Carnegie Medal nominee and Tir na n-Og Award winner, Elen Caldecott’s new novel is published with Andersen Press on 2 June. We are delighted to present an exclusive reveal of the cover, illustrated by Rachael Dean.
Cassie’s older brother Byron has fallen in with the wrong crowd – it’s soon clear these boys are wild, reckless and not human at all. They are tylwyth teg – Fair Folk, who tempt humans down into the dark places of the world. And Byron is tempted.
When he goes missing, Cassie and her cousin, Siân, follow his trail to an old abandoned railway tunnel which goes down and down into Annwn, the underworld. Here they find that the tylwyth teg are restless – and angry. Their leader, Gwenhidw, wants to protect Annwn from the damage humans are doing to the world. Byron is part of her plan. Cassie won’t let her big brother be part of anyone’s plan. But can rescuing him really be that easy?
Andersen says the book is suitable for age 9+, and there seems no doubt that this is going to become one of our favourite Middle Grade adventures in 2022. Anticipation levels are heightened!
Author, Elen Caldecott, told us, “When I was a child, my sister and I would beg Mum to read to us from her collection of Welsh Folk Tales – both of us had been named after characters in the book (I’d got off lightly with Elen, my poor sister, not so much). We’d listen, enthralled, to stories of the tylwyth teg, the magical creatures who were easily angered, who beguiled careless humans and led them astray. As an adult, I wanted to return to these stories. But now, I wondered, what would the tylwyth teg make of post-industrial Wales? What would they make of council estates, of children on tablets and smart phones, of chapels converted into flats or boarded-up completely? What would these creatures of legend make of the Wales of today? In The Blackthorn Branch, the past and the present, the myth and the reality, come together in one story. It was a joy to write, and I hope that young readers find just as much to love about it as my sister and I found in those old tales.”
Cover artist Rachael Dean lives in a seaside village just north of Liverpool. Her work is traditionally and digitally painted, and she loves to illustrate natural scenery. She recently became the new illustrator for Dame Jacqueline Wilson and has also illustrated covers for Sally Nicholls, Aisha Bushby, Lauren St John and Bali Rae.
On illustrating The Blackthorn Branch, Rachael told us, “I thoroughly enjoyed delving into the world of welsh folklore for The Blackthorn Branch cover. It was a wonderful story to illustrate and I absolutely loved working on the decorative elements!”
Elen Caldecott grew up in North Wales. After her Welsh language education she studied archaeology and then creative writing, graduating with an MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. Her debut novel, How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant, was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and longlisted for the Carnegie Medal.
What’s the strangest thing to be sent through the post? Well, after a few hours down several internet rabbit holes, I can tell you that there are no limits to the things that people have attempted to send through our beloved Royal Mail. Pets, children, suffragettes, bricks, shepherd’s pie (warm), game (just a label around the neck will do) and a severed ear have all been wrapped and sent in the history of the international postal service. “Mail artists” have sought to push the envelope (thank you very much) and write addresses on unwrapped items such as leaves, apples, potatoes and a piece of toast.
It appears Holly Rivers was inspired by these tales to write The Boy in The Post (charming and funny with a golden heart), her second novel with Chicken House. The book features children mailing themselves to New York in order to solve their problem. You see, the Shalloo siblings have taken on a job for the summer holidays. Their mum is too wrapped up in her second-hand car business to give them her attention and so they answer the call of Grandy Brock to help him establish a new kind of postal service. The kind of postal service that has animals delivering the mail. Animails. Yes that’s right – Grandy Brock has a menagerie of feathers and furs (as well as a rather impressive number of his own children) and is trying to get his new business venture off the ground.
Taber, the youngest of the Shalloo siblings, is responsible for training Geronimo, a pelican, to find it’s way home. Using inbuilt navigation systems, this all goes rather swimmingly (soaringly?) and the bird becomes the best homing pelican you can imagine. However, following an international flight, the bird fails to return home and Taber holds himself responsible. The young boy takes off in the middle of the night, posting himself with a shipment to New York. Taber’s brother and sister become very concerned for him and crate themselves off in a similar manner, embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.
The book has a very classic, vintage feel. The characters are brilliant – written with so much joy you can’t fail to fall in love with them. Grandy Brock is a favourite. He’s eccentric and peculiar but has “a mischievous twinkle in his eyes that hinted at adventure and excitement and fun.” He’s warm and generous and shows kindness that the Shalloo siblings have rarely seen. The book is also laden with some of the best postal-related puns you are ever likely to feast on (it’s all in the delivery!) Now that’s definitely something to write home about.
We’re delighted to be able to share this Q and A with Holly Rivers which delves a bit further into the inspiration behind the book:
Tell us a little about your new novel, The Boy in the Post
The Boy in the Post is a postal-themed adventure story set across land, sea and sky! It follows the Shalloo siblings — adventurous twelve year old Orinthia; nature-loving five year old Taber; and sensible middle child Séafra.
During the summer holidays the three siblings accept a summer job from an eccentric old man called Grandy Brock who lives in a tumbledown windmill. He and his five adopted children are opening a very special postal service called The Mailbox Menagerie, which is to be staffed entirely by animals and birds! The Shalloo siblings become especially fond of Geronimo, a homing pelican. But when the big bird fails to return from a delivery to New York, the Shalloo siblings have no choice but to post themselves across the Atlantic to find her…
What inspired the story?
