TNNO2021: Jess Butterworth Interview

The Tir na n-Og Award is an annual award for children’s books with an authentic Welsh context. Sponsored by CILIP in Wales and organised by Books Council Wales, the 2021 shortlist, announced in March, features three brilliant books:

The winner of the award will be announced at the end of May. In the meantime, we are all encouraged to shadow the awards and get to know these books in more detail. At Family Bookworms HQ, we have been privileged to interview the three authors about their shortlisted book.

Jess Butterworth is well-known for her series of adventure books for ‘middle grade’ readers. Jess spent her childhood between the UK and India, and grew up hearing stories about the Himalayas from her Grandmother. As soon as she was old enough, she went on her own adventures in search of story ideas. Jess studied a creative writing masters at Bath Spa University and now lives between the USA and the UK.

Where The Wilderness Lives was Jess’s fourth novel, published in April 2020. Her fifth book, Into The Volcano, has just been released.

Where The Wilderness Lives is a brilliant adventure that weaves folklore, survival, friendship issues and family together to make a fantastically enjoyable read. From a canal boat in the West Country to the deepest wilds of Wales, Cara and her siblings escape a thief as they embark on a heart-stopping adventure to solve the mystery of a locked safe. Soon they’re in the wild forests of the Preseli Hills and are lost. Will they escape the wilderness? It’s thrilling stuff!

We were pleased to catch up with Jess and ask her a few questions.

Cover by Rob Biddulph

Where The Wilderness Lives is packed full of adventure and action but also focuses on themes of courage and friendship. Was there an initial spark of an idea for the book? I’m interested in what came first.

For me, it’s always the setting and a sense of place that comes first with a story. After that I imagine the characters in the setting, what kind of adventures they go on and how they interact with their environment, and then, as I get to know the characters more, I build the themes and emotional threads.

I wrote Where the Wilderness Lives when I was living in the States and very much missing the UK and the places I love here. One part of the story was sparked by my time living on a narrowboat on the canal; I remember a section of canal was drained and all sorts of rusty bits and bobs were found in the empty bottom. Another part of the story was inspired by a visit to stay with family in Wales and the discovery that the forest I loved there was actually a Celtic temperate rainforest.   

The landscapes and wildlife of the Preseli hills are vividly described. What advice do you have for creating such realistic descriptions?

Image from jessbutterworth.com

Thank you! As you can probably tell, I love writing about nature. I always try and use all the senses to describe settings. I find writing about specific details in a setting really brings it alive too; things like naming an old oak tree rather than only stating that there’s a tree. I also like to weave descriptions into movement and action as well. For example; how does the ground feel underneath your feet as you step? Is it mossy, muddy, pebbly?

Which aspect of Welsh wildlife intrigues you the most?

I’m a huge fan of lichen, not just because of the weird and wonderful shapes and colours they are, but also because they’re symbiotic organisms and good indicators of air pollution. Wales actually has the highest diversity of lichen species!

I also love spotting seals off the Welsh coast, seeing bats at dusk, and searching for signs of dormice. Once I saw puffins during their breeding season from the Welsh cliffs, which I thought was amazing.   

You mention in the author’s note at the back of the book that some of your family are from the area – are they far from Coed Ty Canol? How did they help with the research?

Image from Jess’s Website

My cousins grew up and still live in south Ceredigion in the Teifi valley, quite close to Coed Ty Canol. As children, whenever I visited them, we would walk over the Preseli hills together and explore the coast and the ancient forests in the area. Their house always felt like a second home to me. When I mentioned I wanted to set a book in the Celtic rainforest they spent time looking at maps with me, and showing me other places in the area like the Pentre Ifan burial chamber and Nevern church, which ended up sparking lots more story ideas!   

The story features a locked safe with Ogham symbols (an early medieval alphabet). Tell us about how you discovered the Ogham alphabet.

My younger cousin has always been very interested in it and would write secret messages using the Ogham alphabet which is how I first learnt about it. He also showed me a huge stone from the 5th century in Nevern church that has Ogham script carved into it which I found fascinating.

Ogham Inscription on a sill at St. Brynach’s Church, Nevern, Pembrokeshire.

There is a folk tale threaded through the story – are you a fan of Welsh folklore?

I’m a huge fan of Welsh folklore. I’m really looking forward to reading Claire Fayers’ new book of Welsh Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends, and very excited about the publication of The Mab, a collection of retellings of the Mabinogion, edited by Matt Brown and Eloise Williams.

In Where the Wilderness Lives, I took parts from, and reimagined, two of my favourite Welsh folk tales, Gwion and the Witch and The Battle of the Trees. The latter inspired the title of the story too.

Sounds intriguing. Can you tell us more?

I, TTThom, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

‘The Battle of the Trees’ or ‘Cad Goddeu’ is a medieval Welsh poem set during a war. In it, the magician Gwydion uses his staff to transform trees into warriors to help fight. I’ve always loved the imagery of trees coming to life in a human sense, like the Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and after reading a section of the poem as a child, it stayed with me. 

How are your survival skills? Have they ever been tested?

My dad was a trek leader in the Himalayas and as a child I lived partly there in the mountains, so I grew up with the survival skills needed for trekking and being in the mountains, such as finding drinking water, and as an adult, I’ve been trained in first aid.  

However … my skills were tested in a completely different climate; in the heat of the Australian desert when a snake fell on my head and bit my thumb as I swatted it away! I know what to do if you come across a bear or a leopard, but in my panic, I couldn’t remember what to do if you are bitten by a snake. Luckily, I was able to get someone’s attention and then I finally remembered that you’re supposed to lie down and stay still to stop any venom being pumped around your body, so I did that and someone bandaged my arm to stop the spread too. Then I was airlifted to the nearest hospital where the anti-venom was kept. It was definitely one of the scariest moments of my life!

I’m very grateful I didn’t have to worry about venomous snakes during my research in Wales! 

The setting feels very authentic. How important is authenticity?

This is lovely to hear – thank you! I’m constantly in awe of the wonderful wild places that exist within our world and seek to represent this in my writing. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between people and places too, which is why I love to look at the mythology, folklore, culture, and history of a landscape, as well as its role as a setting. 

Readers can learn a lot from Cara – she is a model of courage and determination. When her body gives up she recalls her mother’s mantra A camino largo, pass corto. There’s an important message about mindset in the book isn’t there?

Yes, definitely. The mantra means ‘one step at a time’ and it partly made it into the story because before I wrote the book I knew that I wanted to weave different story threads that all met at the end. I often felt overwhelmed with how much there was to do to make the story work, so I wrote this saying on a post-it note and stuck it to my laptop and it helped me write the book, one sentence at a time! With Cara, when she’s faced with the impossible task of trekking through the snow in freezing conditions, it’s this saying that helps her not give up: if she can keep going, one step at a time, then she has a chance of making it through the snow and helping her brother.  

Do you think Cara is changed by her adventure?

Very much so. Being out in nature and overcoming the challenges of the wilderness gives Cara more self belief and confidence to be herself. She also considers the things that are important to her, what matters most, and who she is, and by the end she’s made a new friend and grown even closer with her siblings. 

The book will be read in schools across Wales and beyond as a result of your Tir na n-Og Award shortlisting. What do you hope young readers will get out of the book?

I hope readers will enjoy this fast paced race for survival in the Welsh wilderness as they work out the mystery of the locked safe alongside the characters. I hope readers come away feeling excited about the Celtic rainforest, comforted by Cara’s journey to make friends, and feeling not alone in the world.  

Many of your books have hazardous moments as part of the adventures. Some of them can shock and surprise. Do you temper your words for your audience?

I’ve always had a very wild imagination and one of the wonderful things about books is that readers can go on adventures from the safety of their own homes. Often the journeys my characters take can be dangerous and I try to reflect this with my writing. I do always think about my choice of language carefully, alongside considering the emotional connection between the reader and protagonist.  

Could you recommend some other books that readers of Where The Wilderness Lives might like?

