediate fantasy adventure – perfect for 9-12 year olds. The Comet and the Thief is quite different; aimed at a slightly older audience (11 to YA?), it’s sophisticated storytelling and intricately weaved plot lines exploring trust, friendship and witchcraft are an absolute joy, forcing the reader to surrender to the thrill of Ruth’s virtuosity.

What the two books have in common is that they are both extremely well crafted, with inventive worldbuilding and insightful commentaries on their subjects. This book surely cements Ruth’s reputation as a writer of real quality and ambition, who should be revered as one of the best in Wales right now.

The Comet and the Thief is a vividly imagined, pullman-esque page turner. It is a totally compelling and brilliantly written novel, perfect for fans of Julie Pike, Frances Hardinge and Kiran Millwood-Hargrave.

Thanks so much to Gwasg Gomer for providing a digital copy of the book in exchange for this review. If you’d like to buy your own copy, visit GWales or Hive or your local independent bookshop.

And now to the blog tour extras… Ruth Morgan has very kindly written this exclusive content about her writing routine…

Ruth Morgan: “My Writer’s Routine”

A couple of years ago, I visited an exhibition about ‘Queen of Crime’ Agatha Christie at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and one exhibit in particular grabbed my attention: her well-travelled typewriter.  Agatha wrote many of her detective novels whilst accompanying her archaeologist husband Max on his expeditions to the Middle East and I found it touching and reassuring to discover that she got on with the task of writing wherever she went and whatever the conditions.  I must admit, I still occasionally dream of my perfect writer’s retreat: an uncluttered desk, a view of the sea and uninterrupted hours during which the words flow effortlessly onto my laptop screen. It will always remain a dream but that shouldn’t really matter. The fact is, if setting up her modest typewriter on whatever she could balance it on that day was good enough for Agatha, it’s good enough for me!

I have got my own routine when I write, and it has evolved to fit into a busy life with the everyday demands of family and also my much-loved work as a part-time teacher in a local primary school. I have been teaching for thirty years and writing for children seriously for about twenty but that’s covered everything from picture books, poetry and non-fiction to scripts for animation and radio. I am one of those writers who does as little planning as possible because I love the adventure of not knowing where the story’s going to take me. There are real thrills to be had along the way, as more and more of the story reveals itself. That’s why I only ever begin a longer novel with the vaguest idea of a plot, although I have to keep feeling an excitement and belief in the ideas at the heart of the story, in order to know it’s worth carrying on.  In the day-to-day business of writing, I tend to think in scenes and particularly love writing dialogue. 

Here it is then: the innermost secrets of my writer’s routine. In the evening I’ll unwind by listening to music or some light reading, basically the aim is to feel happy and relaxed at bedtime. Then, when I’m in bed, I think around and about the scene I intend writing the next day, for example what the characters are going to say to one another or what’s going on in my hero’s mind, which will often be reflected in their surroundings. Crucially, I consider how that scene is going to drive the story on, but not in a stressy way: these pleasant thoughts simply drift around in my head as I drop off to sleep.  I will get up early the next day – a non-teaching day – and start by editing what I wrote the day before.  Then I’ll carry on writing the next scene and a lot of the groundwork will have been done already, although I still won’t know exactly what’s going to happen: that will emerge as I write.  If it’s a good day, I’ll complete at least half a chapter, 1,500 words or more before I have to go and do the shopping or organise some other family stuff to keep our home lives running smoothly.  On a not-so-productive day, I’ll only get as far as editing the last bit.  On a hopeless day, something else will happen and I’ll have to shelve my plans altogether. Most of the time, I manage to get something onto my screen. I am definitely a morning person when it comes to work, and if I can produce something I’m happy with by 9 a.m., the rest of the day’s looking good.

Not very exciting sounding, is it? No-one sees the thrills: those go on inside, but you have to work hard for them. However, there’s something else.  When you are really into a story and have got to know your characters well (which is vital, your number one job as a writer, really), it’s like having an alternative life you can dive into and daydream about at any boring moment.  In The Comet an the Thief, I especially enjoyed writing the theatrical scenes, where my hero Kit is learning his craft as a performer from his master, the puppeteer Saroni. Several times in the queue at the supermarket I floated off into a wonderful daydream and witnessed one of their marionette shows playing in some wayside tavern: 

Kit would peep from behind the stage and was amused to see the audience enthralled by his master’s performance, their expressions altering as he played with their feelings almost as though they were puppets too.  In some of the coaching inns, the crowds were squeezed in rows several deep along the balconies as well as down in the yard.

I realise all I’ve talked about here is me, me, me.  When I write, I am thinking about my young readers too, I promise! I hope that if I get excited about and engrossed in a story, that’s going to communicate itself to my readers. It also adds another dimension to my life and that’s a wonderful feeling, one I would lose were I stressing about when to find time to write or beating myself up over not having written enough that day. I think if you are like me and have lots of tasks to juggle, you have to find some routine of your own and accept that conditions and never going to be perfect. Anyway, when there’s a lot going on in real life, there’s plenty of inspiration to draw on. What would I write about at that uncluttered desk staring at the sea for hours on end?  My mind would be a blank!

THANK YOU SO MUCH RUTH FOR YOUR TIME AND COMMITMENT TO THIS BLOG!