The story was inspired by a fascinating article published by The Smithsonian Institute, about children who were sent through the mail in the 1900s. Yes, back then it was legal to send your kids through the post! The first child delivered by the U.S. parcel post service was a boy in Ohio, in 1913 — his parents paid 15 cents for the stamps and insured their son for $50, who was then delivered to his Grandmother’s house a few miles away. Even though these children weren’t technically stuffed into mailbags (and instead travelled in the mail vans of trusted postmen) I couldn’t help but start imagining prospective characters being wrapped in brown paper and stamps being stuck to their foreheads; and the idea for The Boy in the Post was born!
What was your favourite piece of information that you uncovered in your research?
I loved reading about loads of other weird and wonderful things that have been sent through the post and intercepted over the years — a turnip with the recipient’s address carved into its flesh; a hive of live bees; false teeth; jars of scorpions; prosthetic limbs; a pair of underpants with an address scrawled across the crotch; a first edition copy of Ulysses deemed ‘obscene’; a brace of game birds; a tree trunk; a building’s worth of bricks; and two suffragettes hoping to get to Herbert Asquith! The bizarre and eccentric side of humanity never fails to inspire and entertain me!
Who were your favourite characters to write?
I had a hoot (excuse the pun) coming up with ideas for my animails — the animals and birds that work at The Mailbox Menagerie. I really let my imagination run wild and ended up penning a homing pelican who gets paid in sardines; a fruit bat who will only work the night shift; a pair of Sphynx cats in charge of licking stamps; an octopus who can deliver 8 parcels at a time; and snakes who cane spell out postcodes with their bodies. All the while I had my own pet chihuahua, Silver snuggled up on my lap — whose snores and farts and woofs made the experience all the richer! She even turns up in the last chapter of the book…..
What do you think the key message is to take away from the book?
I hope that the story inspires readers to embrace more old-school ways of communicating in their post-pandemic lives. During lockdown — a time dominated by zoom calls and emails — sending and receiving letters from family and friends during brought me so much joy; and there was nothing lovelier than hearing the postman coming up the garden path. I hope the book inspires children to switch off their screens, go buy some stamps and put pen to paper. I’m always open to receiving letters from new pen-pals!
You wrote the book during lockdown, how was that as an experience compared to writing your first novel Demelza and the Spectre Detectors?
When I was working on Demelza I was able to take my laptop to so many different locations to write — libraries, cosy pubs, cafes, parks, the northbound Piccadilly line, number 91 bus! But because of lockdown and the fact that all of our worlds had suddenly become a lot smaller, the entirety of The Boy in The Post was written at an antique desk gifted to me by Grandma. I was surprisingly focused and motivated during lockdown and managed to write the first draft of the book fairly quickly. Penning an epic transatlantic adventure also meant that I could travel the world and go on a journey even though I wasn’t allowed to leave the house — it felt like a real tonic!
You work as a children’s workshop facilitator, does this help to inform your writing?
As you can see from the acknowledgments sections of both Demelza and The Boy In The Post, the children I work with are a huge inspiration to me and my writing. They buoy me with their ideas, energy, humour, warmth and imagination, and I’m always jotting down the unusual and funny things they come out with! Being around children so much reminds me to remain playful, and they stop me from turning into too much of a grumpy old grown-up!
Thank you to Holly and Laura for the Q and A and for allowing us to host today’s post on the Blog Tour. The Boy in The Post is available now to buy in your local independent bookshop, published by Chicken House. You can follow Holly on Twitter.
We are very happy to be part of the blog tour for His Royal Hopeless, the debut novel from Chloë Perrin, published by Chicken House. We heard that Chloë had been brought up in North Wales so were keen to support them and find out more.
His Royal Hopeless is funny, tender and wise, centering on Robbie – the heir to the Sinistevils – the most wicked dynasty in the world. He can’t wait to pledge his heart to the menacing power of the family Sceptre and embark on his bloodthirsty future. The thing is, Robbie is … well … nice. And when he discovers his heart has been swapped for clockwork, he’s incapable of believing Mother had dark intentions. Instead, he embarks on a quest to retrieve his heart, claim his wicked destiny, and secure Mother’s pride at last. But Mother has other ideas …
Billed as ‘Despicable Me’ meets ‘The Descendants’, this is a fun and absorbing fairy tale from a new voice in middle-grade fiction.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading The Peculiar Tale of the Tentacle Boy by Richard Pickard at the moment – it’s an offbeat adventure about a girl and a mysterious boy with tentacles for hair and crab claws for hands. It’s really heartfelt, funny and wonderfully twisted (all my favourite things in a book).
What are your favourite books?
I absolutely LOVE Terry Pratchett and the Discworld
series, his “fantasy-gone-wrong” tone really influenced me as a writer! I also
love Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, for the wonderful and
hilarious characters but also for the complete Welsh-ness of it all.
Where and when do you write? Do you have a routine?
My writing routine is woefully non-existent!! I tend
to end up writing in any spare moment I have, usually late at night fuelled by
dangerous amounts of coffee and toast (would not recommend).
What was your journey to publication?
My journey to publication was quite a fun one. I
entered His Royal Hopeless in the Times Chicken House competition
in 2019 and was longlisted, which was amazing! However, when I didn’t make the
shortlist I assumed HRH’s journey was over for the time being- until I got a
phone call from Chicken House saying that while HRH wasn’t right for the
competition they still wanted to have a chat about it. A coffee-shop meeting
and several panicked emails to my university lecturers with the subject header
“what do I do what do I do???” later, and HRH was on its way to publication!
You are a “North Walian writer who currently lives in London”. Tell us about your Welsh upbringing.