I’d love to! There are so many brilliant adventure stories that I love. A few of my favourites that readers of Where the Wilderness Lives might enjoy are: 

  • Holes by Louis Sachar
  • Wilde by Eloise Williams
  • The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook
  • The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr
  • Storm Hound by Claire Fayers
  • Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce
  • The Last Bear by Hannah Gold

Amazingly, you’ve published a book every year since 2017. Into The Volcano, your fifth novel, has just hit the shops. What can you tell us about it and can we expect this publishing phenomenon to continue? 

I still can’t quite believe that Into the Volcano has made it into the world as it was written during lockdowns which meant a completely new way of writing for me (usually I spend lots of time outside). It’s an adventure set on top of a super volcano, and is a book about coming to terms with grief, letting go of anger at the world and finding hope and joy in the most unexpected of places. The story is told through a dual narrative which was really fun to write. It follows Seb from Colorado, and Vivi from London, whose lives collide after a tragic event and they end up on a journey in search of a rainbow pool in Yellowstone National Park. Along their way they meet wolves and bears, all the while dodging bubbling pools and steaming geysers. 

My next middle grade book won’t be published until 2023 BUT I have a very exciting new illustrated series for readers aged 7 and up launching in July this year. The first book in The Adventure Club series is called Red Panda Rescue. Each story is filled with travelling the world, protecting endangered animals, and adventuring! 

I am really grateful to Jess for her diligence and patience in answering these questions. Diolch Jess.

Buy yourself a copy of Where The Wilderness Lives from your local bookshop. You can follow Jess on Twitter or visit her website. The winner of the English Language Tir na n-Og Award for 2021 will be announced on the BBC Radio Wales Art Show on Friday 21 May.

TNN2021: Elen Caldecott Interview

The Tir na n-Og Award is an annual award for children’s books with an authentic Welsh context. The shortlist, announced in March, features three brilliant books:

The winner of the award will be announced at the end of May. In the meantime, we are all encouraged to shadow the awards and get to know these books in more detail. We are delighted to be bringing you interviews with the shortlisted authors, and our first is with Dr. Elen Caldecott, author of The Short Knife.

Elen was born and raised near Llangollen, where her family still lives. She has published many books for children; her debut novel, How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant, was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Prize and longlisted for the 2010 Carnegie Award. The Short Knife was written as part of her PhD in Creative Writing and was longlisted for the Carnegie. It is a story set in the early middle ages, 454, at a time when Welsh identity was just starting to emerge, when the Romans had left and the Britons and Saxons were battling to take hold of different territories. 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. This is a celebration of difference and finding your own way, when even speaking your mother tongue can be dangerous. 

What was the seed that began The Short Knife?

I was curious about language, primarily. In an earlier book (Diamonds and Daggers), I had written a Polish character and the copyeditor had asked ‘Isn’t their English really good?’ and the answer was, ‘No, they’re speaking Polish to the other Polish characters.’ But, of course, the words on the page were English. So, I had a creative problem: How can you give the impression of one language when writing in another? It felt like a puzzle. I wanted to try to solve it. As I speak only two languages well enough to be able to write in them – Welsh and English – it was a puzzle I could only try to solve using those languages. Therefore, the voice and style of The Short Knife came first and the plot afterwards. It was great to turn that puzzle into a research question for my PhD as it gave me the time and space I needed to play.

You were an archaeologist – does this have any bearing on the way you approached the story?

Definitely. I studied Roman Britain as an undergraduate, and I’ve always been fascinated by the end of the empire. It would have been a very different experience, depending on where you lived (If you were in modern Turkey, for example, you might not even have noticed). Britain was probably the worst affected province. So, I knew it was a time of tumult, which is always good for a story. In a more practical sense, I was able to read site reports for excavations which had happened in the locations I was using, so I can justify some of the decisions I made – for example, having Gwrtheyrn resettle an Iron Age fort.

Were there any specific sites that provided inspiration or breakthrough moments?

Yes, absolutely. Even though it’s historical fiction, and there’s no 100% accurate way to know what life was like then, I found some approximations which were really inspirational. Leigh Woods in Bristol is woodland with a hill fort within it. I took my laptop and my dog up there a lot. We’d walk for an hour and I’d do my best to notice details of the landscape, then I’d write.

I also visited ‘reconstruction’ sites – St Fagans in Cardiff has a small village of roundhouses, and West Stow, near Peterborough has some Anglo-Saxon halls. It was genuinely amazing to visit these sites and talk to the people who worked there. My pen rushed over my notebook. I felt as though the sounds, smells and sensations were a way to get closer to my characters. I also visited Newport Wetlands and Cadbury Congresbury hill fort for more details about the landscape.

Where is the farm of Mai, Haf and Tad located and would they have considered themselves Welsh, British or something else?

Most readers have assumed that their farm is in modern Wales, but it isn’t. It’s actually nearer to modern Bristol, (though that city hasn’t been established at this time period). There are clues to the location – for example they talk about walking to the Severn and the crossing being dangerous. But I call the river by its Welsh name, the Hafren, and I don’t think most people are familiar with that name. Its funny, really, you’d think that two neighbouring countries would know what the other called the boundary between them, but we don’t. It reflects the enormous power imbalance between the languages, I suspect.

In terms of what Mai and her family would consider themselves, they are British. However, there’s a generational divide between what they mean by that. Tad, who was a boy at the end of empire, might think of himself as a citizen of the Roman Province of Britannia, at least nostalgically. Mai and Haf, on the other hand, have no such nostalgia. They speak Brittonic, a language family that spread from Edinburgh to Exeter at the time. Having said that, daily life was likely so disrupted, I doubt there was any sense of a ‘national people’, the societies were likely much more regional.

Do you see yourself as Welsh, British or something else?

Yes, I absolutely do think of myself as Welsh – that’s what I’d reply if someone asked me where I’m from. I haven’t lived there since I left to go to university, but my family is still there. I visit regularly (or did, you know, before). My PhD was part supervised at Aberystwyth University and I ended up working at Cardiff Uni for nearly two years afterwards. I rarely think of ‘British’ other than as a legal term – like on your passport or when applying for a job. It’s something I am, but it doesn’t hold quite the same resonance, in the way that watching a Lions tour isn’t quite the same as watching the Six Nations…

Whilst the landscape is beyond Wales, the book has Welsh influences and a strong Welsh current. This comes from the language you use.

Yes, absolutely. The language Mai speaks, and thinks in, is inspired by Welsh. I tried to give her a Welsh mindset (as much as one can, given that the book is set in an ancient past). So, the language is important, but there are other ideas about being bilingual, fitting in or standing out, being part of a community that can feel on the edge of things, on the edge of attention. There are also themes of betrayal in the book – about whether or not one should stick with a community one is born into, or whether there are things to be gained by leaving, which are also inspired by my own connection with Wales.

The language is exquisite. I understand you created a database of idioms directly translated from Welsh. How did you hit upon this idea and did you have any favourite phrases?

I’m not sure where the idea came from now. I think I was looking at ways other writers have approached working between languages and I was listening to talks by people like Xiaolu Guo and Nicholas Jose who work between languages. The idea might have come from there. Once I’d had the idea I bought a copy of ‘A Dictionary of Welsh & English Idiomatic Phrases’ by Alun Cowrie and translated it. There are thousands! Some really wonderful ones are ‘to grow small bones’ and ‘to see your apron strings grow short’ for being pregnant. I also really enjoy some of the euphemisms for death, like ‘to go and get your answer’ or to ‘to go and sleep outside’.

How did you find Mai’s voice (and Welsh mindset)?

The technical limitations I set myself dictated her voice a lot – the idioms, for example, tend to be quite ‘earthy’ so she had to be someone close to the land. It was tricky to imagine what a teenager might have sounded like back then. I made her dad a storyteller, so that she could legitimately have more wider frames of reference (like history, religion etc) than an illiterate farmgirl might otherwise have had. After that, there are elements of the plot which I think push her closer to a ‘Welsh mindset’, so things like being bilingual, living close to more powerful communities, and worrying about betraying the community she came from by adapting to her new circumstance.

The problem of the power imbalance between English and Welsh is an interesting one, does the answer lie in education? Did a welsh-medium education give you a perspective on this?

There is definitely a power imbalance between the languages. One is a World Language, the lingua franca of half the world. The other is one of the oldest spoken languages, still clinging on at the edge of Europe.

