Culhwch and Olwen Blog Tour

Catherine Fisher

Culhwch and Olwen, published on June 6, is a new retelling of one of the earliest and most captivating Arthurian stories from the medieval Welsh Mabinogion. Retold by the extraordinary talent Catherine Fisher, this familiar legend is reborn with vivid characters in a richly-imagined world. The cover and illustrations are by Efa Lois.

It’s worth noting at this point, particularly if you are a Cymrophile, that the book is the first published by Cadno, a new imprint from Graffeg. Graffeg are well-known for quality picturebooks and illustrated volumes, but Cadno promises to improve the availability of fiction for children and young people with a strong Welsh context. This is an important objective that is close to our hearts. Kicking off with a book that is so richly linked to the cultural heritage of Wales, and written by one of the most respected and masterful storytellers in the country must have been an obvious choice. It’s also a nice touch that it is illustrated by a young, up and coming artist.

Culhwch and Olwen is a timeless adventure which weaves together heroism, magic, and romance as young Culhwch, with the help of the legendary King Arthur and his brave knights, embarks on an extraordinary quest to win the hand of the beautiful Olwen. Faced with impossible challenges and mythical creatures, the epic narrative is moreish and compelling.

Author and critic Amanda Craig recently said that Catherine Fisher “should be world famous” and we certainly agree that her writing is worthy of much wider recognition. This is not a simple retelling; as in many of Catherine’s books, she makes a bridge between the ancient and the modern, illuminates the old but familiar tale and shows us the enduring power of myth to inspire, thrill and resonate. The story is brilliantly told and you won’t find a better version.

We are delighted that Catherine Fisher agreed to answer a few questions for us:

What drew you to tell the tale of Culhwch and Olwen?

Culhwch and Olwen is a tale I have long wanted to re-write. It’s the first Arthurian full narrative we have, and I love the complexity and interweaving of many different strands of story. It’s as if the Scribe – as I call whoever wrote it down – had a head full of stories and wanted to squeeze in as many as possible. Also I love the mystery of the Oldest Animals, and the crazy household of Arthur, with names dragged in from Irish mythology and lost Welsh legends down to dodgy puns. Whoever wrote this was having a great time!

What or who are your sources and inspiration for the telling?

I re-read the story in two English language versions- Jones and Jones (Everyman) which is beautifully archaic, and Sioned Davies wonderfully clear and elegant version for Oxford. I also re-visited Rachel Bromwich’s books for reference, especially Trioedd Ynys Prydein. They are all inspiring. But then I put them away and only used them to check things- I just wrote the story as I would have written a novel for this young age-group, as I felt it should flow, filling out some episodes and cutting out others. To make it my own version I had to step back from everyone else’s, though of course I always wanted to respect the original text.

What is it about the themes of Culhwch and Olwen that make it relevant to a new audience today?

It’s a classic quest story, about finding love and overcoming obstacles, being brave. These are timeless elements, as relevant today as in the past. Culhwch does not really have a huge part in fulfilling the tasks, but I wanted the reader to see through his eyes and feel his fear and bewilderment.

The book contains sections of poetry – sometimes the characters speak in verse, sometimes the chapters are interspersed with poetic interludes. Is this deliberate or was it more organic?

I wanted places where the story pauses and characters speak who don’t in the original, like the Twrch Trwyth. Also there are passages of very lyrical description which seem to me to maybe have been poems once, like the descriptions of Olwen, and Culhwch and Cai, and it was great to re-write them in a loose poetic form.

Do you think the story of Culhwch and Olwen is uniquely Welsh?

The outline structure of the story is not uniquely Welsh. It’s essentially the folktale motif of Six Go Through the World, where a hero recruits a band of helpers each with a special power. And there are other international folktale elements, like the ants. But there are other elements in the story which feel deeply Welsh, like the Oldest Animals, with the Salmon being the wisest of beasts. The really Welsh thing about it is an intangible sense of lyrical beauty and mystery and strangeness,and a sly humour. Also, the hunt for the Twrch Trwyth is mapped out across South Wales with great precision, so it really feels as if this part of the tale was written by someone who knew this landscape well.

