My Name is River, the new novel from Emma Rea is published on Thursday 6th August by Firefly Press. Earlier this year, we hosted the cover reveal and Q and A with Emma – you can see that post by clicking here.
For the blog tour, we thought we’d ask Emma Rea for her favourite journey books seeing as main character Dylan journeys from Machynlleth to Brazil in this brilliant adventure. But first of all, let’s take a look at the story…
In My Name is River, 11 year old Dylan takes matters into his own hands when a pharmaceutical company plans to buy the family farm in Machynlleth. Dylan senses unfairness, injustice and there is more than a whiff of foul play so he sets off to the company headquarters in Brazil intent on uncovering the scandal.
This is a true adventure, probably unlike anything else you’re likely to read this year – My Name Is River is a dynamic ecological thriller with thought-provoking real world messaging. That may sound earnest – I promise it’s not – there’s plenty of action and adventure bursting through its pages, from speed boat chases to kidnappings and piles of peril in the Amazonian rainforest. This is James Bond with a conscience for 10 year olds.
What really makes the story though is the characters. Emma Rea kept Dylan from a previous book (Top Dog, published by Gwasg Gomer) and he’s likeable, determined and principled. However, it’s fair to say that the Brazilian characters steal the show. Lucia is a street child; a bold, resourceful and gutsy girl who has fought and found her own way. She is written with great warmth and humour by Emma who clearly has a soft spot for her. The relationship with Dylan is honest, caring, respectful and loyal – readers will love this demonstration of friendship.
If you’re looking for exciting and compelling entertainment it’s here in spades in this accomplished and thrilling novel.
Emma’s Favourite Journey Books
In My Name Is River, Dylan embarks on an incredible journey. We asked Emma to tell us about her choice of books that all contain journeys…
absolutely love Kensuke’s Kingdom
by Michael Morpurgo, not only for the family voyage across the world’s seas,
nor just for Michael’s long stop on an island before he can continue his
journey home, but for the way Michael and Kensuke make friends very slowly,
fall out badly, and manage to restore their faith in each other. I defy anyone
to finish this book without needing six handkerchiefs.
I Am David by Anne Holm is unbeatable. Twelve-year-old David escapes from a concentration camp and travels alone across Europe, armed with nothing but a compass and a bar of soap. Crackling with tension and dotted with small kindnesses, this is a book with an emotional punch you never forget. More handkerchiefs needed.
Holes by Louis Sachar is full of eventful journeys: from Latvia to the US, all over Texas, across the desert and up to the top of a mountain that resembles ‘God’s Thumb’. The plot reaches back four generations, encompasses powerful themes, and is leavened with mystery, humour and several endearing nicknames: Armpit, Zero, Squid and Barf Bag to name a few.
What are your favourite journey books? Get involved and let us know in the conversation on Twitter.
Thank you to Fireflies Leonie and Megan for supporting us with materials and a proof copy of My Name Is River, given in exchange for the review. Lastly, thanks to Emma for her engagement and for writing such a brilliant book!
On Friday July 31st, live on BBC Radio, Sophie Anderson was announced winner of the Children and Young People’s category for Wales Book of the Year 2020. Her book, The Girl Who Speaks Bear (Usborne) is a wildly imaginative and lyrical folk tale about finding yourself. Full of magic and hope, it is a skilfully written and rather brilliant adventure.
The Children & Young People category was added for 2020, designed to enthuse a new generation of readers, raise the profile of Wales’ talented authors, and establish that literature for children is on a par with that which is intended for adults. Readers of this blog will not need convincing that children’s books are full of hope, bravery, wit, empathy and love. Recognition of this is growing and quality examples from Wales are becoming far more widespread as demonstrated by the shortlist.
Children’s Laureate for Wales, Eloise Williams, says that the introduction of this category confirms children’s literature as an important artistic form. “I am so delighted to see Literature Wales recognising and celebrating children’s literature like this; we’ve got a wealth of children’s writers who are producing superb books – the quality is so high, engaging readers of all ages.”
In addition to the category win, The Girl Who Speaks Bear also won the People’s Choice Award decided by a public vote. Sophie sees this as a validation of the new category, “I am over the moon,” she told BBC Radio Wales, “Children’s books are books for everyone; they wrap up the big things we all feel, helping children to navigate the world.” Echoing the rather brilliant essay by Katherine Rundell, ‘Why you should read children’s books, even though you are so old and wise’, Sophie recently said, “I honestly believe some of the most important, most philosophical, and most enjoyable books are labelled for children.”