There are a few things I’d like to see happen. The first is that people stop trying to see them as equivalents. So often people say, ‘What’s the point of learning Welsh? Why not learn a useful language like Spanish?’ But, *if you already speak one World Language* then all bets are off. English will serve you well anywhere you go; you’ve got your useful language. So, your second (or third, etc) language should be anything that gives you pleasure, be that Welsh or Klingon (or Spanish, sure!). And, connecting with a language that stretches back thousands of years has got to be pretty pleasurable. It’s like visiting a National Park, or a gallery or theatre, it can just be a thing you do because you think it’s cool.

The second thing I’d like to see is for everyone to worry less about ‘fluency’ (including myself!). The ability to speak a language is a spectrum; no-one knows all the words of a language. So, if all you know is ‘diolch’ and ‘bore da’, then use those and feel fine about saying ‘I’m a beginner’. Or, if you get tangled up with mutations, power through, knowing you’ll be understood just fine. Perfection is the enemy of done, after all.

I don’t think I thought very much about these things when I was at school. A Welsh medium education was just, you know, my life. It was only when I was older that I realised that my parents had made something of a political choice with the school they chose.

How important is authenticity and how far should a writer go to achieve this?

It’s important that your reader believes in the world you’ve created. It’s actually half the battle – if a reader 100% believes the setting, then they will suspend their disbelief for the rest of the story/characters. The easiest way to write a believable setting is to do good research and simply describe whatever it is you’ve found out. If there are obvious anachronisms, then the reader might notice it’s *all* made up. Having said that, it can be really interesting to deliberately use anachronisms in historical fiction – I’m thinking of something like Alex Wheatle’s ‘Cane Warriors’ which uses current London vernacular in an 18th century West Indies setting; it does this – I think – to highlight that we just don’t know what the ‘authentic’ voices would have sounded like; they have been erased. So the ‘inauthenticity’ points to the violence that was done. At the end of the day, the duty of the writer is to the needs of the book they are writing, not to historical accuracy.

The split narrative creates real mystery and intrigue. Were there any difficulties in composing a non-chronological narrative and what spurred you to write it in this way?

It was actually just a really practical solution to a writing problem. The finale of the story is based on a traditional legend called ‘The Treachery of the Long Knives’. The legend is a very male story. If I’d ended the book with that legend, it would have taken the spotlight off Mai, which I didn’t want at all. BUT, it’s such a dramatic story, it would have been weird to put it in the middle of the book. My solution was to write a really long epilogue and spread it out through the book. The reader moves between before-the-treachery and after-the-treachery with the actual moment of treachery where you would expect it to be, at the end. I don’t know if I’ve explained it well, but it wasn’t that I set out to compose a non-chronological narrative per se. The narrative was actually a solution to a different problem I had.

By Noel Sylvestre (1847-1915)

Is the legend of Gwrtheyrn something you were aware of from school?

To be honest, I couldn’t tell you when I first heard about it. We definitely read all kinds of Welsh legends while I was in school. I learned to read using a reading scheme called ‘stori a chwedl’ which was jam-packed with quite gory stuff (the horse’s eyelids story from Branwen was particularly disturbing when I was in primary school). I was reminded of it in conversation with Cathy Butler, a children’s writer who is also a lecturer in Cardiff. She reminded me of the story when we were talking about the lack of female characters in early medieval literature – though Gwrtheyrn is called Vortigern in the version she knew. My version of him evolved to fit the story. He’s the person I needed him to be, rather than me trying to capture a ‘real’ version.

So many brilliant books from Wales use a folk tale as a seed or even framework for their stories. The Snow Spider, The Owl Service, Cantre’r Gwaelod. Many people see folk tales as holding a mirror up to society so that our values and principles can be taught/preserved. Does The Short Knife hold a mirror up to Wales (and England) / Britain?

Oh and don’t forget The Grey King, I love that book! I really hope The Short Knife holds up a mirror, for sure. I want us to remember how much the kingdom has evolved over the centuries, and how much of what we consider as ‘English’ or ‘British’ are actually imported ideas. We are an island nation formed by the movement of people.

The book has many parallels to today – were these deliberately planned from the outset?

I’d say yes, and no. They weren’t planned right from the outset, but early on during the writing, the Brexit vote happened, and all the aftermath of that like the rise in reports of racists attacks. I couldn’t help but think about the island’s relationship with the continent – how we often think of ourselves as separate, but actually have a rich and complex shared history. I also wanted to hold a mirror up to all the people I heard saying rubbish like, ‘England for the English’ and remind people that the English were once ‘invaders’ too (and I use that word very advisedly!).

It seems that you approached The Short Knife very differently to previous books. Has The Short Knife changed you as a writer?

I think so, yes. I’m working on a book just now, and I’m much more willing to write about Wales than I was. I’m also much more aware of language and playfulness of style, whereas I think in the past I thought plot was the most important thing. I’m more interested in seeing where exploration takes me, without worrying right from the beginning whether something is a good idea or not.

The book seems suited to a YA audience – was this audience in mind when you were writing and what do you hope young readers get out of it?

Yes, the themes of identity and community – as well as betrayal, which is quite a big part of it – were just a bit too mature for Middle Grade readers. Also, there’s a fair chance that the language would alienate young readers. So, it was always intended as YA. Having said that, a lot of adults have enjoyed it too. I’m certain that what we bring to a piece of art (be it books, films, music etc) has a huge impact on what we get out of it. So, I think that, for example, a young person who speaks one language at home and a different one outside will get something from the book which is quite different to what a monolingual speaker would get. But I hope that there are ideas about not reaching for easy answers to complex problems in there. I also hope that the wide range of female characters model female power in lots of different ways – there isn’t just one way to use your voice. I hope young readers see those ideas there, at least!

And what do you think your readers will learn from Mai?

For me, I think she comes to understand that the world is more complex than she thought at the beginning. Initially, everything is so black and white. But, over time, she sees that everyone can make stupid or thoughtless decisions; that even ‘villains’ can be loved by their families. That’s what I see in Mai’s development, and that’s what I’d like young people to take away from the book, really. Mai does come out of the trauma with a stronger sense of self, but she also has a better understanding of other people’s minds too.

The Short Knife was longlisted for the Carnegie and is now shortlisted for the Tir na n-Og. What is the significance of awards for you?

A writer friend of mine often plays a game: ‘Would you prefer tonnes of sales or good reviews – you can’t have both?’ It’s a brutal, but fun game. With some books I’d choose sales, with others reviews, it depends on what I was trying to do when I wrote the book. Good reviews, and, being nominated for awards like the Tir na n-Og, mean that people have read and reflected on your work – on whether it’s been bold and pushed at the boundaries of the field. I guess award nominations can validate risk taking.

So do you feel validated? And what was the biggest risk for you?

It’s a huge accolade for me, for sure. I grew up seeing books with ‘Tir na n-Og Winner’ stickers on their cover, so it feels really close to home. I’m thrilled about it. In terms of risk, there are lots of ways that The Short Knife was a risk. Two of the biggest are the language and the period. The rules I made for myself risk alienating a reader (and I know some readers have been alienated, I get that), it might simply be *too weird*. And the period is not one we study much. If you’re writing historical fiction, people are much more comfortable with the Tudors, or the second World War, and so on. the periods that are on the school curriculum. The 5th century was way leftfield, but *shrugs* it’s a time I’m really curious about.

Along with RS Thomas and Islwyn Ffowc Elis, you must be among the most renowned literary exports from North East Wales. Is your writing, and in particular The Short Knife, influenced by any Welsh writers?

Aw, my mum loves RS, so she’d be chuffed to hear you say that. There were three writers that were actually very influential. As I did this as a PhD I ended up writing a lot about them! Two are uncontroversial (and brilliant), G R Gemin and Catherine Johnson – I love the exploration of transnational identities in their own work. The third is much more controversial – Caradoc Evans. He wrote ‘My People’ in the early 20th century, which is a collection of short stories that do not reflect well on the Welsh. He was pretty much shunned thereafter, for airing Wales’ dirty laundry before an English public. For someone wanting to write in the space between Wales and England he was a guide – and a warning!