This is not your first retelling of an Arthurian Legend. What keeps you returning to the particularly Arthurian parts of the Mabinogi?

The Arthurian legends are one of my earliest fascinations, especially the Welsh material. It has that sense of lost narratives and deep time. I find it amazing that a set of stories that grew to be a Europe-wide phenomenon started here, and then grew and grew into such a huge network of tales, and that they are so popular even today with new re-workings, in many media, all the time. I don’t think their magic will ever come to an end. I hope not.

Culwch and Olwen is the first book in a new imprint from Graffeg. Cadno promises to bring uniquely Welsh content to children and young people. A lot of your output is inspired by Welsh contexts. How important do you think this new imprint will be?

Wales is blessed with excellent publishing for children. I hope Cadno will add to the mix, and that new, exciting authors will be published, and that Wales will be seen as a place with an even more thriving literature for this age group. Whether the Welsh element reflects modern life or re-visits our heritage, it should help our children understand who they are, where they live, the landscape and history of this unique place.


Huge thanks to Catherine for answering our questions and to Bethan at Graffeg and Cadno for inviting us to be a part of the Blog Tour. You can order your copy of Culhwch and Olwen from the Graffeg website. Follow Catherine Fisher and Graffeg on Twitter.

The Song That Sings Us: Cover Reveal

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.”

“I want to inspire a beautiful rebellion of invention and creativity against the darkness that threatens to engulf the glorious brightness of the natural world.”

Nicola Davies

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.

Tir na n-Og 2021 Award Shortlist Announced

Three books have made it to the shortlist of the English-language Tir na n-Og Award; the annual awards celebrate the best books for children and young adults published in 2020.

Organised by the Books Council of Wales and sponsored by CILIP Cymru Wales, the English-language shortlist honours books with an authentic Welsh background for children and young people. There are also two other prizes for Welsh language books for primary and secondary ages.

The shortlist:
The Quilt, Valeriane Leblond (Y Lolfa)
The Short Knife, Elen Caldecott (Andersen Press)
Where The Wilderness Lives, Jess Butterworth (Orion Books)

The Quilt by Valériane Leblond (Y Lolfa, 2020) for ages 5+ is a beautiful, lyrical story about a little girl who lives with her parents on a farm near the coast in rural Wales, around the turn of the twentieth century. Life is hard and the family decide to emigrate to America. To pay for the cost of their journey they sell their possessions but keep a black and red quilt hand-made by the mother from pieces of fabric left over from clothes she has made for the family. Leaving everything familiar behind brings homesickness and a longing – hiraeth – for the little girl, and it is the memories and love contained in the quilt that help her overcome these feelings and adapt to her new life.

I’m feeling very happy and very proud. I’ve been an artist and illustrator for a while now, but being a published author is a completely new experience, and I’m quite humbled by the reception The Quilt has had. I’ve really enjoyed the process of creating the book, writing the text and making the pictures and I’m taking the shortlisting as an encouragement for my next projects.

Valeriane Leblond, author and illustrator of The Quilt

The Short Knife by Elen Caldecott (Andersen Press, 2020) for ages 12+ is a story set many centuries ago, in the early Middle Ages, 454, at a time when a new 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. It is narrated through the voice of the main character, Mai, a young girl, who up until now, along with her sister Haf, has been kept safe by her father. The story starts with the arrival of Saxon warriors at their farm, forcing the family to flee to the hills where British warlords lie in wait. From here we see Mai surviving in a dangerous world where just speaking her mother tongue could lead to her death, and where she comes to mistrust even the people she loves the most.

I’m utterly delighted! It was nerve wracking to write something that engaged so directly with a living, vibrant culture. So this shortlisting means the world. To have the book well received within Wales is brilliant.