It’s important to note that the other two children’s books on the shortlist are worthwhile additions to any home. Butterflies for Grandpa Joe by Nicola Davies (Barrington Stoke) is about Ben’s attempt to engage and comfort his grieving grandfather. The story moved WBOTY judge Ken Wilson Max to proclaim it “a powerful, deeply sensitive story, beautifully told.” On Susie Day’s Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It, which was also nominated for this year’s Tir na n-Og Award for children’s books set in Wales, Eloise Williams said, “This is a humorous, touching, beautiful story about the metaphoric mountains that some young people have to climb.” Both books come highly recommended by Family Bookworms.
We’re really grateful to Sophie Anderson for agreeing to answer a few questions following her award, and we’re really pleased that Sophie has recommended some high-quality children’s books towards the bottom of the page.
What was your reaction on learning that you had won the Wales Book of the Year category?
Complete and utter disbelief! The news came via an e-mail from
my publisher, Usborne, and I e-mailed back with the response: ‘Am I reading this right? Has BEAR won in the
Once the news was confirmed and had sunk in a little, I was over the moon of course, and ran outside to tell my husband and children, who are always so happy to celebrate with whoops of joy and plenty of hugs!
Is being Welsh important to you?
Absolutely. All the Welsh people I know, myself
included, are proud of their Welshness and consider it an important part of
Since I moved away from Wales (when I was
eighteen) my Welshness has only become more important to me. I still think of
Wales as my home, and I believe I always will. It is where my family live, and
some of my oldest and dearest friends. But it is much more than that too …
I feel Welshness as something in my soul. It’s
difficult to define, but it relates to the landscapes, the cultures, and the
people of Wales. I’d describe it almost as a lyricalness, a deep emotional
connection, and I think if you’re Welsh (or have spent some of your life in
Wales) then you understand this!
Does being Welsh have any influence on your
Definitely. With my Welshness being part of my soul and identity,
it is bound to come out in my writing. I think many Welsh creatives are deeply
inspired by beautiful landscapes, ancient heritage, and poetic language,
because these things are so important in Wales.
When I look at my own work, and the work of other Welsh authors,
I often feel these strong connections to the land and to the tales of old, and
also sense a deep passion and almost symphonious way of expressing thoughts,
experiences and emotions.
You also won the public vote. How does that
make you feel? I desperately wanted one of the children’s books to win the
public vote, so I was absolutely thrilled with this news. It feels like the
most wonderful of celebrations for the new Children and Young People’s category
of the award.
Knowing that so many adult readers took a children’s book into
their hearts and took the time to vote for it really is such a wonderful thing,
a brilliant reminder that children’s books are not just for children – they are
exceptionally well-crafted stories that can deeply move readers of all ages.
You are no stranger to awards. Is this one any
This one feels like a celebration of both my
Welshness and my writing, so it does feel very special – like a big warm hug
from my motherland!
Different awards are judged in different ways;
some recognise commercial success, others look at the technical quality of
writing, and some look at popularity with readers (which you could argue is
often a function of marketing and publicity!).
Wales Book of the Year is judged by a panel of
talented and erudite judges. Knowing the quality and range of books they will
have considered makes me feel honoured they chose BEAR. But it must be such an
impossible decision – like picking one jewel in a treasure chest bursting with
equally beautiful jewels!
Whilst it is wonderful to see BEAR with a crown
of sorts, I think the really brilliant thing about awards like this is in the
celebration of the longlists and the shortlists, because they present an
opportunity to promote a wide selection of fantastic books to readers who might
not have heard of them.
Seeing children’s books part of Wales Book of
the Year for the first time has been a wonderful experience for this reason,
and I truly hope it marks a jump forwards in celebrating and increasing the
visibility of this beautiful sector of literature.
The quality of the shortlist was very high. Have you read the other nominees?
I read Max Kowalski when it was first
published and adored it. I hadn’t heard of Butterflies for Grandpa Joe
until the shortlisting, even though I am a huge fan of Nicola’s work, so this
really highlights how important awards can be in terms of raising awareness of
new titles. I’ve read Grandpa Joe now of course, and think it is a
really beautiful, special book.
You will hopefully be contributing to The Mab –
a collection of Britain’s oldest stories – with 10 other Welsh writers. Does it
feel like you’re part of a Welsh writers’ club?
It really feels like I’m part of a family!
Welsh children’s writers are so friendly and supportive of one another. I think
because we all have some shared experiences, and also share this undefinable,
lyrical Welshness, it does make us feel close to one another.