I grew up in the tourist town of Llandudno and lived there for most of my life. Llandudno isn’t such a rural area but there’s still mountains whichever way you look, castle ruins down the road and wild goats wandering the streets completely nonplussed by the people. And, of course, there’s Snowdon, Yr Wyddfa, less than an hour away. I love the history you see walking around London, but nothing will beat the wildness of North Wales for me.
Does Wales or coming from Wales, have any influence on your writing?
I think all the things I mentioned about North Wales
in the previous question pretty much set me up to write fantasy-adventure
stories. The fact that Robbie and Layla need to traverse through deep forests
and treacherous mountains is a very Welsh influence on HRH. I also used to work
as a storyteller, which involved reciting Welsh folklore by heart, and the
constant practice of retelling exciting and often frightening stories about
castles and magic and devious villains really moulded what I’d eventually end
up writing down.
In His Royal Hopeless, there is an optimistic message for readers about forging your own path and accepting yourself for who you are. How deliberate and planned was this?
Without giving anything away, I always wanted HRH to
be a book about understanding yourself in spite of what the world around you is
telling you to be, so it was very deliberate. The optimism, I went back and
forth on- I appreciate children’s books that give layers of reality to the
lessons they teach, and I definitely didn’t want to completely sugar coat the
ending of HRH. Hopefully I struck the right balance, but we’ll see what people
What are your hopes for His Royal Hopeless?
I hope that HRH will give perspective to people who
may be in Robbie’s situation without realising it. It’s SO easy for us to get
stuck trying to be something that’s actually harming us, and no one is immune
to Robbie’s level of obliviousness. But honestly, I’ll just be happy if the
readers laugh at the jokes!
What’s the best piece of writing advice you have received?
Have projects ready. They don’t need to be polished,
but when competitions start calling for submissions you don’t want to be stuck
with only a third of a first draft to hand.
The book is brilliantly illustrated by George Ermos, including some internal illustrations. What were your thoughts when you first saw them?
I ADORED them!! My biggest anxiety around HRH wasn’t
“what if people don’t like it?”, but “what if it has a bad cover?” The moment I
was told George Ermos was designing it, however, I never had that worry again.
I was honestly stunned by the final design. George Ermos has done an absolutely
amazing job. And Robbie’s crown! I very much want that crown.
Could you recommend any other books for those who enjoy His Royal Hopeless?
The books I mentioned before – any of Pratchett’s middle grade work or Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle. I wouldn’t dare put myself on their level but we do share a “this is fantasy but not quite how you remember it” tone I know children will love. Also, they’re hilarious.
Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
A few little things, but I’ll also be starting my
Creative Writing MA at Brunel University London this year so I’m going to be
busy either way!
What question have we forgotten to ask you?
What my favourite sweet is, and it’s
Terry’s Chocolate Oranges. And yes, if you see me in the street you should definitely hand me one and I will graciously
HIS ROYAL HOPELESS by Chloë Perrin is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House), available from all good bookshops including your local independent store.
Thank you to Chloë for answering our questions. Follow Chloë on Instagram @chloeperrin_author and Twitter @ChloePerrinUK
The Song That Sings Us is an exhilarating new novel from Nicola Davies to be published in October by Firefly Press. We feel hugely privileged to be asked to reveal the cover which features stunning artwork by Jackie Morris.
The Song That Sings Us is the story of twins Ash and Xeno, and their older sister Harlon, who has been raised to protect her younger siblings because they have siardw: a power to communicate with animals that is outlawed by the state. But when the ruling sinister Automators attack their mountain home, they are forced to flee for their lives. It is an immediately gripping edge-of-the-seat first chapter, which sees the siblings escape on snowboards down a dangerous gully.
The thrilling and dangerous adventure continues as each must journey alone through the ice fields, forests and oceans of Rumyc to try to rescue the others and fulfil a mysterious promise about a lost island made to their mother.
Nicola told us: “The Song that Sings Us is rooted in all that I really know about animals; their ability to think, to feel and to communicate. But it is not set in the real world; it is a fantasy adventure with chases and escapes, fights and mysteries, death and miraculous life. It contains magic, but that part of the story is real – the real magic of nature with which every human has deep need to connect.
“I hope that, in travelling to this fantasy world, readers will see the truth of ours.”
The book has a touching dedication to Jackie Morris, Cathy Fisher and Molly Howell, and whilst Jackie Morris and Nicola Davies have been friends for years, this is the first time they have worked together. As well as the cover illustration, Jackie has created beautiful artwork for the chapter headings.
Jackie Morris said, “When you love a book so much it is the hardest thing to work on the cover. I try to give everything to every piece of work I do, but in this case there was the long friendship I have with Nicola Davies, a person I both love and admire, AND the fact that the story is amazing.
“Trying to do the words justice is always the problem. For this cover I worked on clapboard, a medium new to me, but one that made the colours of the starling really sing. They are such beautiful birds. And it was so important that the image sings, in every way possible. Finding the image for the book, that’s another problem, but somehow that little starling, so full of its own power, she is what sang out from the text.
“I heard this book first. Nicola and I often would call each other when we’d done the first drafts of a work, and read to each other. Restrictions had eased and Nicola, Cathy Fisher and I were a bubble, and Nicola would come around every week with the next ‘instalment’. How utterly amazing. It made images dance in my mind’s eye. It was an honour and a privilege to work on this cover. For now it’s the best it can be, and my hope is it’s the beginning of a series. I cannot wait for the next one.”