Elen Caldecott, author of The Short Knife

Where the Wilderness Lives by Jess Butterworth (Orion, 2020) for ages 9+ centres around the character of Cara who lives on a houseboat with her mum, siblings and a dog called Willow. Her dad used to live with them but now lives in a remote part of Wales. The adventure starts when Cara and her siblings find a locked safe one day when they are helping with a clean-up of the canal where they live. A fire destroys their houseboat one night, and while her mum is in hospital and Cara is looking after her siblings, a thief comes to steal the safe. The children leave the house they are temporarily living in to travel in their houseboat with the safe to go to their dad, and then on foot on a journey of survival across Welsh mountains in the snow.

I’m absolutely over the moon to be shortlisted for the Tir na n-Og Award! I feel very honoured; one of my favourite authors, Claire Fayers, actually won the 2020 award and I’m completely thrilled Where the Wilderness Lives is part of such a brilliant shortlist this year!

Jess Butterworth, author of Where The Wilderness Lives

There will be lots of talk on our Twitter channel and on this blog about #TNNO2021 in the coming months, in the lead up to the announcement of the winner on Friday 21st May. We have interviews with the authors and more exclusive content to entertain and educate.

Jo Bowers, Chair of the English-language judging panel, said: “All three books had their stories set against a rich authentic Welsh background, which is a central criteria for this award, and each one did this in a very different way to the others. Each book stood out for many reasons: the sense of place and time in Wales and Welsh history; the overall design, and each surprised and engaged in both the style and content of the story. We felt that each one brought new aspects about Wales in children’s literature.”

Chief Executive of the Books Council of Wales, Helgard Krause, said: “My warmest congratulations to all those involved in bringing these three shortlisted titles to readers. It is so important to ensure that young readers in Wales have a choice of high-quality books which reflect the country and culture in which they live.”

Previous winners of this award include Claire Fayers, Jenny Nimmo, Catherine Fisher and Susan Cooper.

Schools and teachers can get involved by shadowing the awards in the run up to the winner’s announcement. For more information on the award, visit the special pages on the Books Council of Wales website.

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.

Q and A: Cathy Fisher

Cathy Fisher is the illustrator of the visually stunning collaboration with Nicola Davies, The New Girl. A tender and emotive artist, this is the third such collaboration published by Graffeg, following on from The Pond and Perfect.

Cathy has also illustrated Nicola’s Country Tales series, bringing their total output to 8 books, with more to come.

The New Girl addresses bullying, acceptance and inclusion through a simple yet powerful story of a young girl moving schools. The gorgeously sympathetic and thought-provoking compositions add to the narrative; the child who looks different is singled out, but the girl remains faceless and nameless, as do the bullies lurking in the shadows.

An act of kindness crosses a cultural divide, causes intrigue and invokes fascination and interest – the children watch and listen. Then kindness is given a face and a name. The beauty unfurls as the pages are turned – Cathy turns shadows to light, colours brighten and hard edges soften as Kiku warms cold hearts and opens closed minds; the transformation is evident through the change in palette and tones. The New Girl is a truly stunning picturebook.

You can see images from the book and hear Nicola Davies read an extract in this film made by publisher Graffeg.

We are thrilled to welcome Cathy Fisher to the bookworms’ blog today and have the opportunity to celebrate this superb book.

Hello Cathy, What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just read When The Whales Leave, by Yuri Rytkheu, (translated by Ilona Yazhbin,) published by Milkweed Editions – and I am half way through This is Happiness, by Niall Williams, published by Bloomsbury

Can you tell us a bit about how you started in illustration?

I trained in fashion and textile design (a very long time ago) and soon after was lucky to be teaching foundation art and design, a course to prepare students for an art degree. During this time I got my first commission to illustrate a series of book covers for stories for teens.

I left the UK to teach in an art school in the Seychelles and 4 years later moved to Australia, where I became a busy mum, while working as an artist. It wasn’t until my kids were older and we had moved back to the UK that I started illustrating again. I worked for a graphics company, illustrating small pictures for school books and educational resources.