Tell me about the title. Was it always thus?

I *think* so. I can’t remember it ever having a different title. I think as soon as I knew the Treachery of the Long Knives was going to be a major component, I liked the idea of Mai being a ‘short knife’ in contrast to the men. Back then everyone would have had their own knife, worn on their belt, for all kinds of simple domestic tasks. I liked the idea of something innocuous coming to be significant.

I wonder if you could recommend other books. A kind of “If you enjoyed The Short Knife then you will love…”

Ooh, yes please! There are some amazing YA historical fiction writers working just now. The voice in ‘Cane Warriors’ by Alex Wheatle is just amazing. Everything Tanya Landman has ever written is fire. I also love Catherine Johnson’s work, especially ‘The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo’.

What’s next for Elen Caldecott?

I’m working on a novel for middle grade readers just now. It’s set in North Wales, but has a big dollop of fantasy in it, as well as the village life I saw as I grew up. I’m really enjoying bringing in more Wales into my writing than I ever have before.

This interview took place between Elen Caldecott and Simon Fisher over a number of months. I am really grateful to Elen for her patience (not least with my questions) and for her generous and thoughtful answers. Diolch Elen.

Do get yourself a copy of The Short Knife from your local bookshop. You can follow Elen on Twitter or visit her website. If you enjoyed this interview, I can strongly recommend the Just Imagine podcast that features Elen talking in more detail about this extraordinary book.

Cymru As You Are

Books to develop insight into the culture, people and history of Wales

This St. David’s Day, we’ve decided to take a look at some brilliant stories with a Welsh context. These are books that will fire the imagination and connect children to the landscape and the communities of Wales, both now and in the past. We hope that our suggested reading list is fuel for teachers, parents and reading enthusiasts from Holyhead to Haverfordwest and Highmoor Hill to Hawarden. We also have some suggestions for activities that will help to get to know these books better.

Reception (Age 5)

Tad-cu’s Bobble Hat was Malachy Doyle’s 100th book and was recently included in the Iechyd Da wellbeing pack from the Welsh Books Council delivered to all Welsh primaries. Set in the Cambrian Mountains not far from Machynlleth, the story features a boy and his tadcu (grandfather) on walks through the hills. On one particular trip the snow falls and tadcu lends his bobble hat which is then lost. The book, illustrated by Dorry Spikes, deals with the loss of a grandparent in a very gentle way and the symbolism of the changing seasons can be explored whilst connecting with the intergenerational theme and the welsh landscapes. ‘A touching story that conveys the warmth and joy between two generations, and handles the universal themes of love, loss and renewal with gentleness. On one walk, as Tadcu gets older, his special bobble hat is lost. Winter sets in and with it, life dies. When the thaw of spring arrives, the boy returns to the hillside walk to look for the hat. Its discovery brings comfort and a renewed sense of love and positive memories.’

Year 1 (Age 6)

The Quilt by Valeriane Leblond is a wonderful picturebook that can be read and enjoyed by any age. Children and adults will be captivated by the gorgeous illustrations that take us from rural Wales at the turn of the 20th century to the New World via Liverpool. This book connects us to our past but could also open up conversations about migration, homes, family, travel as well as Wales’ unique landscapes. ‘A beautifully illustrated story about emigration and homesickness. A little girl lives with her parents on a farm near the coast, around the turn of the twentieth century. Times are hard and the family decides to emigrate to the USA, raising the fare by selling all of their possessions except for a black and red quilt lovingly hand-made by the mother. The little girl feels homesick and sad at times, but the memories and love contained in the quilt help her overcome this and adapt to her new life. The book offers a message of hope which is sure to strike a chord with many adult readers: when things look bleak, remember that happy times will return.’

Little Honey Bee also has illustrations by Valeriane Leblond and is written by Caryl Lewis. The Welsh landscapes are evident throughout the story which will connect readers to the rich plantlife of their locality through a sensitive story about a bee-keeping grandma. ‘One wintry night, Elsi is left on her grandmother’s doorstep. Elsi is as silent as snow until Grandma shows her a secret at the bottom of the garden…’

Year 2 (Age 7)

Owen and the Mountain by Malachy Doyle and Giles Greenfield has echoes of Tadcu’s Bobble Hat in that it highlights a warm and loving relationship between a boy and his grandfather. Climbing the remote Welsh mountain can be seen as a metaphor that is difficult for both grandfather and grandson. Ultimately this is a story about love, achieving your heart’s desire and the glory of nature. ‘Owen is visiting his grandad and he wants to climb the mountain. But his grandad is not sure. The journey is long and tiring and when they succeed they are not only happy to have completed a difficult task but have also learnt a bit more about each other.’

The Seal Children by Jackie Morris is a story built on the celtic myth of half-woman half-seal selkies, and is set just above St. David’s Head. ‘When a fisherman falls in love with a selkie she gives him her sealskin as a sign of her love, and bears him two children, Ffion and Morlo, before returning to her own people. When a stranger comes to the village, telling of a land far away, the children remember their mother’s stories of the cities of gold and pearls beneath the waves…’ The Hamilton Trust have written teaching notes for The Seal Children aimed at Year 4, and you can hear Jackie read the book below.

Cities in the Sea

While considering books for this list, it became clear that there are many excellent quality stories about the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod – the prosperous land accidently flooded when the gates to the low-lying kingdom were left open. These three versions are suitable to read together (and work great as a read-aloud) to bridge the journey between Year 2 and Year 3.

Year 3 (Age 8)

Wendy White has some really brilliant stories all about Welsh communities. Short manageable chapters make these great books for newly independent readers to try for themselves. But there’s great humour to be had in reading aloud – especially the Welsh caricatures in the seasonally apt St. David’s Day Is Cancelled.

The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo is a classic story that has to be included in this list. About to mark its 35th birthday following the recent TV adaptation by Owen Sheers, The Snow Spider is another story that features the Welsh landscape almost as an additional character. It’s also great for empathy as readers have to come to terms with the reactions of different family members to the disappearance of Gwyn’s sister. More mature readers could be encouraged to investigate the links to the Mabinogion. ‘Gwyn’s grandmother leaves him five gifts: a brooch, a piece of dried seaweed, a tin whistle, a scarf, and a broken toy horse. She tells him they will help make him a magician – but can Gwyn use them to bring his missing sister, Bethan, home?’

Year 4 (Age 9)

Two books that have dual Italian-Welsh heritage are Sweet Pizza and King of the Sky. Both of these books provide opportunities for children to discover an important part of Welsh history – Italian cafes or ice-cream parlours were commonplace at one time. Sweet Pizza by G.R. Gemin, is about a South Wales valley café under threat; Joe, has an entrepreneurial spirit like his immigrant ancestors; he is unwilling to accept that the café is a lost cause and has ideas to breathe new life into it and make it the centre of the community once more. The pride that Joe feels for his own heritage, his ancestors and the valley in which he lives is obvious and infectious in this heart-warming book. ‘Joe loves his Italian heritage: the language, the opera, the lasagne! But it’s hard to celebrate his Italian roots in Bryn Mawr, South Wales, where his mam is sick of running the family’s tatty café. Just like his great-grandfather, who opened the café in 1929, Joe is an entrepreneur. He vows to save the family business, and to spice up the tired High Street with a little Italian flavour!’

King of the Sky, meanwhile, features an Italian boy who is finding it hard to call Wales home. Only when he meets the pigeon-racing Mr Evans does he begin to connect and start to belong. Nicola Davies’ perfectly pitched prose and Laura Carlin’s earthy illustrations make this a delightfully evocative book about Wales’ recent past. The book is one of many on this list that would work with all ages, and there are lots of teacher notes available to download. We particularly like the ones from Walker and Amnesty. We made a video about King of the Sky when it was shortlisted for the Tir na n-Og Award in 2018. It made me smile to go back, so here it is again…

The most recent winner of the Tir na n-Og Award (an award for children’s books that have an authentic Welsh context), is Storm Hound by Claire Fayers. I have recently used Storm Hound as a Whole Class Read in my Year 4 class so can vouch that it totally engaged and enthused the children. Based on both Norse and Welsh mythology the story centres on a family new to Abergavenny who adopt a puppy from the Dog Centre; he just happens to be one of the Hounds of Odin’s Wild Hunt! Funny, fast-paced and hugely satisfying with lots of layers to unpeel. ‘Storm of Odin is the youngest stormhound of the Wild Hunt that haunts lightning-filled skies. He has longed for the time when he will be able to join his brothers and sisters but on his very first hunt he finds he can’t keep up and falls to earth, landing on the A40 just outside Abergavenny. Enter twelve-year-old Jessica Price, who finds and adopts a cute puppy from an animal rescue centre. And suddenly, a number of strange people seem very interested in her and her new pet, Storm. People who seem to know a lot about magic . . . Jessica starts to see that there’s something different about her beloved dog and will need to work out which of her new friends she can trust.’

