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.

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).

ABC of Opera: The Academy of Barmy Composers

Baroque

Mark Llewelyn Evans and Karl Davies

Graffeg

Here is a unique book, the first in a series, that aims to tell the story of baroque music to a new, young (8+) audience. It’s an eye-catching and engaging volume and educational too. Further books on classical, romantic and modern music styles will follow.

The books have been put together by Mark Llewelyn Evans, himself an opera star with a successful career and wealth of experience with Welsh National Opera and other UK-wide companies. Mark is the creative director of ABC of Opera; an organisation offering educational workshops around the country (more info here). Established landscape artist Karl Davies has ventured into the world of illustration and has brought the words to life with incredibly sparky artwork in this colourful and vibrant book.

Mark Llewelyn Evans says: ‘I was 14 when I saw my first opera and was blown away by the whole experience. To this day opera still captivates me, and I wanted to introduce the next generation to this incredible art form in a unique way – one that would not only engage them with the beautiful music but also with the genius composers who created this world. I wanted each composer to come alive, step out of the book and into the hearts of the children. With 97% of the children we have met through the ABC of Opera workshops asking to meet the composers, we knew it was time to open the doors to The Academy of Barmy Composers.’

With Karl Davies, Mark has created a storybook that takes us back in time to learn factual information about the baroque period and its composers. Jack and Megan find a forgotten trunk in an old music hall which takes them back to 1597. They meet the inventor of opera, Professor Peri, who introduces them to the likes of Monteverdi, Handel and Purcell. The narrative text, in many ways, makes this an accessible book to a wide audience. Little footnotes and wry nuggets of explanation adorn the pages making it great fun. There follows some extremely informative pages at the back of the book where fact-seekers will revel in learning about other baroque composers, baroque instruments, operatic voices and more!

Opera is defined as a story set to music and this thrilling history of baroque music is aptly wrapped in a story that will delight and educate in equal measure. We can’t wait to read the rest of the series!

Ceri & Deri

Build a Birdhouse / The Treasure Map

Max Low

Graffeg

“Ceri is a cat, and Deri is a dog. Ceri has stripes and Deri has spots. They live in a small town near a big hill and they do everything together. They are best friends.”

So begins each of the four Ceri and Deri books by Max Low – an opening reminiscent of the comforting familiarity of Lauren Child’s Charlie and Lola series. Across the four books, Max, a graduate of Hereford School of Art, ensures that friendship and fun is at the heart of the duo’s adventures. The latest two titles have just been published by Graffeg and they are beautifully produced.

There is an immediacy and vibrancy to Max’s illustrations that radiates so much joy and youthful energy I want to hang the pages on every wall in the house. It’s fresh and fun and I love the way Max plays with shape and line and limits his palette to shades of the same colours. He makes some bold choices too – a favourite page has to be the illustration of the sea in The Treasure Map.

https://twitter.com/bookwormswales/status/1124655984348102661

The stories have an educational edge too – not that these are text books, but reading these books with young children will support their understanding of directions (Treasure Map), time (No Time for Clocks), counting, sharing and design. The emphasis, though, is most definitely on fun.

In The Treasure Map, the two friends follow directions in search of pirate treasure, helped along the way by their companions. In Build a Birdhouse, we see Max at his imaginative and creative best as Ceri and Deri design a perfect (read: wacky and wonderfully weird) house for a homeless bird. It’s in this book that Max hits on a universal truth: “No one actually uses dining rooms do they? So let’s fill it full of balloons!”

Playful, engaging and full of humour, the Ceri and Deri books are fabulous picture books made for sharing. Max Low is an extremely talented illustrator and we can’t wait to see what comes next – which is another book, ‘My Friends’ due to be published by Otter Barry in July!

Photograph from Max’s Instagram

To buy the Ceri and Deri books, visit Graffeg’s website. You can follow Max on Twitter.

Helping Hedgehog Home

Celestine and the Hare

Graffeg

Helping Hedgehog Home is the ninth book in this wonderful series of tales about the felted creatures undertaking simple acts of kindness. In this installment, Hedgehog is locked out of her home when a fence is erected. In an attempt to make a return, she builds a hot-air balloon to sail over the garden obstacle. Unfortunately, she crash lands into Grandpa Burdock’s domain who then tries to ‘help her home’.