I have always drawn and painted, but I have never been much good at selling my work. One day though, about 6 years ago, I met the lovely Nicola Davies. She had seen one of my pictures on my friend’s wall and had asked my friend for my details. The first time I met her I knew I had a lifelong friend and collaborator… she is amazing! Nicola introduced me to Graffeg Publishing and a year later Perfect was published – my first proper children’s picture book! Then the next year The Pond followed and so we continue to work together!

How do you describe your illustration process?

First I read the story over and over again and do a lot of thinking and research. I spend as much time thinking about the pictures as I do painting them. I try to imagine I am each of the characters, including the wildlife, and how that feels.

I draw lots of sketches, work out the page spreads in a roughly drawn storyboard, think about the space for the words and space for thought. I then send roughs to publishers.

For the final illustrations I prefer large sheets of heavyweight watercolour paper. I draw and paint with pencil, charcoal, watercolour paints, inks and crayons. I paint in layers of tone and colour with the different media, and sometimes make quite a mess. It is not always easy and I often have to struggle through a pain barrier, but, if I’m lucky, a picture will eventually start to sing. I sometimes find it difficult to know when to stop!

You’ve had a very successful picturebook partnership with the amazing Nicola Davies – what’s it like working with her?

It is always brilliant working with Nicola. She is a genius! She is a scientist as well as writer and artist. She knows so much! Her writing is so skilled. She can say so much, with so few words, with such perception and imagination. When thinking about pictures we are often on the same wave length, which makes working with her very easy as she trusts my illustrative response to her writing. She is a brilliant artist herself so won’t always need me, but I hope we will continue to collaborate together for a long time. We are currently very close to each other in Pembrokeshire, so I am very lucky to be able to see her frequently.

How did the latest book, The New Girl, come to fruition?

Nicola read me the story of The New Girl and asked if I’d like to illustrate it – of course I did! I was in Australia when I received the contract from Graffeg, so I starting thinking about the story then. I came to Pembrokeshire early this year and was staying with Jackie Morris when UK first went into lock-down. Jackie was wonderful and very kindly gave me the space and time to work in her home, while I worked on the New Girl every day. I would talk to Nicola and send her photos from my phone of the pictures as I did them. I finished the illustrations just as the first lockdown ended.

The book deals with unkindness and ostracisation at school. You become aware of this through the empathy-filled illustrations as well as the text. What techniques do you use to portray these strong emotions?

I purposely gave each double-page spread a lot of space, exaggerating the school walls and stairs, to illustrate the isolation Kiku, the new girl, might feel coming from another country to a strange new school. I thought about her posture and body language. I conveyed the unkindness of the other children with long shadows. I purposely kept the colours in the early spreads fairly minimal, then slowly added more colour and detail, as the new girl began to warm the hearts of the other children. I also used symbols, like the broken vase, which on the last page has been put back together again, (in Japanese it is called Kintsugi,) as a metaphor that something broken can be mended and made beautiful.

Growing up with 8 brothers and sisters you must have some good tips for dealing with conflict?

I was in the middle of my siblings, as the fourth child of nine, and learnt I could make myself almost invisible. This was sometimes a very useful trick, as it kept me out of trouble. But now, being invisible is no longer helpful to me, so perhaps it is not a good tip! I grew up in a fairly chaotic, noisy environment – but we lived by fields and woods and ran wild amongst nature. Although it could be difficult at home sometimes, there was escape and freedom in our surroundings and always a place outside to find peace. It is where I found my love of nature, which has always helped me when I feel troubled.

Previous picture-books The Pond and Perfect have also dealt with serious and important issues; the death of a parent and sibling disability. What is the place of picturebooks in tackling such themes?

I am quite old now with quite a lot of experience. The most important thing we adults can do is to truly celebrate our children. To gently nurture them with love and kindness and share a joy for life and the natural world, teaching them all beings are equal and need looking after.