Year 5

The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr was only published at the start of 2021 but it already feels like it belongs in this list. In fact, it feels like a classic as you read it and I’m sure many schools will be adopting it for their teaching as the word begins to spread. It’s a brilliant World War II evacuee story that we described as “a moving love song to the valleys”.

When Jimmy is evacuated to a small village in Wales, it couldn’t be more different from London. Green, quiet and full of strangers, he instantly feels out of place. But then he finds a skull hidden in a tree, and suddenly the valley is more frightening than the war. Who can Jimmy trust? His brother is too little; his best friend has changed. Finding an ally in someone he never expects, they set out together to uncover the secrets that lie with the skull. What they discover will change Jimmy – and the village – forever.

The Clockwork Crow is a world-class fantasy for children by Catherine Fisher, set at the end of the Victorian era. Taking the myth of the Tylwyth Teg and using it to inspire a trilogy of stories located in a Mid-Wales manor house, provides a treasure trove of interesting links. The eponymous Crow has a mystery of his own, but the talking corvid is not the central character. Seren is an orphan who seeks to belong and is determined to solve the central mystery of a missing child. ‘A magical story of snow and stars; a mysterious gothic Christmas tale set in a frost-bound Victorian country mansion. When orphaned Seren Rees is given a mysterious package by a strange and frightened man on her way to her new home, she reluctantly takes it with her. But what is in the parcel? Who are the Family who must not be spoken of, and can the Crow help Seren find Tomos, before the owner of the parcel finds her?’

Year 6

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day is an extraordinary book. A witty, gritty, profound adventure set in the heart of Snowdonia. It’s got sibling rivalry, dragons and mountains. It’s fresh, it’s real, it’ll make you cry. One reviewer described it as “Jacqueline Wilson meets Alan Garner” and there’s no doubt that this is a raw coming-of-age adventure. ‘Max wants to be just like his dad – fun, loud and strong. Instead, he always seems to be accidentally getting into fights and breaking things. But when his dad starts bringing home mysterious boxes, even more mysterious wads of cash starts turning up. Then Dad disappears. And it’s up to Max to look after his sisters until he comes home.

When they run away to a remote village in Wales, he’s convinced that no one will find them. He’s Max Kowalski. Of course he can look after three kids with no grownups around! Although, he can’t stop thinking about where Dad really went. And the whispers of a golden dragon, asleep under the Welsh mountains…’

Gaslight is a highly atmospheric and very dramatic historical fiction set in Victorian Cardiff. Wales’ Children’s Laureate, Eloise Williams has crafted a rich and vividly descriptive novel that will have you on the edge of your seat. Nansi is the central character, trying to solve the disappearance of her mother, whilst scraping a living between bit parts on the Empire Theatre stage and thieving from rich households. Nansi dreams of finding her own identity and freeing herself from the perilous life she leads. In parts bleak and brutal, this is a gripping tale that will fire many imaginations. ‘All Nansi knows is that her mother disappeared on the day she was fished out of Cardiff docks. Now, in 1899, she can’t remember anything else. With no other family to turn to, she works for Sid at the Empire Theatre, sometimes legally, sometimes thieving to order, trying to earn enough money to hire a detective to find her mother. Everything changes when Constance and Violet join the theatre, both with their own dark secrets. Nansi is forced to be part of Violet’s crooked psychic act. But it’s when Constance recognises her, and realises who her mother must be, that Nansi’s world is turned upside down forever. She is soon on the run for her life and she will have to risk everything if she’s going to find the truth.’

Year 7+ (Age 12 and up)

Traditionally our blog has focussed on the primary years, but as our children grow up (two of them are now over 12) we are learning more about books for more mature children and young adults. We are therefore delighted to recommend these titles for secondary age children.

Non-Fiction for all ages

The book Wales on the Map was published a couple of years ago, and is an indispensable guide to Wales, it’s regions, landscapes, culture and history. It really is essential reading for all and is presented with gorgeous double page spread illustrations in a large format book. Elin Meek has done the research and written the little facts in readable bitesize nuggets while illustrations are by the ridiculously talented Valeriane Leblond, who has several books on this page.

For those looking to explore specific periods of history in Wales, then the Wicked Wales series published by Gomer presents the information in a similar manner to the Horrible Histories books.

Folk Tales and Legends

We’d also like to recommend some folk tales and legends to spark your imagination – there are a number of really fantastic versions available. A special mention for the newly published Welsh Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends by Claire Fayers which is a cracking compilation of short stories – some familiar, some not so familiar, but all told with Claire’s friendly fireside storytelling voice – there’s a real focus on building each story and telling it well. It’s going down a storm in our house with all ages from 8 to 46 (am sure it appeals to older and younger too!).

Claire is also contributing towards a new collection of stories from The Mabinogion. The Mab has now received full funding for publication and will feature stories from some of our best-loved authors, put together by Eloise Williams and Matt Brown. You can pre-order your copy here.

Here’s a gallery of other folk tales and legends that have captivated us:

5 Activities to encourage Reading for Pleasure with books from Wales

Many of these ideas are credited to research carried out by the Open University Reading for Pleasure groups, in association with the UKLA (UK Literacy Association). I have provided links to the examples of practice on their website, where relevant. These are all tried and tested methods in my own classroom and can be easily transferred to the home setting. This is not about comprehension tasks or analysis of writing – it’s about firing a spark and reading for pleasure!

1. Book Blanket

A book blanket of Welsh authors

A Book Blanket is essentially where you lay out books and encourage readers to look, read the blurbs, dip in, see what appeals and then, importantly, talk about it. If you’re in school you can do this with a whole class and have a little crib sheet that they fill in, or tick the ones they like the look of and want to read later. At home, you can engage in more detailed conversations about why books appeal; what do we think they will be about; have we read anything similar? Book blankets are normally carried out on a ‘theme’ so collecting together books about Wales is an ideal opportunity. If you don’t have many books about Wales, you could widen it to books by Welsh authors.

Example of Practice by Benjamin Harris: Book Blankets – Reading for Pleasure (ourfp.org)

2. Book Tasting

Similar to the Book Blanket, Book Tasting is a means to show children that there are more genres, more authors, more stories to be found. It is about widening their reading repertoires and showing them new stories in a fun and interesting way. Provide a selection of books for children to look at. Make it fun by turning the classroom into a cafe – tablecloths, menus, flowers… that kind of thing. You could put on an apron and be the waiter/waitress attending to the cafe customers. Children can write down the menu of books they have chosen and discuss with friends which ‘flavours’ they enjoyed most and would like more of. Again, it’s important to encourage ‘book talk’ – find out why particular books are chosen. A special Welsh cafe for St. David’s Day would be rather wonderful wouldn’t it?

Example of Practice by Sadie Phillips: Expanding Reading Repertoires – Book Tastings – Reading for Pleasure (ourfp.org)

3. Map the Bookish Community

Here’s one for the grown-ups. The research by Open University shows that a teacher who has good knowledge of the available books is much better placed to give a suitable recommendation and foster reading for pleasure in the classroom or home. If you want a vibrant and diverse collection of books for children to explore, which should include books from Wales, then you have to develop your knowledge of these texts.

Much has been written about the reliance on celebrity authors and also the reliance on the authors of our childhoods like Dahl and Blyton, but for many teachers it’s seen as a professional responsibility to increase their own knowledge of available books.