All of us work together to promote children’s
literature in all its forms, celebrate each other’s books and recommend a wide
range of titles. There is no competition between us, because we feel like we
are on the same team – if we can create readers, then all of our books will be
What other quality Welsh fiction can you recommend?
Now this is the hardest question because there is so much Welsh fiction that I adore, and so many Welsh authors who I deeply admire – Catherine Johnson, Zillah Bethell, Stephanie Burgis, Claire Fayers, P G Bell, and Jackie Morris just to name a few!
But onward to choosing a few titles …
The Quilt, written and illustrated by Valeriane Leblond is a breathtakingly beautiful picture book that stole my heart recently. It holds a moving story of migration, explores themes of home and hiraeth, has a gorgeous message of hope, and I loved the symbolism of the quilt.
Nest of Vipers by Catherine Johnson (around 9+) is a thrilling historical
adventure with the most wonderful group of characters who I still miss long
after reading! I would recommend any of Catherine’s books in a heartbeat, she
is a huge talent and her books are massively important as they are some of the
few books seeking to write lost and erased stories – such as the story of Matthew
Henson, in her book Race to the Frozen North.
The Snow Spider trilogy by Jenny Nimmo is my third choice. Such beautiful stories,
they really capture some of the Welshness I’ve talked about in this interview:
the love of landscape, the nods to ancestry and heritage and the tales of old,
and the stories have a dreamlike, magical quality that I always associate with
And one more shout-out! Even though you asked for fiction I’d like to highlight a non-fiction book: What is Masculinity? by Darren Chetty and Jeffrey Boakye is outstanding and deserves a place in every school and library (and if I had my way every home too!).
If you asked me about the future of Wales Book of the Year I would talk about my hopes for even more categories under a Children and Young People’s umbrella. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a children’s non-fiction award, and a children’s poetry award, like there is for the adult books? And also, an award that celebrates illustrators and illustrated books, as they are such a massively important part of children’s literature too!
Huge thanks to Sophie Anderson for indulging us with this blog post, and massive congratulations on your double win. If you haven’t yet read the prizewinning book, you can order it now from your local independent bookshop. Sophie’s next book, The Castle of Tangled Magic is due out in October, published by Usborne.
Earlier this week, a crowdfunding campaign was launched to finance a new version of The Mabinogion for young people. These are the earliest prose stories of Britain and have been hugely influential on storytelling across Europe. With contributions from 11 acclaimed Welsh writers for children, the new book promises to be an epic retelling for a new generation. Each tale will be written in English then translated into Welsh by Bethan Gwanas and will feature glorious illustrations from the incredible Max Low.
The book is being put together and edited by Children’s Laureate Wales, Eloise Williams and Matt Brown who will also contribute a story each. Matt posted this video to explain more about The Mab.
The book, which is not yet a reality, is seeking publication through Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher. Readers choose a reward – everything from a signed copy of the book to author virtual visits – pledge their money, and wait for the project to be 100% funded.
At Family Bookworms we are giving this project our full support and backing and would encourage you all to visit the unbound website to donate if you can. As one of our worms says:
Eloise Williams, Children’s Laureate Wales and author of 4 novels set in Wales, told us, “As far as we know, there isn’t another collection like it! We have so many amazing people working on the project and we are so excited to bring the stories to everyone.”
So let’s take a look at the amazing cast of contributors and hear directly about their involvement, their excitement and their motivations…
The Mab will feature illustrations by Max Low.
It’s been a real pleasure to be involved in #TheMab launch. Please head over to Unbound to donate if you can. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the funding target over the coming months.
Thanks to all the authors and illustrator for giving us some exclusive content. While we wait for The Mab, and if you have any money left after donating on Unbound, you can head over to your local bookshop and buy a book by one of the contributors. Here’s our recommendations*:
*Firefly Press will publish Daydreams and Jellybeans by Alex Wharton in Spring 2021.
**Images on this page (the author profiles) were made by EW Graphic Designs and are not to be reproduced without permission.
Popular illustrator and artist Valériane Leblond has written her first book for children, as well as painting the images that bring the story to life. Valeriane was brought up in Angers, France but moved to Wales in 2007 and now lives in a farmhouse near Aberystwyth. Valeriane speaks French, English and Welsh.