But we also have a duty to help them understand that life is not always fun and easy. I do not believe we are protecting our children by shielding them from the truth of serious and important issues – we need to be honest. Reading stories, sharing with them a love of words and pictures, and giving children the time to read, listen and talk, is one of the best gifts we can give our children. Picture books are incredibly important as they can teach empathy at an early age and help children understand difficult emotions. A good picture book can help children feel something that isn’t easy to say in words. Talking about death, grief, differences in each other, things we might feel bad about, painful emotions, is very important and needs to be approached with kindness and sensitivity… this is where good stories and pictures help.

There are a lot of hands in the book which are notoriously difficult to draw. Any tips?

I love children’s drawings. I love watching them draw. Hands are so expressive, that is why I drew a lot of them! I wanted to express joy, in the shape of a flower, with all the children’s hands in Kiku’s class. There are stories in the hands!

The only tip I can give is not to be scared of drawing!.. and do not care what other people think about your drawing! If I am finding something difficult to draw I try to forget the object or subject I am drawing and think of it more abstractly, looking at the negative shapes around it and thinking of it as patterns and tones and colours. If you like drawing keep drawing! I believe everyone can draw, they just think they can’t. Drawing doesn’t always have to look like something, it can be patterns or about feeling.

Handwriting is drawing. We all learn to write and each person’s handwriting is unique. The only difference between drawing and handwriting is you are taking handwriting on an adventure…into other shapes and places, all over the paper and sometimes filling it with colour…. Joy!

You’ve also worked with Nicola on the Country Tales series. Which has been your favourite to illustrate?

Hmm. That’s a hard question. I enjoyed doing all the covers. I illustrated the series while I was in Australia. There is still one more book to do. I think my favourite to illustrate was probably Pretend Cows. The cover is my friend’s daughter and she’s in a gum tree, not an apple tree… but don’t tell anyone!

You normally spend your time between Australia and the UK, but we understand you’ve been locked down in Pembrokeshire. Has this been a blessing or a curse?

I really appreciate that lockdown is an extremely difficult time for so many people. But I count myself as one of the very lucky ones. I am lucky to be in a beautiful place in Pembrokeshire, which is such a blessing. I have since become a bit of a hermit and am very happy to be working in the studio all day long and not go anywhere, except for walks. The sad thing for me is that the pandemic has separated me from my husband, he’s on the other side of the world in Western Australia, so we haven’t seen each other since February but we do talk every day and will eventually be reunited! The happy thing is I see Jackie Morris every day and Nicola Davies quite a lot.

Could you recommend any favourite picturebooks?

Oh my goodness, that is such a difficult question! There are so many beautiful picture books. If I start listing them I am bound to miss a favourite out! This year alone has produced some beautiful books. When I’m painting pictures and start to feel stuck, I often look at John Burningham’s books or Brian Wildsmith’s pictures. I love the whimsy, freedom and textures in their art.

But my recent favourites, in no particular order are:

  • Dog, Shaun Tan
  • The Promise, Nicola Davies and Laura Carling
  • I Talk Like a River, Jordon Scott and Sydney Smith
  • The House by The Lake, Thomas Harding and Britta Teckentrp
  • Lost Spells, Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane (all of her books and collaborations with other illustrators)
  • Mrs Noah’s Garden, Jackie Morris and James Mayhew
  • Last, Nicola Davies, (all of her books and collaborations with other illustrators!)
  • The Best Place in the World, by Petr Horacek (all of his books)
  • The Girl Who became Tree, by Joseph Coelho and Kate Milner

Images from your Twitter account show pandas and cockatoos – are these clues to future books?

They are! The panda pictures are for a story called The Panda Child, which Jackie Morris has written. It is very beautiful timeless story, but it is a bit daunting to illustrate a book with Jackie  as she has such an amazing reputation as an author and illustrator, she is an absolutely brilliant artist. I am very fortunate to be collaborating with her. Her agent is currently finding the right publisher for the book.