Special proof copies of The Song That Sings Us are landing on doormats this week. A limited edition deluxe gift hardback, is available to pre-order now and will be published on 14th October 2021. Visit the Firefly Press website to place your order.
Follow Nicola and Jackie and Firefly on Twitter for more updates. You can listen to Nicola read the first chapter of The Song That Sings Us below.
We are absolutely thrilled to be taking part in this Blog Tour for Swansea-based author and illustrator, Helen and Thomas Docherty. They really are the perfect picturebook pairing and have just published yet another playful, engaging and colourful story that will entertain by the bucketload.
The Snaffle has arrived in the city and she just wants to play – but everyone is distracted by phones, tablets and devices. They don’t seem to have time for each other. So the Snaffle becomes The Screen Thief and embarks on a mission to change the city into a more playful and more caring place. Ultimately, eating screens doesn’t do this for her, and leaves her feeling lonely, but a wonderful friend called Max is kind and caring and together they put things right.
Clearly ‘screen time’ is a huge issue for parents and teachers and striking a balance is important in all our lives, so this book will appeal to everyone looking to provide more than a subtle dose of encouragement to adopt healthier habits.
Helen’s joyous rhyming text is funny and great fun to read aloud. Thomas’ illustrations are so vibrant and full of detail – we’ve been poring over them over several bedtimes, reading the emotions of the characters and looking how they change through the story.
It’s totally apt therefore that Thomas joins us on this blog tour to give an insight into the illustration process.
Creating the Snaffle: Thomas Docherty on illustrating THE SCREEN THIEF
Throughout the story, the Snaffle
goes through a whole range of emotions, so above all she had to be expressive. At
the same time she gets up to plenty of mischief, so she needed to be dynamic. I
also had to make sure that she was loveable. After all, she acts with the
innocent impulses of a small child and that vulnerability comes through at the
end of the story.
As always, she went through many
versions before we decided on the final design. From the start, her general
body shape remained more or less the same. The hard part was solving the
question of how to resolve her face and head.
In the end I found that the long ears helped to make her very expressive
and the trunk was fun and surprising. It was also good for sniffing and tasting
It mentions in the text that the
Snaffle is small and blue. I was going to be painting the illustrations by hand
and I wanted the Snaffle to stand out. I found a bottle of blue ink that I
particularly liked, renamed it SNAFFLE BLUE and used it only for painting the
I had a lot of fun hiding the Snaffle
in the library, the cinema and the TV shop and I hope children will enjoy
looking for her in the illustrations. My favourite moment where she eats a
screen is when she is walking away with the ice cream sign from outside the
When I’m creating a book, lots of the
ideas never get included. If there was one set of pictures I would have liked
to keep, it was of the Snaffle reacting to the different tastes and textures of
the screens. In the end there just wasn’t room for everything.
One early idea that I’m glad was
taken out was a moment where the Snaffle is arrested by the police for eating
everyone’s screens. It’s just too sad!
The city is full of so many other
characters. Originally I imagined these as made up creatures but in the end we
went for animals, which made the Snaffle stand out more.
I had so much fun drawing them all
glued to their screens, oblivious to everything around them.
Of course the Snaffle wants to join
Creating The City
One of the fun things about
illustrating The Screen Thief was
that it is set in a city. I hadn’t drawn a city before in a picture book and I
was excited about all the visual opportunities that this presented. It also
meant a huge amount of work as I had to plan the city from scratch.
At the beginning, I tried a slightly
futuristic city with rounded buildings and bubble cars. However, in the end we
decided that it would be more relatable to children if it was set in the
The most complicated image to compose
was the first page when the Snaffle arrives in the city. I tried lots of
options including a train station and coming out of a subway. In the end I
wanted to show all the main locations in the story on this page, so I went for
a roof top view of a square. You can see Max’s house, the Library, the cinema
and the park.
I even drew myself a map to make sure
I knew where all the other places the Snaffle visits made sense.
The city is full of shops selling all
sorts of things (I actually walked past a cactus shop just like this recently!).
Of course the Snaffle is only interested in the TV shop…
As always, some of my rough ideas
didn’t make it into the book. I did some sketches of inside the animal’s homes
and some other locations which would have been fun to include.
Although cities are full of life, the
Snaffle soon discovers that they can be lonely places too. There is a moment in
the story where despite all the screens the Snaffle has gobbled, she still
feels empty inside. What’s missing? Nothing that a screen can give her, what
the Snaffle needs is a friend. Setting this scene in a deserted ally seemed to
fit the Snaffle’s mood.
The park is not mentioned in the text,
but it seemed the perfect place to develop the key message of the story. At the
beginning, the Snaffle comes across children in the playground. They are so
absorbed in their screens that they are not even playing. However, by the end
of the story the park has been transformed into a magical space full of activity.
Max and the Snaffle have managed to bring everyone together.
Huge thanks to Thomas Docherty for preparing this blog and sharing his insight and these amazing images.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
‘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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
Books to develop insight into the culture, people and history of Wales
This St. David’s Day, we’ve decided to take a look at some brilliant stories with a Welsh context. These are books that will fire the imagination and connect children to the landscape and the communities of Wales, both now and in the past. We hope that our suggested reading list is fuel for teachers, parents and reading enthusiasts from Holyhead to Haverfordwest and Highmoor Hill to Hawarden. We also have some suggestions for activities that will help to get to know these books better.