The Quilt (Y Lolfa) is a beautifully illustrated hardback offering a message of hope and hiraeth. The picturebook pages are captivating taking us from rural Wales at the turn of the 20th century to the New World via Liverpool. We love the colour palette and how this changes as the family enter America (reminiscent of Kyffin Williams’ tone in his Patagonian paintings) and the buzz of Liverpool is Lowry-esque in it’s industrious hustle and bustle. This truly is a stunning book and we felt compelled to get in touch with Valériane to find out more.
Could you tell us how you became an artist?
I’ve always enjoyed drawing, painting and being creative in general, so it happened quite naturally. I had another job for a few years before being able to go full time though.
What was your own journey to settling near Aberystwyth?
I had a Welsh boyfriend that I met at University in Brittany and I followed him home here to Ceredigion. I didn’t know much about Wales at the time, but I felt welcomed here, and I fell in love with the place and its people. Now I’ve got three sons who were born here, I’ve learnt the language and I feel that I can make a contribution through my art.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading a novel called Le Principe by Jérôme Ferrari about the physicist Heisenberg. It’s sometimes a bit too clever for me!
The Quilt is an incredible achievement. How long did it take to complete?
Thank you! It must have taken 6 to 8 months to write, and about 3 months to illustrate. I was working on other projects while writing, but I worked full time on the illustrations.
What attracted you to the story?
I always wanted to illustrate a story about a Welsh quilt, I think it is a fascinating craft, visually and historically. And I’ve always been interested in movements of people, especially to North America as my father was from there.
What are your methods of illustration?
I have several techniques, and I love varying and experimenting. I always use a sketchbook to draw roughly the silhouettes and plan the compositions. For The Quilt, I worked with gouache and coloured pencils on paper, and to obtain the muted palette and the sepia overall tone I dyed the paper with brown ink before painting.
The story absolutely suits your illustration style – particularly the period and lifestyle – is this just coincidence?
No, it’s not just coincidence. Being both the author and illustrator has been a very interesting experience: the text has been feeding the illustrations, the illustrations have been modelling the text too. There are pictures that I just wanted to paint for a book some day, like the double page with a small ship in the big ocean, and this was the perfect opportunity.
Did it involve a lot of research?
Yes, there was a lot of research involved. I got help from the historian Menna Morgan in the National Library, and from quilt expert Jen Jones of the Welsh Quilt Centre and I used pictures and paintings from different archives as references for the illustrations.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from your research on The Quilt?
I loved learning about anything food-related : what people ate on the ship, the ‘discovery’ of different food like watermelons, pumpkins, sweetcorn in North America. I would love to explore further the relations between food, home, and place in the future, in a book or in my art.
What was the inspiration for the design and colours of the quilt itself?
I needed a quilt design that would be realistic for the period. After talking to Jen Jones I realised that a bold black and red flannel quilt would suit the story, and I used an existing quilt from her collection.
There is a symmetry between the family’s new life in America and the life they leave in Wales. How did you go about making these connections?
I wanted to show that places have a lot in common rather than insist on the differences. I’m interested in the idea of “home”, and it is a universal theme we can all relate to, whether we are grown-up or not, wherever we live or come from.
Do you consider yourself an artist or an illustrator?
It’s difficult to answer, but I would say both. When I work with another author, I am definitively an illustrator, but for The Quilt, I might tend towards being an artist!
The Quilt is a fine example of a picturebook where the images give as much information as the words. Do you have any favourite picturebooks?
My all-time favourite is The Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall and Barbara Cooney. The text is beautifully written and works by itself, and Barbara Cooney’s pictures are extraordinary. I also love Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. When pictures go beyond the text it literally creates a new dimension.
The book was published in Welsh first then English. Are there any differences between the two versions? Which language did you originally write it in?
I wrote it in French, my mother’s tongue, first. Then I re-wrote it in English, and finally in Welsh. I also worked on the pictures before finishing the text, so it’s difficult to say what is the original version! I think the Welsh text might be more poetic, but it might be down to the language itself!
Can you tell us something about your next book/idea/future plans?
I’m currently working on a language book with Rily Publications, which involves thousands of small pictures, and I’m also about to start on a very exciting book about Siani Pob Man, an eccentric woman who lived on the beach near New Quay in the 1900s’.
If you weren’t an author/illustrator what would you do?
Maybe a teacher? Or a researcher of some kind? There are a lot of things I would enjoy doing I think!
Thank you / diolch / merci Valériane for answering our questions. The Quilt by Valériane Leblond (£5.99, Y Lolfa) is available now from your local independent bookshop. You could also order it direct from Y Lolfa.
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”.
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.
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.“
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
“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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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