The same goes for the pictures with a sulphur-crested cockatoo, (my best friends in Australia.) These are early illustrations for a picture book written by Nicola Davies, called Mr Horstman’s Parrot. Nicola has left a lot of space in the story for me to elaborate visually which I’m looking forward to doing. It is another of her beautiful, powerful stories.

Anything else to declare?

Hmmm?… Occasionally I have times of great doubt, and I wonder why the work of making pictures feels so important to me? Unless you are very famous, an illustrator doesn’t earn very much money. But, when I push passed my doubt and insecurity, I always come back to remembering the influence that picture books had on me in my young life. How they were a place to escape, made me feel so much part of the picture, and how much they taught me.  So I feel such joy when I hear a parent, teacher or child say that a book with my pictures has opened up conversation they have never had before, or have made them feel emotions that open a new door, or simply that they just love the pictures.

The only other thing to declare is that I intend to keep making pictures.

Thank you so very much to Cathy for taking the time to answer our questions with such care and attention. The New Girl is published by Graffeg and is available from your local independent bookshop.

Follow Cathy on Twitter to see beautiful examples of her work (and sneak previews of future books).

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!

Valériane Leblond

Popular illustrator and artist Valériane Leblond has written her first book for children, as well as painting the images that bring the story to life. Valeriane was brought up in Angers, France but moved to Wales in 2007 and now lives in a farmhouse near Aberystwyth. Valeriane speaks French, English and Welsh.

The Quilt (Y Lolfa) is a beautifully illustrated hardback offering a message of hope and hiraeth. The picturebook pages are captivating taking us from rural Wales at the turn of the 20th century to the New World via Liverpool. We love the colour palette and how this changes as the family enter America (reminiscent of Kyffin Williams’ tone in his Patagonian paintings) and the buzz of Liverpool is Lowry-esque in it’s industrious hustle and bustle. This truly is a stunning book and we felt compelled to get in touch with Valériane to find out more.

Could you tell us how you became an artist?

I’ve always enjoyed drawing, painting and being creative in general, so it happened quite naturally. I had another job for a few years before being able to go full time though.

What was your own journey to settling near Aberystwyth?

I had a Welsh boyfriend that I met at University in Brittany and I followed him home here to Ceredigion. I didn’t know much about Wales at the time, but I felt welcomed here, and I fell in love with the place and its people. Now I’ve got three sons who were born here, I’ve learnt the language and I feel that I can make a contribution through my art.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m reading a novel called Le Principe by Jérôme Ferrari about the physicist Heisenberg. It’s sometimes a bit too clever for me!

The Quilt is an incredible achievement. How long did it take to complete?

Thank you! It must have taken 6 to 8 months to write, and about 3 months to illustrate. I was working on other projects while writing, but I worked full time on the illustrations.

What attracted you to the story?

I always wanted to illustrate a story about a Welsh quilt, I think it is a fascinating craft, visually and historically. And I’ve always been interested in movements of people, especially to North America as my father was from there.

What are your methods of illustration?

I have several techniques, and I love varying and experimenting. I always use a sketchbook to draw roughly the silhouettes and plan the compositions. For The Quilt, I worked with gouache and coloured pencils on paper, and to obtain the muted palette and the sepia overall tone I dyed the paper with brown ink before painting. 

The story absolutely suits your illustration style – particularly the period and lifestyle – is this just coincidence?

No, it’s not just coincidence. Being both the author and illustrator has been a very interesting experience: the text has been feeding the illustrations, the illustrations have been modelling the text too. There are pictures that I just wanted to paint for a book some day, like the double page with a small ship in the big ocean, and this was the perfect opportunity. 

Did it involve a lot of research?

Yes, there was a lot of research involved. I got help from the historian Menna Morgan in the National Library, and from quilt expert Jen Jones of the Welsh Quilt Centre and I used pictures and paintings  from different archives as references for the illustrations.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from your research on The Quilt?

I loved learning about anything food-related : what people ate on the ship, the ‘discovery’ of different food like watermelons, pumpkins, sweetcorn in North America. I would love to explore further the relations between food, home, and place in the future, in a book or in my art.