Ruth has been writing for children and young adults for more than 20 years, everything from picture books to novels, plus many scripts for animation and radio series.  She is also a part-time teacher at a local primary school – a constant source of inspiration.  In the small amount of time that’s left, she loves to dance, play ukulele and stargaze.
You can follow Ruth on Twitter @alienruth and Instagram ruth.morgan.ant.clancy

Guest Blog from Julie Pike

We are delighted that Julie Pike has written this wonderful guest blog for us. Her debut book, The Last Spell Breather, came out in July and is a brilliant and magical fantasy adventure. Here, she tells us how the book was inspired by the land in which she was born and grew up.

When I set out to write The Last Spell Breather, I knew I wanted to create a spell-binding adventure. To bring the fantasy to life, I decided to set the story in a magical faraway land. But after I’d finished writing it, I realised the story was actually set in the place I grew up in Wales; a place where I’d had many adventures as a child, a place where – when it came to stories – anything seemed possible.

I grew up on a council estate called Longford, on the outskirts of Neath. It’s a wonderful spot, nestled between a stream, a hill, woodland, a river and a mountain. In my story, the hero, Rayne, grows up in a remote village. When I came to think up a name for her village, I wanted the place to feel like home. I grew up on a street called Heol Penderyn. So, it seemed natural to name her village Penderyn (which I later changed to Penderin, to make it sound more magical).

Penlan Farm, on Drumau Mountain.

In the story, Penderin is nestled under a mountain, just like Longford is nestled under Drumau Mountain. It was up there that my friends and I had many adventures growing up. I cooked bacon and eggs on an open fire on its slopes as a Guide. At the very top, there was a rundown farmhouse, with its roof caved in. The house was completely empty, save for a mysterious pile of old medicine bottles made of thick glass, which wouldn’t smash even when I foolishly threw them against a wall. Those glass bottles came home with me and stayed on my shelf and in my imagination. Later they wormed their way into my story.

Neath has a fine Victorian Library. Its many books are one of the reasons I grew up to be a keen bookworm. As a child, Mam would take me there every week, regular as clockwork – both of us heading home on the bus with a pile of books each. In my story, Rayne’s mother goes missing. It didn’t take me long to work out where Rayne might find her. Yes, you’ve guessed it – she finds her at the library. But not just any library, she finds her at the Great Library. I’ve come to learn that libraries are places of magical possibility, their words have the power to transport you on amazing adventures. And that’s exactly what happens to Rayne when she finds Mam.

Me and my friends on St David’s Day. You can see the slope of Drumau Mountain behind.

Thinking about it now, my story has other similarities to my childhood too – not just the setting. I grew up in the 1980s. Back then people hardly seemed to worry about whether children playing outside unchaperoned would be safe. I remember spending long summer days outside having adventures. In the evening, Mam would stand on the street, calling me and my brother home for tea. I’m sure a small part of her worried where we were and if we were okay, but I’m also sure the bigger part was more concerned we weren’t home when we said we’d be, and the tea would spoil. Looking back, even though we were playing away from the house, Mam made it easy for us to believe the whole estate and surrounding land was a safe place. If she’d been worried, we would have been too, and we’d have stuck to the house and garden. Thinking about my story now, it’s no surprise to me that in Penderin, Rayne’s Mam creates – magically creates – a safe place for her daughter. In fact, the whole story is based on this, and what happens when she finds out that her home is no longer safe.

Perhaps I did after all set The Last Spell Breather in a magical land. Just not a faraway land. I set the story in Wales because my home (and now Rayne’s home) is, and always has been, a land of magic.

Thanks to Julie Pike for taking the time to write this exclusive blog for us. You can read our review of The Last Spell Breather here.

Follow Julie on Twitter or visit her website.

The Last Spell Breather

Julie Pike

Oxford University Press

Cover illustration by Dinara Mirtalipova

Synopsis: Enter the unique world of the Spell Breathers! Spell Breathing does not come naturally to Rayne – she loathes the hours of practice, the stacks of scrolls, and the snapping mud grotesques that cover her mother’s precious spell book. When she holds the spell book over a fire, it is only meant as an empty threat – until she feels the grotesque’s tiny teeth biting into her finger and lets go. In one clumsy move, her mother’s spells are broken, her village is plunged into danger, and an incredible adventure begins . . .

Noah says: The Last Spell Breather is a magical book involving a brave and clumsy girl named Rayne and a daring and kind boy named Tom.

In a world where monsters exist, Rayne and her village are safe behind a magical barrier. Rayne is an apprentice spell breather, her mam insists on going to the Great Library leaving Rayne all alone. Rayne tries to learn more and when she picks up the spell book everything goes wrong. She has to find her mam to fix the mess.

I really enjoyed the book – I felt like I was inside it because the way Julie Pike described the scenes; this book is incredible! I recommend it for readers who like A Darkness of Dragons (SA Patrick), Podkin One Ear (Kieran Larwood) and The Maker of Monsters (Lorainne Gregory).

Daddy says: There is a huge amount to admire in The Last Spell Breather. The story itself is beautifully written and constructed, the characters and creatures are brilliant (even the evil ones!), and the little details succeed in building an entirely convincing fantasy world. It’s a captivating read for adults and children not least because of the unique take on how magic works via spell breathing and spell writing.

Rayne is a relatable heroine and readers are sure to will her on to a successful conclusion despite her self-doubt. Frank (the fox seen on the cover) is a curious guide and you’re never quite sure if he can be trusted. The fish-monsters (yes you read that correctly) and grotesques made me squirm and the world of the Citadel, Great Library and Scriptorium is gloriously realised.

This is fabulous stuff from Julie Pike and The Last Spell Breather is up there with the best Middle-Grade fiction published this year. Enchanting!

To buy yourself a copy of The Last Spell Breather, visit your local independent bookshop, or buy online. You can read an exclusive blog post from Julie here.