So how about this: get out a map of Wales and place the books in their geographical locations. Are there gaps on the map? Do you have books that children in your community can relate to? Are there some places in Wales that inspire more stories than others? Do the characters reflect the realities of the children you teach/parent? You may want to explore the Tir na n-Og shortlists of the past in conjunction with our blog post.

Example of Practice by Jo Bowers and Simon Fisher: EOP_Land_of_Our_Authors_-_Simon_Fisher_Jo_Bowers_May_2020_final-1.pdf (ourfp.org)

4. Adopt an Author

Adopt an author is an idea to engage with one author and find out more about their work. In the context of Books from Wales, you could choose any of the authors, although it would work particularly well with Claire Fayers, Eloise Williams, Jenny Nimmo, Valeriane Leblond, Catherine Fisher, Jenny Sullivan, Sian Lewis, Jackie Morris as these names have more than 1 book set in Wales. You could widen it to include authors from Wales – in which case this graphic will be useful…

Children could be encouraged to become an expert in that author and produce a presentation; make promotional posters; record readings (try to keep the focus on the book, themes and connections – this isn’t a biography.)

5. Write a Letter

This is a bit old school, but authors love to hear when children have enjoyed their books. Writing a letter helps to connect the child to the book and to the author. Why not get children to write to the author of their favourite book set in Wales, explaining why they like the book so much? P.G. Bell, Welsh author of The Train to Impossible Places, is a big fan of letter writing and has produced some supportive resources.

Composing a tweet is a similar idea – and sometimes more challenging for a child to express themselves in a limited number of words.

The Shark Caller

Blog Tour

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

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

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

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

“Magnificent and beautiful.” Sophie Anderson @sophieinspace

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

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

“Beautiful and lyrical storytelling.” Shapes @shapes4schools

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

“A beautifully written book” Emily Weston @primaryteachew

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

“Vividly depicted… cleverly told.” Rachael @BellisDoesBooks

Believe the hype!” Dean Boddington @Misterbodd

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

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


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

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


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

Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace-Ella 3 Cover Reveal

Grace-Ella 3 Cover Reveal

We are absolutely delighted to be able to reveal the cover to the 3rd installment of Grace-Ella’s adventures, written by Sharon Marie-Jones with illustrations by Adriana J Puglisi.

Grace-Ella: Pixie Pandemonium promises yet more fun, adventure and magic with everyone’s favourite young spell-maker and her cat, Mr Whiskins. Publishing with Firefly Press in June 2021, Pixie Pandemonium continues the school-based series, promising naughty pixies and an environmental theme.

So here’s what you’ve been waiting for…

The cover is designed by Claire Brisley with illustration by Adriana J Puglisi. We love how the three covers in the series compliment each other so well…

Here is a summary of Pixie Pandemonium:

When Buddy the pixie smuggles himself into her backpack after Witch Camp, Grace-Ella lets him stay, even though Mr Whiskins tells her pixies are trouble. She takes him to school – but he soon escapes and causes all kinds of mischief.

It’s all fun, until searching for Buddy, Grace-Ella sees someone stealing the school’s charity fund. Will anyone believe her? With her best friends, a naughty pixie and of course Mr Whiskins by her side, can Grace-Ella save the School Fair?

We have a huge Grace-Ella fan here at Bookworms Wales HQ and she cannot wait to read this new installment. Grace-Ella: Spells for Beginners is “super-amazing and very imaginative“, whilst Witch Camp is “an awesome read!” Looking forward to adding a third picture and review here very soon…

Grace-Ella: Pixie Pandemonium is published on 17 June 2021 by Firefly Press. You can pre-order at the Firefly website (or buy the first two books at January sale prices) and follow Sharon on Twitter for more updates.

Huge thanks to Meg, Janet and Simone at Firefly for inviting us to do the reveal. They’ve got big things planned for this year, so keep an eye out on their social media channels too.

Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell

A review and Q&A with Helen Docherty and Thomas Docherty.

Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell is the latest collaboration between husband and wife team Helen and Thomas Docherty. The pair have separate successful careers but have often worked together with amazing results.

Helen has always loved stories and as a child would make her own books (you can see some fine examples on her website). Her early career was as a languages teacher both in the UK and in South America. In 2010, encouraged by Thomas, she began writing again and they published ‘Ruby Nettleship and the Ice Lolly’ together. This was followed in 2013 by her first rhyming text, The Snatchabook, since translated into 22 languages, nominated for many awards and considered a classic by everyone from Booktrust to CBeebies.

Since he was very young, Thomas has always enjoyed drawing and keeping sketchbooks. He was a big Asterix fan. His first book, Little Boat was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2009. He has since written and illustrated 4 more solo works, 5 books with Helen and 5 books with other authors.

They live in Swansea with their two children and, through Storyopolis, enjoy helping children and young people to write their own Book in a Day.

Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell (Sourcebooks) is a charming and colourful rhyming story about independent Nell. Beautifully detailed illustrations capture the tumbling waves, sea monsters and idiosyncratic shipmates. Our eponymous heroine, the newest member of the pirate crew, relies on knowledge, learning and books to chart the seas and live the pirate life. Captain Gnash is too proud, dismissive and closed to new ideas, and he certainly doesn’t approve of books being on board! Cue Nell showing him the error of his ways, the joy of books and reading, and finding life’s real treasure.

We are delighted that Helen and Thomas have answered some of our questions. Huge thanks to them both.

What are you reading at the moment?

Helen: I’ve just finished Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, and I’m sorry it’s come to an end; it was a brilliant and absorbing read.

I still read to our girls (age 10 and 12) every night, though they’re both avid readers themselves. Over half term we enjoyed Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh – a Halloween gem from my own childhood. We’ve just started The Castle of Tangled Magic by Sophie Anderson and next up is Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day.

Thomas: In an attempt to keep my Welsh up over lockdown (we’ve been learning for a number of years) I’ve got through most of my daughter’s Welsh teen novels, most recently the Yma trilogy by Lleucu Roberts, but also her brilliant adult novel Saith Oes Efa (challenging Welsh but very rewarding). Before that I read two books by Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines and Among Muslims, both beautifully observed and poetic real journeys in words.

As a husband and wife picturebook team you must have more opportunity to discuss your ideas together?

Helen: Yes, we’re very lucky in that we can brainstorm ideas for stories, give each other feedback on story drafts and develop characters or plots together. The first book we collaborated on, Ruby Nettleship and the Ice Lolly Adventure, was very much a joint effort. Having said that, when Tom is working flat out illustrating a book, he doesn’t have a lot of free time (or headspace) to discuss new ideas – it’s such a time-consuming job!

Do your own children input into your ideas?

Helen: A few years ago, a conversation with our youngest daughter directly inspired me to write a picture book text. She asked me whether it’s possible for a parent to love a new baby as much as their other children, and I reassured her that we’re not born with a limited amount of love to give, and that You Can Never Run Out of Love. As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I was onto something, and I started working on the text that very night.

Similarly, our eldest daughter was feeling anxious at the beginning of lockdown this spring – as so many of us were – and missing her friends and grandparents. I wrote a new picture book text, All the Things We Carry, partly in response to this. The central message is that we don’t have to bear our worries alone; we carry one another, even when we are apart.

Thomas: I love our daughters’ pictures (all children’s pictures) and I sometimes wish my own illustrations could be as free and spontaneous as theirs. I’m still waiting for them to hand me a best seller on a plate though!

Helen, when you start to write a picturebook text, what are you hoping to achieve? (Do you have a set of overarching aims?)

Helen: Picture books are a child’s first encounter with books and stories. They can help to frame children’s understanding of the world, and they introduce them to new concepts and ideas. They can also be a vehicle for exploring different emotions and how we deal with them. That’s why writing picture books feels like such a privilege to me – and also a responsibility. I want each book I write to carry a positive message – not just for children, but for the adults reading it, too. I want children to care about the characters in each story. And, of course, I want to entertain my audience.

What, do you think, makes a successful picturebook?

Helen: There are so many different ways in which a picture book can be successful. I guess the ultimate litmus test is, do you want to read it – or have it read to you – again (and again)? The best picture books endure multiple readings, and become more loved over time.

