It’s a totally bonkers feeling that we get to celebrate the publication day of Thimble and the Girl from Mars with you. An honour and a pleasure to be kicking off this blog tour.
We first met Thimble, the anarchic Monkey Superstar, around 4 years ago. The debut was a fresh and funny madcap adventure full of hilarious slapstick episodes. Plenty of toilet humour and unbelievable escapades, with the parents (particularly Douglas, the dad) ending up as the ‘butt’ of the joke. Our children have laughed out loud with Thimble and Jams and have grown up loving this favourite series.
That first book was rightly nominated for the Lollies Laugh Out Loud Award, at which point Jon Blake wrote us a rather wonderful blog introducing Thimble to the nation. Do check it out.
Subsequent books, Holiday Havoc and Wonga Bonkers, continued to thrill new generations of the Bookworms family and even inspired one to commit an outrageous act in a branch of IKEA.
All this brings us to Thimble and the Girl from Mars, the newly published installment featuring an extremely unlikeable girl who wants to claim Thimble as her own. This feisty and intelligent foster child, with fantastic football skills, is a mean match for Jams as she manipulates his family and charms his primate pal. Jams needs to use all his wits to keep Thimble on his side. Just like the rest of the series, this is great fun, fast-paced, light-hearted and ever so slightly unhinged!
Jon Blake has written over 60 books for children (and many more radio scripts and books for adults). He is well used to questions, having regularly carried out school visits. Indeed he answered our Q and A back in 2017. But “What are the best questions that children have asked Jon Blake?” we hear you call through the Internet. Here is some exclusive Blog Tour content:
We are very grateful to Jon for sharing this video with us and look forward to finishing Thimble and the Girl from Mars as our current bedtime read. The book is out now and you can buy signed copies from Jon here.Follow Jon and illustrator Martin on Twitter, and check out Jon’s website because there is plenty to explore!
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 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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).
A review and Q&A with Helen Docherty and Thomas Docherty.
Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell is the latest collaboration between husband and wife team Helen and Thomas Docherty. The pair have separate successful careers but have often worked together with amazing results.
Helen has always loved stories and as a child would make her own books (you can see some fine examples on her website). Her early career was as a languages teacher both in the UK and in South America. In 2010, encouraged by Thomas, she began writing again and they published ‘Ruby Nettleship and the Ice Lolly’ together. This was followed in 2013 by her first rhyming text, The Snatchabook, since translated into 22 languages, nominated for many awards and considered a classic by everyone from Booktrust to CBeebies.
Since he was very young, Thomas has always enjoyed drawing and keeping sketchbooks. He was a big Asterix fan. His first book, Little Boat was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2009. He has since written and illustrated 4 more solo works, 5 books with Helen and 5 books with other authors.
They live in Swansea with their two children and, through Storyopolis, enjoy helping children and young people to write their own Book in a Day.
Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell (Sourcebooks) is a charming and colourful rhyming story about independent Nell. Beautifully detailed illustrations capture the tumbling waves, sea monsters and idiosyncratic shipmates. Our eponymous heroine, the newest member of the pirate crew, relies on knowledge, learning and books to chart the seas and live the pirate life. Captain Gnash is too proud, dismissive and closed to new ideas, and he certainly doesn’t approve of books being on board! Cue Nell showing him the error of his ways, the joy of books and reading, and finding life’s real treasure.
We are delighted that Helen and Thomas have answered some of our questions. Huge thanks to them both.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, and I’m
sorry it’s come to an end; it was a brilliant and absorbing read.
still read to our girls (age 10 and 12) every night, though they’re both avid
readers themselves. Over half term we enjoyed Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh
– a Halloween gem from my own childhood. We’ve just started The Castle of
Tangled Magic by Sophie Anderson and next up is Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean
It by Susie Day.
Thomas: In an
attempt to keep my Welsh up over lockdown (we’ve been learning for a number of
years) I’ve got through most of my daughter’s Welsh teen novels, most recently
the Yma trilogy by Lleucu Roberts, but also her brilliant adult novel Saith
Oes Efa (challenging Welsh but very rewarding). Before that I read two
books by Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines and Among Muslims, both
beautifully observed and poetic real journeys in words.
As a husband and wife picturebook team you must have more opportunity to discuss your ideas together?
Yes, we’re very lucky in that we can brainstorm ideas for stories, give each
other feedback on story drafts and develop characters or plots together. The
first book we collaborated on, Ruby Nettleship and the Ice Lolly Adventure,
was very much a joint effort. Having said that, when Tom is working flat out
illustrating a book, he doesn’t have a lot of free time (or headspace) to
discuss new ideas – it’s such a time-consuming job!
Do your own children input into your ideas?
Helen: A few years ago, a conversation with our youngest daughter directly inspired me to write a picture book text. She asked me whether it’s possible for a parent to love a new baby as much as their other children, and I reassured her that we’re not born with a limited amount of love to give, and that You Can Never Run Out of Love. As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I was onto something, and I started working on the text that very night.
our eldest daughter was feeling anxious at the beginning of lockdown this
spring – as so many of us were – and missing her friends and grandparents. I
wrote a new picture book text, All the Things We Carry, partly in
response to this. The central message is that we don’t have to bear our worries
alone; we carry one another, even when we are apart.
Thomas: I love our
daughters’ pictures (all children’s pictures) and I sometimes wish my own
illustrations could be as free and spontaneous as theirs. I’m still waiting for
them to hand me a best seller on a plate though!
Helen, when you start to write a picturebook text, what are you hoping to achieve? (Do you have a set of overarching aims?)