Reception (Age 5)
Tad-cu’s Bobble Hat was Malachy Doyle’s 100th book and was recently included in the Iechyd Da wellbeing pack from the Welsh Books Council delivered to all Welsh primaries. Set in the Cambrian Mountains not far from Machynlleth, the story features a boy and his tadcu (grandfather) on walks through the hills. On one particular trip the snow falls and tadcu lends his bobble hat which is then lost. The book, illustrated by Dorry Spikes, deals with the loss of a grandparent in a very gentle way and the symbolism of the changing seasons can be explored whilst connecting with the intergenerational theme and the welsh landscapes. ‘A touching story that conveys the warmth and joy between two generations, and handles the universal themes of love, loss and renewal with gentleness. On one walk, as Tadcu gets older, his special bobble hat is lost. Winter sets in and with it, life dies. When the thaw of spring arrives, the boy returns to the hillside walk to look for the hat. Its discovery brings comfort and a renewed sense of love and positive memories.’
Year 1 (Age 6)
The Quilt by Valeriane Leblond is a wonderful picturebook that can be read and enjoyed by any age. Children and adults will be captivated by the gorgeous illustrations that take us from rural Wales at the turn of the 20th century to the New World via Liverpool. This book connects us to our past but could also open up conversations about migration, homes, family, travel as well as Wales’ unique landscapes. ‘A beautifully illustrated story about emigration and homesickness. A little girl lives with her parents on a farm near the coast, around the turn of the twentieth century. Times are hard and the family decides to emigrate to the USA, raising the fare by selling all of their possessions except for a black and red quilt lovingly hand-made by the mother. The little girl feels homesick and sad at times, but the memories and love contained in the quilt help her overcome this and adapt to her new life. The book offers a message of hope which is sure to strike a chord with many adult readers: when things look bleak, remember that happy times will return.’
Little Honey Bee also has illustrations by Valeriane Leblond and is written by Caryl Lewis. The Welsh landscapes are evident throughout the story which will connect readers to the rich plantlife of their locality through a sensitive story about a bee-keeping grandma. ‘One wintry night, Elsi is left on her grandmother’s doorstep. Elsi is as silent as snow until Grandma shows her a secret at the bottom of the garden…’
Year 2 (Age 7)
Owen and the Mountain by Malachy Doyle and Giles Greenfield has echoes of Tadcu’s Bobble Hat in that it highlights a warm and loving relationship between a boy and his grandfather. Climbing the remote Welsh mountain can be seen as a metaphor that is difficult for both grandfather and grandson. Ultimately this is a story about love, achieving your heart’s desire and the glory of nature. ‘Owen is visiting his grandad and he wants to climb the mountain. But his grandad is not sure. The journey is long and tiring and when they succeed they are not only happy to have completed a difficult task but have also learnt a bit more about each other.’
The Seal Children by Jackie Morris is a story built on the celtic myth of half-woman half-seal selkies, and is set just above St. David’s Head. ‘When a fisherman falls in love with a selkie she gives him her sealskin as a sign of her love, and bears him two children, Ffion and Morlo, before returning to her own people. When a stranger comes to the village, telling of a land far away, the children remember their mother’s stories of the cities of gold and pearls beneath the waves…’ The Hamilton Trust have written teaching notes for The Seal Children aimed at Year 4, and you can hear Jackie read the book below.
Cities in the Sea
While considering books for this list, it became clear that there are many excellent quality stories about the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod – the prosperous land accidently flooded when the gates to the low-lying kingdom were left open. These three versions are suitable to read together (and work great as a read-aloud) to bridge the journey between Year 2 and Year 3.
Year 3 (Age 8)
Wendy White has some really brilliant stories all about Welsh communities. Short manageable chapters make these great books for newly independent readers to try for themselves. But there’s great humour to be had in reading aloud – especially the Welsh caricatures in the seasonally apt St. David’s Day Is Cancelled.
The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo is a classic story that has to be included in this list. About to mark its 35th birthday following the recent TV adaptation by Owen Sheers, The Snow Spider is another story that features the Welsh landscape almost as an additional character. It’s also great for empathy as readers have to come to terms with the reactions of different family members to the disappearance of Gwyn’s sister. More mature readers could be encouraged to investigate the links to the Mabinogion. ‘Gwyn’s grandmother leaves him five gifts: a brooch, a piece of dried seaweed, a tin whistle, a scarf, and a broken toy horse. She tells him they will help make him a magician – but can Gwyn use them to bring his missing sister, Bethan, home?’
Year 4 (Age 9)
Two books that have dual Italian-Welsh heritage are Sweet Pizza and King of the Sky. Both of these books provide opportunities for children to discover an important part of Welsh history – Italian cafes or ice-cream parlours were commonplace at one time. Sweet Pizza by G.R. Gemin, is about a South Wales valley café under threat; Joe, has an entrepreneurial spirit like his immigrant ancestors; he is unwilling to accept that the café is a lost cause and has ideas to breathe new life into it and make it the centre of the community once more. The pride that Joe feels for his own heritage, his ancestors and the valley in which he lives is obvious and infectious in this heart-warming book. ‘Joe loves his Italian heritage: the language, the opera, the lasagne! But it’s hard to celebrate his Italian roots in Bryn Mawr, South Wales, where his mam is sick of running the family’s tatty café. Just like his great-grandfather, who opened the café in 1929, Joe is an entrepreneur. He vows to save the family business, and to spice up the tired High Street with a little Italian flavour!’