Thomas, the endpapers are often a place of innovation, humour and thought-provocation. What is their importance?

Thomas: When creating the endpapers you are freed from the constraints of the story, but at the same time you have the chance to add something new or unexpected. It’s a chance to take the reader further into the visual world you have created, maybe in a different direction. I sometimes like the end papers more than the illustrations inside the book, possibly because they stand alone and speak for themselves.

Pirate Nell celebrates the power of reading. Sharing stories is also a central theme of The Knight Who Wouldn’t Fight and The Snatchabook. Are you on a mission?

Helen: Apparently so! Believe it or not, it’s never been intentional, in that I didn’t set out to write a series of ‘books about books.’ However, I’ve always been a bookworm and I strongly believe in the power of stories to bring people together and nurture empathy, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s become a recurring theme.

Captain Gnash is the ‘top dog’, yet he doesn’t listen and is quite arrogant. Is it too much to read a political message into the story?

Helen: What could a greedy, power-obsessed pirate captain with an over-inflated ego, a disdain for books and very few actual skills possibly have in common with any of the great political leaders of our time?

I hope our young readers will be more inspired by Pirate Nell’s example; she is brave, compassionate and eager to share and to help others.

Note: The character of Captain Gnash was first conceived in an earlier version of the story, Captain Gnash and the Wrong Treasure, which I started working on at the very end of 2016. Here are the opening verses:

Just two things mattered to Captain Gnash:

Making his fortune; and fame.

He was desperate to find some treasure,

And for all to know his name.

He worked very hard on his image

(He took selfies every day).

But woe betide any pirate

Who dared to get in his way.

His temper tantrums were famous;

You could hear them for miles around.

The other pirates did their best

To block out the terrible sound.

The book features some glorious seascapes and coastal illustrations. Are you inspired by your local Swansea shores?

Thomas: If I wasn’t a children’s book illustrator I would like to draw landscapes. In fact, I often sketch when we go out walking – so I’m definitely inspired by the Swansea shores. The Knight who Wouldn’t Fight is full of Brecon Beacons inspired hills, a nod to Castell Carreg Cennen and a twisty tree you can find half way up Skirrid Fawr.

Helen: Absolutely! I grew up by the sea (in Weymouth, Dorset) and I’m so happy that we live by the sea on the beautiful Gower peninsula now. Knowing how much Tom loves to draw the sea, I wrote Pirate Nell’s Tale To Tell  for him to illustrate.

You’re both learning Welsh. Sut mae’n mynd?

Thomas: Da iawn diolch!

Helen: It’s been a real effort over many years, but we’re both so happy that we can now speak (and understand) Welsh – as can our daughters, who both attend Welsh medium schools. Cymraeg was my Granny’s first language, and she would be so proud – and pretty amazed – to see us all now. O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau!

Could you recommend any favourite picturebooks?

Thomas: Don’t Cross The Line! By Isabel Minhos Martins and Bernardo P. Carvalho

Anything illustrated by Christian Robinson

Helen: We have so many favourites in our house – too many to mention! Anything by Shirley Hughes. I would second Christian Robinson’s books – he’s a genius. When Tom and I first met, we found we had a favourite picture book from our respective childhoods in common: How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban and Quentin Blake. One of the books which has most inspired me over time is The Sneetches by the great Dr Seuss. And a book I always return to is Leon and Bob by Simon James. So understated, so much heart – and the best last line in any picture book I’ve ever read. Gets me every time.

The Screen Thief is coming in 2021. What can you tell us about it? Is it a follow-up to The Snatchabook?

Helen: The Screen Thief is about a little creature called the Snaffle who arrives in the city hoping to make friends to play with. Unfortunately, everyone is too busy looking at their screens. When the Snaffle eats a stray mobile phone out of curiosity, she develops a taste for screens… But will they ever really satisfy her hunger? This story was so much fun to write, and I love the world that Thomas has created with his illustrations. It wasn’t intended as a follow-up to The Snatchabook, but there are obvious similarities. And Snatchabook fans might enjoy spotting Eliza and her friend on a couple of pages in The Screen Thief.

Do you have any other projects on the horizon?

Thomas: I’ve got a new book of my own out with Egmont in April called The Horse That Jumped – it’s full of landscapes! Helen and I are also working on a new book together for Sourcebooks in the US called Orange Moon, Blue Baboon and I’m just starting the illustrations for that now.

Helen: I have three other picture books commissioned by different publishers, all soon to be illustrated (by different illustrators, not Thomas): All the Things We Carry, The Bee Who Loved Words and Someone Just Like You. And of course, I’m always working on new story ideas… Watch this space!

Thanks again to Helen and Thomas for taking the time to answer our questions. Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell is published by Sourcebooks and is available from your local independent bookshop.

Thomas’ new book, The Horse That Jumped is published in April 2021 by Egmont. The Screen Thief publishes with Alison Green Books in May 2021.

Follow Thomas on Twitter and visit his website. Follow Helen and click here for her website.

My Name Is River Blog Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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


Emma’s Favourite Journey Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie Anderson Wins Wales Book of The Year

Sophie with her Wales Book of the Year trophy and the winning 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 Children’s category?!’

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 their identity.

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 writing?

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 different?

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 successful!

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 Wales.

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.

#TheMab

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:

“The Mabinogion is part of our cultural heritage and to have these amazing contemporary authors, representative of the very best in children’s writing from Wales, is a real coup. It promises to be an essential and important volume for a new generation.” 

Simon Fisher, Family Bookworms

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…

I am overjoyed to be collaborating on this magical project with a group of writers that are inspirational, artful and delicate in their gathering of words. As a poet, this opportunity opens up the page and offers me space to dreaming, space to unravel, unfold and stretch my ideas – and I’ll be listening to the whispers, to the mutterings of the old tales.

Alex wharton

I am delighted to have been invited to contribute to this project, especially as I have moved to Pembrokeshire where so much of the action of the Mabinogion takes place. The stories are so strange, like something translated with a slightly dodgy Rosetta stone; but what I love about them is the echos they carry of a long lost world where wolves howled on the Welsh hills and the landscape was populated not with humans but with wild species in abundance. Immersing myself in that world with its priorities so very different from our own, is going to be a deep pleasure.

nicola davies

I remember my primary school teacher reading the Mabinogion to us in class. The Owl Service (inspired by the story of Gronw and Blodeuwedd) was one of my favourite books growing up. I rediscovered my love for these tireless tales in adulthood, so much so I gifted my son with the middle name Lleu. I am honoured and excited to work on this project and weave myself even more closely to the legacy of these fascinating stories.

Hanan issa

We dream in myths and they in us. They are a society’s safety valve. All our taboos, our deepest fears and desires are played out through the symbolic language of myth and thereby rendered to some extent harmless.

zillah bethell

I’m relishing the opportunity to work on these historic stories with such a fantastic group of writers. Eloise has been doing wonderful things as Children’s Laureate Wales – so I was delighted when she asked me to be part of this.

darren chetty

My mother used to tell my brothers and I all kinds of stories when we were young, but the stories from the Mabinogion always felt extra special, because we knew they were stories from Wales, our home. To be invited to be part of this wonderful project is honestly a dream come true. I believe it is hugely important to preserve the stories from the past, because they are full of wisdom and magic and adventures that speak to our souls. But to preserve these tales, we need to keep retelling them in ways that ignite the interest of readers today. The talent and passion of the creatives working on this project is going to make this a very special book that I know will be treasured by generations of readers to come.

sophie anderson

I didn’t discover the stories from the Mabinogion until embarrassingly late in life, despite having grown up a stone’s throw from Caerleon, where Arthur holds court in many of the tales. For whatever reason, the Mabinogion just didn’t seem to feature in my cultural landscape at the time. That’s why I’m so happy to be part of this fantastic group of artists that Eloise and Matt have assembled. I can’t wait to help share all the magic and strangeness, the adventure and humour with a new generation of readers across Wales and beyond.