What was the inspiration for the design and colours of the quilt itself?

I needed a quilt design that would be realistic for the period. After talking to Jen Jones I realised that a bold black and red flannel quilt would suit the story, and I used an existing quilt from her collection.

There is a symmetry between the family’s new life in America and the life they leave in Wales. How did you go about making these connections? 

I wanted to show that places have a lot in common rather than insist on the differences. I’m interested in the idea of “home”, and it is a universal theme we can all relate to, whether we are grown-up or not, wherever we live or come from. 

Do you consider yourself an artist or an illustrator?

It’s difficult to answer, but I would say both. When I work with another author, I am definitively an illustrator, but for The Quilt, I might tend towards being an artist!

The Quilt is a fine example of a picturebook where the images give as much information as the words. Do you have any favourite picturebooks?

My all-time favourite is The Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall and Barbara Cooney. The text is beautifully written and works by itself, and Barbara Cooney’s pictures are extraordinary. I also love Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. When pictures go beyond the text it literally creates a new dimension.

The book was published in Welsh first then English. Are there any differences between the two versions? Which language did you originally write it in?

I wrote it in French, my mother’s tongue, first. Then I re-wrote it in English, and finally in Welsh. I also worked on the pictures before finishing the text, so it’s difficult to say what is the original version! I think the Welsh text might be more poetic, but it might be down to the language itself!

Can you tell us something about your next book/idea/future plans?

I’m currently working on a language book with Rily Publications, which involves thousands of small pictures, and I’m also about to start on a very exciting book about Siani Pob Man, an eccentric woman who lived on the beach near New Quay in the 1900s’.

If you weren’t an author/illustrator what would you do?

Maybe a teacher? Or a researcher of some kind? There are a lot of things I would enjoy doing I think!

Thank you / diolch / merci Valériane for answering our questions. The Quilt by Valériane Leblond (£5.99, Y Lolfa) is available now from your local independent bookshop. You could also order it direct from Y Lolfa.

Follow Valériane on Twitter and visit her website.

Tir na nOg Award Data

The Tir na nOg Award winner for 2020 will be announced on Friday 3rd July. The award is given to the best children’s book with an authentic Welsh setting. Winners since the inaugural award in 1976 include The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo, The Grey King by Susan Cooper, Arthur The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland and The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher.

We decided to look into the statistics behind the award to see if there is any indication of who is most likely to win…

It seems that if you want to win the Tir na nOg Award, your best bet is to be a female author named Jenny Lewis published by Pont/Gomer. The title of your book should be ‘The Tale of the Welsh King of the Sea’. And if you want the best shot at the trophy, then you’d need to go back to 1981 when there were 17 books shortlisted.

Gender. Female authors outnumber the men significantly, both in terms of receiving nominations and overall winners.

Individual Winners. Frances Thomas has won the title four times. First in 1981 then subsequently in 1986, 1992 and 2008. There are several authors who have won twice. Jackie Morris has won once as author and once as illustrator.

Nominations. Jenny Sullivan leads the nominations with 7 in total.

Publishers. One publisher has, far and away, published more shortlisted books than any other. Pont, an imprint of Gwasg Gomer, has published 54 of the titles. Gomer accounts for one third of all shortlisted titles.

Winners of the award have been published by…

We’ve analysed the names of all nominees to see which were the most popular:

Keywords. The most popular words in nominated titles…

The award has been withheld on 8 occasions, though not since 2003, so fingers crossed!