King of the Sky, meanwhile, features an Italian boy who is finding it hard to call Wales home. Only when he meets the pigeon-racing Mr Evans does he begin to connect and start to belong. Nicola Davies’ perfectly pitched prose and Laura Carlin’s earthy illustrations make this a delightfully evocative book about Wales’ recent past. The book is one of many on this list that would work with all ages, and there are lots of teacher notes available to download. We particularly like the ones from Walker and Amnesty. We made a video about King of the Sky when it was shortlisted for the Tir na n-Og Award in 2018. It made me smile to go back, so here it is again…
The most recent winner of the Tir na n-Og Award (an award for children’s books that have an authentic Welsh context), is Storm Hound by Claire Fayers. I have recently used Storm Hound as a Whole Class Read in my Year 4 class so can vouch that it totally engaged and enthused the children. Based on both Norse and Welsh mythology the story centres on a family new to Abergavenny who adopt a puppy from the Dog Centre; he just happens to be one of the Hounds of Odin’s Wild Hunt! Funny, fast-paced and hugely satisfying with lots of layers to unpeel. ‘Storm of Odin is the youngest stormhound of the Wild Hunt that haunts lightning-filled skies. He has longed for the time when he will be able to join his brothers and sisters but on his very first hunt he finds he can’t keep up and falls to earth, landing on the A40 just outside Abergavenny. Enter twelve-year-old Jessica Price, who finds and adopts a cute puppy from an animal rescue centre. And suddenly, a number of strange people seem very interested in her and her new pet, Storm. People who seem to know a lot about magic . . . Jessica starts to see that there’s something different about her beloved dog and will need to work out which of her new friends she can trust.’
The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr was only published at the start of 2021 but it already feels like it belongs in this list. In fact, it feels like a classic as you read it and I’m sure many schools will be adopting it for their teaching as the word begins to spread. It’s a brilliant World War II evacuee story that we described as “a moving love song to the valleys”.
‘When Jimmy is evacuated to a small village in Wales, it couldn’t be more different from London. Green, quiet and full of strangers, he instantly feels out of place. But then he finds a skull hidden in a tree, and suddenly the valley is more frightening than the war. Who can Jimmy trust? His brother is too little; his best friend has changed. Finding an ally in someone he never expects, they set out together to uncover the secrets that lie with the skull. What they discover will change Jimmy – and the village – forever.‘
The Clockwork Crow is a world-class fantasy for children by Catherine Fisher, set at the end of the Victorian era. Taking the myth of the Tylwyth Teg and using it to inspire a trilogy of stories located in a Mid-Wales manor house, provides a treasure trove of interesting links. The eponymous Crow has a mystery of his own, but the talking corvid is not the central character. Seren is an orphan who seeks to belong and is determined to solve the central mystery of a missing child. ‘A magical story of snow and stars; a mysterious gothic Christmas tale set in a frost-bound Victorian country mansion. When orphaned Seren Rees is given a mysterious package by a strange and frightened man on her way to her new home, she reluctantly takes it with her. But what is in the parcel? Who are the Family who must not be spoken of, and can the Crow help Seren find Tomos, before the owner of the parcel finds her?’
Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day is an extraordinary book. A witty, gritty, profound adventure set in the heart of Snowdonia. It’s got sibling rivalry, dragons and mountains. It’s fresh, it’s real, it’ll make you cry. One reviewer described it as “Jacqueline Wilson meets Alan Garner” and there’s no doubt that this is a raw coming-of-age adventure. ‘Max wants to be just like his dad – fun, loud and strong. Instead, he always seems to be accidentally getting into fights and breaking things. But when his dad starts bringing home mysterious boxes, even more mysterious wads of cash starts turning up. Then Dad disappears. And it’s up to Max to look after his sisters until he comes home.
When they run away to a remote village in Wales, he’s convinced that no one will find them. He’s Max Kowalski. Of course he can look after three kids with no grownups around! Although, he can’t stop thinking about where Dad really went. And the whispers of a golden dragon, asleep under the Welsh mountains…’
Gaslight is a highly atmospheric and very dramatic historical fiction set in Victorian Cardiff. Wales’ Children’s Laureate, Eloise Williams has crafted a rich and vividly descriptive novel that will have you on the edge of your seat. Nansi is the central character, trying to solve the disappearance of her mother, whilst scraping a living between bit parts on the Empire Theatre stage and thieving from rich households. Nansi dreams of finding her own identity and freeing herself from the perilous life she leads. In parts bleak and brutal, this is a gripping tale that will fire many imaginations. ‘All Nansi knows is that her mother disappeared on the day she was fished out of Cardiff docks. Now, in 1899, she can’t remember anything else. With no other family to turn to, she works for Sid at the Empire Theatre, sometimes legally, sometimes thieving to order, trying to earn enough money to hire a detective to find her mother. Everything changes when Constance and Violet join the theatre, both with their own dark secrets. Nansi is forced to be part of Violet’s crooked psychic act. But it’s when Constance recognises her, and realises who her mother must be, that Nansi’s world is turned upside down forever. She is soon on the run for her life and she will have to risk everything if she’s going to find the truth.’
Year 7+ (Age 12 and up)
Traditionally our blog has focussed on the primary years, but as our children grow up (two of them are now over 12) we are learning more about books for more mature children and young adults. We are therefore delighted to recommend these titles for secondary age children.
Non-Fiction for all ages
The book Wales on the Map was published a couple of years ago, and is an indispensable guide to Wales, it’s regions, landscapes, culture and history. It really is essential reading for all and is presented with gorgeous double page spread illustrations in a large format book. Elin Meek has done the research and written the little facts in readable bitesize nuggets while illustrations are by the ridiculously talented Valeriane Leblond, who has several books on this page.