All of Celestine’s books overflow with kindness, but this one is extra special. I think it has something to do with the character of Grandpa Burdock – he is keen, talkative, enthusiastic and ever so lovable. Hedgehog is fed (freshly baked bramble biscuits and a cup of tea!) and taken care of while Grandpa thinks of ways to overcome the fence. Karin Celestine has a wicked sense of fun and mischief – seen in the inventive drawings of Grandpa’s suggestions. Hedgehog is naturally concerned when she hears of the ‘hedgehogapult’. Thankfully, Granny Burdock returns at the right moment with a far more sensible solution for returning Hedgehog to her home.

Helping Hedgehog Home made us giggle; it made us fall in love with Grandpa Burdock; it encourages us to show warmth and kindness to neighbours; it tells us of the importance of taking time to sit and stare; and, thanks to the informative pages at the back, taught us some groovy facts about hedgehogs.

Helping Hedgehog Home was enjoyed by the whole family and we were delighted to meet Karin at a workshop as part of the Cardiff Kids Literature Festival a few weeks ago. She kindly gave us some time to ask her some questions. We began by asking about the name ‘Celestine and the Hare’:

“Celestine was my great grandmother – I come from a line of strong Swedish women – Karin is my mother and her mother was also Karin, and her mother was Celestine. I have a bust of Celestine in my studio, which I inherited from my mum, and she’s always looked over me as a matriarch – reminding me of the line of strong, adventurous and very creative women. I was looking for a name for my business so Celestine appealed and I also like hares – they are magical and I particularly love the mythology associated with women shape-shifting into hares. I’d also made a hare which sits next to Celestine and it was as simple as that – Celestine and the hare.”

Karin also uses a pen name (we’re not quite sure what her real name is!), which came about by mistake. She explains, “I had been dithering over what to call myself and I went to an event where they had mistakenly made a name badge for me saying ‘Karin Celestine’ and I thought ‘That’s quite nice!’

The Karin Celestine books came about after Karin had been making the felt animals and selling them, but as she was making the characters she gave them backstories and invented silly narratives. “I did a calendar and cards for Graffeg and they asked if I had considered writing a story. I was also encouraged by Jackie (Morris) to have a go. It was strange because I had never been encouraged in school to write – in fact I was told I couldn’t write and was the worst at crafts! So I wrote ‘Paper Boat for Panda’ and cried as I submitted it.”

Whilst the felted creatures get up to all sorts of hijinks and tomfoolery (especially in the films and photos Karin shares on social media), the books turned out with added empathy, “I have a huge thing about kindness – it is so important; kindness and mischief – that’s my strapline and the books turned out gentler. And because I’d been a teacher there are messages – I’ve slipped things in that I know children need to hear.”

Nine books on, and Karin brings us her new story about Hedgehog. She told us, “There is more humour in this one, but still with an ecological message.”

“A lot of the environmental issues in the news can be too big and too frightening for young children – as a child you can feel completely helpless to do anything about it. I remember the ‘Save the Tiger’ campaign from when I was younger, and short of buying a membership to the World Wildlife Fund there was nothing I could do – and for me, that’s not very positive. I want everybody to feel they are able to do something to help.”

In the back of all of Karin’s books there are some craft activities, many with an ecological theme – building bug houses, weaving, making suncatchers. “We should all be back garden eco warriors – the activities are something that any child can do and feel good about. They then grow up thinking they can make a difference.”

Making a difference is exactly what Karin’s books inspire through the actions of Grandpa, Grandma, Bert, Bertram, Emily, Small, Panda, King Norty, Baby Weasus and all the tribe. Kindness and mischief and making a difference.

To buy copies of Karin’s books with personalised dedications, visit her website where you can find lots of other information and activities. Huge thanks to Karin for giving her time so generously and thank you to Graffeg for the copy of Helping Hedgehog Home, given in return for an honest review.

For more Weasel Wednesday and Choklit stealing, follow Karin on Twitter or Facebook.