P g bell

This is my copy of The Mab from around 1976, maybe earlier. It’s got Olwen on the cover and it’s so floppy and old (although not as much as me) it’s losing pages. I loved it: Welshness was an important part of my identity growing up in London and this book with its weird weighty words is hardwired into my heart. I always always wanted to write something that used the bones of these stories and this is a brilliant brilliant opportunity.

catherine johnson

I’ve spent the past year immersed in Welsh folklore for my own books, so I’m tremendously excited to be a part of this project. What I love most about these ancient tales are the gaps – events that are never properly explained, threads of stories that are left dangling. It’s like seeing a landscape through mist, and it gives tremendous scope to interpret and reimagine. The stories of the Mabinogi explore everything that’s human, from family and friendship to cruelty and murder. Best of all is the sense that the Otherworld of magic is never far away. I’m looking forward to seeing these stories brought to life in a new way for today’s readers.

claire fayers

These stories are part of our heritage and should be in every classroom and every home. By crowdfunding the book we’re making it part of everyone who helps get it made.

matt brown

The Mab is an amazing new book retelling all 11 stories for young people. They are the oldest British stories and #TheMab will help new generations of children fall in love with them. But we need your help – please visit the Unbound page to pledge your support.

eloise williams

The Mab will feature illustrations by Max Low.

I’m really chuffed to be illustrating this wicked update to the legendary Welsh tales from The Mabinogion.

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.

Wales Book of the Year 2020

Which of the three shortlisted books for children gets your vote? We ask 3 bloggers to fight their corner.

We invited Anne Thompson (A Library Lady), Caroline Fielding (Teen Librarian) and Lilyfae (Lily and the Fae) to have their say.

Wales Book of the Year is Wales’ national book prize from Literature Wales, celebrating “outstanding literary talent from Wales across various genres in both English and Welsh.” For the first time, books for children and young people are celebrated amongst the shortlisted titles which features additional categories for Poetry, Fiction and Creative Non-fiction for adults. 

The shortlisted books in the children’s category are:

  • Butterflies for Grandpa Joe by Nicola Davies (Barrington Stoke)
  • The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson (Usborne)
  • Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day (Puffin)

The winners of each category, chosen by a judging panel, will be announced on 31 July and there will also be an overall winner. At the same time, a public vote is taking place to choose a popular favourite.

But who should you vote for? Well, our answer would be “all of them”, so we decided to enlist the help of three excellent bloggers as a supporter for each book.

Butterflies for Grandpa Joe by Nicola Davies

Butterflies for Grandpa Joe, written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Mike Byrne was published by Barrington Stoke in October 2019.


Synopsis


Grandpa Joe has always loved butterflies. There used to be nothing he enjoyed more than heading off to search for the flutter of brightly coloured wings and snap some photos for his collection.
But since Ben’s granny passed away, Grandpa Joe has changed. He doesn’t want to go outside, and nothing Ben says or does makes him smile. It feels like Grandpa Joe is slipping away too. So there’s only one thing left to try – if Grandpa Joe won’t come searching for butterflies, Ben will bring the butterflies to him …

Nicola Davies lives in Pembrokeshire, having recently moved from the Powys hills. She is the author of over 60 books published mostly by Walker, Hachette and Welsh publisher Graffeg – most of which draw on Nicola’s zoological knowledge. In September she publishes the first book to feature her own illustrations – Last, with Tiny Owl.

Championing Butterflies for Grandpa Joe is experienced school and public librarian and all-round children’s book enthusiast, Anne Thompson (@Alibrarylady).

“Sometimes children’s fiction can do more than entertain; it can comfort, enlighten and educate. Butterflies for Grandpa Joe does all of these things and in an accessible format. A lovely children’s book that well deserves this recognition.”

Anne Thompson, @Alibrarylady

In her blog, alibrarylady.blog, Anne sings the praises of this gentle story, which “conveys how love across the generations and the healing power of nature can soothe the heartache of grief and give hope for the future.” She goes on to say that “this lovely book deserves a place in every primary school library and classroom.” To read Anne’s full review follow this link.

Familybookworms say: Butterflies for Grandpa Joe is a gorgeous story that will pull at your heartstrings. Nicola is a master of empathy and this book had us in tears. A really special book.

Watch Nicola speak about the book in her official shortlisting video for Lit Wales here.

The Girl who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson

The Girl who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson with illustrations by Kathrin Honesta was published by Usborne in September 2019.


Synopsis


Found abandoned in a bear cave as a baby, Yanka has always wondered about where she is from. She tries to ignore the strange whispers and looks from the villagers, wishing she was as strong on the inside as she is on the outside. But, when she has to flee her house, looking for answers about who she really is, a journey far beyond one that she ever imagined begins: from icy rivers to smouldering mountains meeting an ever-growing herd of extraordinary friends along the way.

Sophie Anderson was born and raised in Swansea. Her first novel, The House with Chicken Legs, won several awards and was shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, the Blue Peter Book Award and the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize amongst others. This autumn she publishes her 3rd adventure, The Castle of Tangled Magic.

Championing The Girl Who Speaks Bear is Lilyfae, blogger at lilyandthefae.wordpress.com who blogs on Children’s books and reading for pleasure with her two girls and tweets from @faeryartemis.

“Sophie’s writing is a rich tapestry, weaving family, folklore, history and mythology with her own vivid imagination. The Girl Who Speaks Bear is a powerful exploration of finding oneself, embracing your differences and finding your pride. It’s a thrilling adventure exquisitely told. Sophie is a modern day bard.”

Lilyfae, @faeryartemis

In her blog, lilyandthefae.wordpress.com, Lily says, “This is a wonderful book full of hope, strength and warmth that will appeal across the ages and generations. I’ve been reading this aloud with my daughters, and this style of narrative interspersed with short folk tales has been a real experience. The bitesize folkish interjections give both relief and colour to the story and their ancient rhythms and themes reach a timeless place within the reader, and speaks truths that even the youngest can understand.” To read Lily’s full review follow this link.

Familybookworms say: The Girl Who Speaks Bear is a brilliant and beautiful adventure by one of our favourite writers. It’s a thrilling and spellbinding tale that has brought us a lot of joy.

Watch Sophie talk about the book in her official shortlisting video for Lit Wales here:

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It was published by Puffin in September 2019.


Synopsis


Max wants to be just like his dad – fun, loud and strong.
Instead, he always seems to be accidentally getting into fights and breaking things.
But when his dad starts bringing home mysterious boxes, even more mysterious wads of cash starts turning up.
Then Dad disappears. And it’s up to Max to look after his sisters until he comes home.
When they run away to a remote village in Wales, he’s convinced that no one will find them.
He’s Max Kowalski. Of course he can look after three kids with no grownups around!
Although, he can’t stop thinking about where Dad really went. And the whispers of a golden dragon, asleep under the Welsh mountains…

Susie Day was born and raised in Penarth. She is responsible for the Pea series and the Secrets series as well as recently contributing a short story to a Doctor Who anthology. Max Kowalski was also on the shortlist for the recent Tir na-nOg Award.

Championing Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It is Caroline Fielding, past judge for the Carnegie Kate Greenaway and a chartered school librarian. She blogs at teenlibrarian.co.uk and tweets @CazApr1.

“Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It deserves all the prizes for tackling toxic masculinity with such a light touch. It is full of warmth, humour and wonderful descriptions of the Welsh mountains.”

Caroline Fielding, @CazApr1

In the blog, teenlibrarian.co.uk, Caroline speaks of seeing Louie Stowell’s ingenious review, “If Jacqueline Wilson ganged up with Alan Garner and remixed A Monster Calls, with dragons. Powerful and deep.” She goes on to say that Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It is everything it promises to be – brilliant, warm and funny featuring “fabulous characters in pretty dire but totally believable circumstances.” Caroline features an interview with Susie Day on the teen librarian website.

Familybookworms say: Max Kowalski is a fantastically original and heartfelt tale about growing up, dealing with siblings and inner dragons. This witty and emotional book shows middle grade readers that empathy and stories make for a better world.

Watch Susie talk about her shortlisting in this official video from Literature Wales:

Huge thanks to Anne, Caroline and Lily for allowing us to quote and link to their reviews. Follow them on Twitter and subscribe to their blogs! Do head over to the public vote too, run by Wales Arts Review to place your vote for one of these brilliant books. And if you’re concerned about not having read one of them, you can put that right this summer…