For those looking to explore specific periods of history in Wales, then the Wicked Wales series published by Gomer presents the information in a similar manner to the Horrible Histories books.
Folk Tales and Legends
We’d also like to recommend some folk tales and legends to spark your imagination – there are a number of really fantastic versions available. A special mention for the newly published Welsh Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends by Claire Fayers which is a cracking compilation of short stories – some familiar, some not so familiar, but all told with Claire’s friendly fireside storytelling voice – there’s a real focus on building each story and telling it well. It’s going down a storm in our house with all ages from 8 to 46 (am sure it appeals to older and younger too!).
Claire is also contributing towards a new collection of stories from The Mabinogion. The Mab has now received full funding for publication and will feature stories from some of our best-loved authors, put together by Eloise Williams and Matt Brown. You can pre-order your copy here.
Here’s a gallery of other folk tales and legends that have captivated us:
5 Activities to encourage Reading for Pleasure with books from Wales
Many of these ideas are credited to research carried out by the Open University Reading for Pleasure groups, in association with the UKLA (UK Literacy Association). I have provided links to the examples of practice on their website, where relevant. These are all tried and tested methods in my own classroom and can be easily transferred to the home setting. This is not about comprehension tasks or analysis of writing – it’s about firing a spark and reading for pleasure!
1. Book Blanket
A Book Blanket is essentially where you lay out books and encourage readers to look, read the blurbs, dip in, see what appeals and then, importantly, talk about it. If you’re in school you can do this with a whole class and have a little crib sheet that they fill in, or tick the ones they like the look of and want to read later. At home, you can engage in more detailed conversations about why books appeal; what do we think they will be about; have we read anything similar? Book blankets are normally carried out on a ‘theme’ so collecting together books about Wales is an ideal opportunity. If you don’t have many books about Wales, you could widen it to books by Welsh authors.
Similar to the Book Blanket, Book Tasting is a means to show children that there are more genres, more authors, more stories to be found. It is about widening their reading repertoires and showing them new stories in a fun and interesting way. Provide a selection of books for children to look at. Make it fun by turning the classroom into a cafe – tablecloths, menus, flowers… that kind of thing. You could put on an apron and be the waiter/waitress attending to the cafe customers. Children can write down the menu of books they have chosen and discuss with friends which ‘flavours’ they enjoyed most and would like more of. Again, it’s important to encourage ‘book talk’ – find out why particular books are chosen. A special Welsh cafe for St. David’s Day would be rather wonderful wouldn’t it?
Here’s one for the grown-ups. The research by Open University shows that a teacher who has good knowledge of the available books is much better placed to give a suitable recommendation and foster reading for pleasure in the classroom or home. If you want a vibrant and diverse collection of books for children to explore, which should include books from Wales, then you have to develop your knowledge of these texts.
Much has been written about the reliance on celebrity authors and also the reliance on the authors of our childhoods like Dahl and Blyton, but for many teachers it’s seen as a professional responsibility to increase their own knowledge of available books.
So how about this: get out a map of Wales and place the books in their geographical locations. Are there gaps on the map? Do you have books that children in your community can relate to? Are there some places in Wales that inspire more stories than others? Do the characters reflect the realities of the children you teach/parent? You may want to explore the Tir na n-Og shortlists of the past in conjunction with our blog post.
Adopt an author is an idea to engage with one author and find out more about their work. In the context of Books from Wales, you could choose any of the authors, although it would work particularly well with Claire Fayers, Eloise Williams, Jenny Nimmo, Valeriane Leblond, Catherine Fisher, Jenny Sullivan, Sian Lewis, Jackie Morris as these names have more than 1 book set in Wales. You could widen it to include authors from Wales – in which case this graphic will be useful…
Children could be encouraged to become an expert in that author and produce a presentation; make promotional posters; record readings (try to keep the focus on the book, themes and connections – this isn’t a biography.)
5. Write a Letter
This is a bit old school, but authors love to hear when children have enjoyed their books. Writing a letter helps to connect the child to the book and to the author. Why not get children to write to the author of their favourite book set in Wales, explaining why they like the book so much? P.G. Bell, Welsh author of The Train to Impossible Places, is a big fan of letter writing and has produced some supportive resources.
Composing a tweet is a similar idea – and sometimes more challenging for a child to express themselves in a limited number of words.
Zillah Bethell’s stunning new novel is finally here and we are thrilled and delighted to be able to post a special blog on publication day.
We have a review of the book, plus some special musical content to mark the occasion.
Inspired by Bethell’s childhood, The Shark Caller is set against the backdrop of the islands of the South Pacific, and their traditional practice of shark-calling. Zillah was born in the shadow of the volcano Mount Lamington in Papua New Guinea. It’s a jaw-dropping story of friendship, forgiveness and bravery which is harvesting some remarkable reviews.
Reviews, as they say, have been ‘rave’. And before we get to ours, just take a look at what others are saying…
“Magnificent and beautiful.” Sophie Anderson @sophieinspace
“A master storyteller with an adventure that will catapult children into wildness & wonder.” Abi Elphinstone @moontrug
“Outstanding storytelling that is at once moving, heart-stirring and life-affirming.” Alison, Booksfortopics
“Beautiful and lyrical storytelling.” Shapes @shapes4schools
“Stunning and powerful. One of the best books I’ve ever read!” Mary Rees @marysimms72
“A beautifully written book” Emily Weston @primaryteachew
“Feels like it should be a classic.” Andrew Rough @teacher_mr_r
“An elegiac and very beautiful book.An absolute winner!” Ben Harris @onetoread
The Shark Caller really is a remarkable book that will leave you completely stunned and totally in awe of the wonderful storytelling.