So what does this all mean for this year’s nominees? Er, probably not very much. However – we have to say that the shortlist is very strong and any of these would be worthy winners. We look forward to celebrating the 2020 winner very soon…

Wilde About Eloise

Our Children’s Laureate Wales publishes a new book today. And what a book. Wilde is a brilliant story full of excitement, anguish, humour, fantasy and weirdness. Wilde moves in with her Aunt Mae, but struggles to fit in. Odd things keep happening – the birds are following her, she wakes up in strange places, other children keep their distance. Does Wilde have a connection to the legend of The Witch Called Winter? It’s a completely engrossing tale of belonging and acceptance that would appeal to readers age 9+. It’s written by one of our most favourite authors so we thought we’d give you 5 Reasons why we’re Wilde about Eloise Williams:

1 Eloise is a fantastic writer. From the dramatic and tempestuous opening chapters of Elen’s Island, her first book published in 2015, to the poignant and tender close of her latest Wilde, Eloise gets under the skin. She gets under the skin of the reader, compelling them to drop everything and devour every word. Descriptions of landscapes are a real draw; whether it’s the wild and windswept coastline of Pembrokeshire in Seaglass, the grimy Victorian backstreets of Cardiff in Gaslight, or the waterfalls of the Brecon Beacons in Wilde.

What’s impressive though is how she gets under the skin of her characters, producing very real depictions of isolation, loneliness, the frustrations and fears of teenage years, and the joys too. Elen is plucky. Nansi is feisty. Lark is confused. Wilde is lonely. Eloise writes with real empathy for her female protagonists and portrays real understanding for her readers.

2 Eloise works non-stop. Even before she was appointed Children’s Laureate for Wales, Eloise Williams spent a lot of time in schools, libraries and book festivals. She delivers courses like those at Ty Newydd, and is invited to attend courses like the Writers At Work scheme at Hay Festival. And despite claiming to be a procrastinator, on top of all this travelling, publishing four books in 5 years is quite an achievement. Hard work deserves to be recognised and rewarded. Even in lockdown, she is producing weekly challenges to motivate and engage young people…

https://twitter.com/Laureate_Wales/status/1254695958757195776?s=20

3 Eloise passionately promotes reading and writing for pleasure. Now, as Children’s Laureate for Wales, Eloise is a strong voice for the children of Wales. She travels the length and breadth of the country (and that takes some time!) enthusing about reading and writing. She talks fervently about the writing process and nurtures strong relationships with the children in her workshops. She is an inspiration to watch in these situations and has a lasting impact on those she meets.

4 Eloise is a tireless advocate for Welsh writers and writing from Wales. As Children’s Laureate for Wales, Eloise encourages and supports other writers for children, sharing her passion for the wealth of talent in Wales. Good stories and excellent writing has no borders, and Eloise pushes the view that books from Wales are books for everyone, raising the visibility of children’s literature in Wales and beyond.

5 Wilde is her best book yet. It’s creating a stir amongst readers and we’d strongly recommend you order a copy this weekend (direct from Firefly Press or from your local independent bookshop). Don’t take our word for it, just look at these quotes…

  • ‘A spookily good adventure that will hold children spellbound. Bewitching.’ Zoe Williams, South Wales Evening Post 
  • ‘I loved this contemporary adventure of witches, curses, identity and belonging, from Wales’ children’s laureate.’ Fiona Noble, The Bookseller 
  • ‘An inspirational book. She just keeps getting better.’ Claire Fayers
  • ‘Packed with chills and thrills, but is also full of heart. I loved it!’ Kat Ellis
  • ‘A TRULY BRAVE AND BEAUTIFUL BOOK! … Utterly beguiling.’ Zillah Bethel
  • ‘Thrilling throughout … her best yet.’ Scott Evans, the Reader Teacher

Synopsis

Being different can be dangerous. Wilde is afraid strange things are happening around her. Are the birds following her? Is she flying in her sleep? Moving to live with her aunt seems to make it all worse. Wilde is desperate to fit in at her new school, but things keep getting stranger. In a fierce heatwave, in rehearsals for a school play telling the old, local legend of a witch called Winter, ‘The Witch’ starts leaving pupils frightening letters cursing them. Can Wilde find out what’s happening before everyone blames her? Or will she always be the outcast?

Follow Eloise on Twitter, she also has a Children’s Laureate Wales account. Why not visit her website too?

My Name is River

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

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

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

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


Book Synopsis

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Machynlleth Lantern Parade

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

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

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

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