Blue Wing lives with her guardian Siringen, a shark-caller, on the outskirts of her village. She’s desperate to become a shark-caller herself to avenge the death of her parents, who were killed by notorious shark, Xok. But it’s against tradition for a girl to become one, and Siringen believes Blue Wing still harbours too much anger in her heart.
When two Americans arrive on the island – Professor Atlas Hamelin and his daughter Maple – Blue Wing is charged with looking after the prickly and infuriating Maple. But, slowly, Blue Wing finds that Maple might be the one person who can understand what she’s going through, having recently lost her own mother. And when they discover that Professor Hamelin is secretly searching for an ancient treasure, they find themselves on a journey to the depths of the ocean, where Xok lies waiting…
The Shark Caller is really something! My first impression after reading the book was to sit in stunned silence. The book touches the heart, and speaks to the soul.
Let me lay my cards on the table. I am a big Zillah Bethell fan. The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare, her last book, is one of my absolute favourite novels of all time. I am a sucker for good storytelling, the best of which, for my money comes from Katherine Rundell, Gill Lewis, Kiran Millwood-Hargrave, Catherine Johnson, SF Said and Sophie Anderson. I’d put Zillah in this list. These are authors who have a magical ability to craft their stories, weaving the universal human condition with their enchanting threads.
The story is set in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea where Blue Wing and her guardian Siringen are charged with caring for a visiting professor and his daughter. The girls take an instant dislike to each other, but slowly realise they have things in common and a voyage of both self-discovery and learning the ways of friendship begins.
The landscape is beautifully portrayed and we are given a real sense of the geography of the country. A vista of small towns and mines is painted alongside the mountains, forests and shimmering Pacific seas. The flora and fauna of the island is an integral part of the book, not least the sharks, whales and dolphins that swim alongside Blue Wing and The Shark Caller.
The novel is a technicolour, cinematic delight. There are highly vivid, intense scenes; wide-screen viewing in 4D could not be more impactful. Yet this is the joy of reading and particularly the joy of Zillah’s writing – she somehow makes us feel the expansiveness of the landscapes alongside the intimate thoughts and deep emotions of the characters close-up.
There is a juxtaposition between the traditional island ways and the Westernisation of the culture. The ‘Bigman’ (village chief) is a symbol of this: swigging Coca Cola, disowning his heritage and admonishing those who take the remedies of the village witch doctor. His incompatibility and ineptitude with the old ways is often depicted with humour particularly in the awkwardness with which he wears his ceremonial dress.
Bethell’s narration inhabits the character Blue Wing, bringing life and love to her thoughts, actions and talk. Throughout, there is huge wisdom. I particularly like this:
People are like rocks on the shore. The sea will slam into the rocks day after day after day. Hour after hour after hour. Oltaim. But the rocks still look like rocks, they do not become something else. There might be a few scars and parts of the rock might crumble like dust into the sea.But they are still almost the way they were when they were created by Moroa.
The same is with people. There is nothing that can happen on this world that will stop a person being who they are. We are all born a certain way, and we all die a certain way.
This is an astonishing book. An exceptional story from an incredibly talented writer. Read it open-mouthed in wonder at the storytelling, revel in the wisdom, the sage and salient thoughts of Blue Wing, the remarkable sensitivity and deftness of touch on essential human themes of life, death, love, family and friendship. More than anything, just read it.
Usborne have produced a great video in which Zillah talks about The Shark Caller – we thought it worth posting here.
In the review, we mention that the book is a vivid cinematic delight, told in technicolour and with Dolby Surround Sound. Quite often when I’m reading I hear a soundtrack in my head – accompanying music to suit the mood or reflect the emotions of the book. This was particularly true for The Shark Caller so I spoke to Zillah about her love of music and her Shark Caller Playlist.
“When I’m writing, I work in my head, so I need silence for that. Otherwise, especially when driving, I like music. Schubert’s Impromtu in G Flat No. 3 played by Horowitz and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, 2nd movement played by Zimmerman are my favourite classical pieces but I love all genres – particularly club and disco for dancing.
“My favourite song is Thieves Like Us by New Order, and I love Neil Young, Paul Simon, Morrisey and Marr, Kirsty MacColl, New Order, Manic Street Preachers, Neil Finn, Bill Withers, Blondie, John Legend, Kate Bush, Sia, Taylor Swift, I could go on…”
Below is The Shark Caller playlist as suggested by Zillah, featuring some of her favourite artists. We love the opening Bowie track and will be test-driving the whole playlist in car journeys.
As the final credits roll on The Shark Caller blog post, we need some accompanying music, so here is a new piece entitled ‘Blue Wing’. This is for Zillah and I hope she likes it! I hope she hears it full of contradictions and feels it as a physical and emotive reaction to the book.
The Shark Caller is available to buy now from your local bookshop. Thank you to Usborne, Zillah Bethell and Fritha Lindqvist for everything! Follow Zillah and Usborne on Twitter and seek out Saara Katariina Söderlund, the cover artist, on instagram. Also – go and check out the other blog posts in the tour – there are some brilliant pieces of new writing from Zillah to be found. Our review was originally published last year when we were sent a proof copy by Usborne.
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.