Picture books are a child’s first encounter with books and stories. They can
help to frame children’s understanding of the world, and they introduce them to
new concepts and ideas. They can also be a vehicle for exploring different
emotions and how we deal with them. That’s why writing picture books feels like
such a privilege to me – and also a responsibility. I want each book I write to
carry a positive message – not just for children, but for the adults reading
it, too. I want children to care about the characters in each story. And, of
course, I want to entertain my audience.
What, do you think, makes a successful picturebook?
There are so many different ways in which a picture book can be successful. I
guess the ultimate litmus test is, do you want to read it – or have it read to
you – again (and again)? The best picture books endure multiple readings, and
become more loved over time.
Thomas, the endpapers are often a place of innovation, humour and thought-provocation. What is their importance?
Thomas: When creating the endpapers you are freed from the
constraints of the story, but at the same time you have the chance to add
something new or unexpected. It’s a chance to take the reader further into the
visual world you have created, maybe in a different direction. I sometimes like
the end papers more than the illustrations inside the book, possibly because
they stand alone and speak for themselves.
Pirate Nell celebrates the power of reading. Sharing stories is also a central theme of The Knight Who Wouldn’t Fight and The Snatchabook. Are you on a mission?
Apparently so! Believe it or not, it’s never been intentional, in that I didn’t
set out to write a series of ‘books about books.’ However, I’ve always been a
bookworm and I strongly believe in the power of stories to bring people
together and nurture empathy, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s become a
Captain Gnash is the ‘top dog’, yet he doesn’t listen and is quite arrogant. Is it too much to read a political message into the story?
What could a greedy, power-obsessed pirate captain with an over-inflated ego, a
disdain for books and very few actual skills possibly have in common with any
of the great political leaders of our time?
hope our young readers will be more inspired by Pirate Nell’s example; she is
brave, compassionate and eager to share and to help others.
The character of Captain Gnash was first conceived in an earlier version of the
story, Captain Gnash and the Wrong Treasure, which I started working on
at the very end of 2016. Here are the opening verses:
Just two things mattered to Captain Gnash:
Making his fortune; and fame.
He was desperate to find some treasure,
And for all to know his name.
He worked very hard on his image
(He took selfies every day).
But woe betide any pirate
Who dared to get in his way.
His temper tantrums were famous;
You could hear them for miles around.
The other pirates did their best
To block out the terrible sound.
The book features some glorious seascapes and coastal illustrations. Are you inspired by your local Swansea shores?
Thomas: If I wasn’t
a children’s book illustrator I would like to draw landscapes. In fact, I often
sketch when we go out walking – so I’m definitely inspired by the Swansea
shores. The Knight who Wouldn’t Fight is full of Brecon Beacons inspired
hills, a nod to Castell Carreg Cennen and a twisty tree you can find half way
up Skirrid Fawr.
Absolutely! I grew up by the sea (in Weymouth, Dorset) and I’m so happy that we
live by the sea on the beautiful Gower peninsula now. Knowing how much Tom
loves to draw the sea, I wrote Pirate Nell’s Tale To Tell for him to illustrate.
You’re both learning Welsh. Sut mae’n mynd?
Thomas: Da iawn
It’s been a real effort over many years, but we’re both so happy that we can
now speak (and understand) Welsh – as can our daughters, who both attend Welsh
medium schools. Cymraeg was my Granny’s first language, and she would be so
proud – and pretty amazed – to see us all now. O bydded i’r hen iaith
Could you recommend any favourite picturebooks?
Cross The Line! By Isabel Minhos Martins and Bernardo P. Carvalho
illustrated by Christian Robinson
We have so many favourites in our house – too many to mention! Anything by
Shirley Hughes. I would second Christian Robinson’s books – he’s a genius. When
Tom and I first met, we found we had a favourite picture book from our
respective childhoods in common: How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired
Sportsmen by Russell Hoban and Quentin Blake. One of the books which has
most inspired me over time is The Sneetches by the great Dr Seuss. And a
book I always return to is Leon and Bob by Simon James. So understated,
so much heart – and the best last line in any picture book I’ve ever read. Gets
me every time.
The Screen Thief is coming in 2021. What can you tell us about it? Is it a follow-up to The Snatchabook?
The Screen Thief is about a little creature called the Snaffle who
arrives in the city hoping to make friends to play with. Unfortunately,
everyone is too busy looking at their screens. When the Snaffle eats a stray
mobile phone out of curiosity, she develops a taste for screens… But will they
ever really satisfy her hunger? This story was so much fun to write, and I love
the world that Thomas has created with his illustrations. It wasn’t intended as
a follow-up to The Snatchabook, but there are obvious similarities. And Snatchabook
fans might enjoy spotting Eliza and her friend on a couple of pages in The
Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
Thomas: I’ve got a
new book of my own out with Egmont in April called The Horse That Jumped
– it’s full of landscapes! Helen and I are also working on a new book together
for Sourcebooks in the US called Orange Moon, Blue Baboon and I’m just
starting the illustrations for that now.
Helen: I have three other picture books commissioned by different publishers, all soon to be illustrated (by different illustrators, not Thomas): All the Things We Carry, The Bee Who Loved Words and Someone Just Like You. And of course, I’m always working on new story ideas… Watch this space!
Thanks again to Helen and Thomas for taking the time to answer our questions. Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell is published by Sourcebooks and is available from your local independent bookshop.
Thomas’ new book, The Horse That Jumped is published in April 2021 by Egmont. The Screen Thief publishes with Alison Green Books in May 2021.
The Beast and The Bethany by Cardiff-born writer Jack Meggitt-Phillips is published on 1 October 2020. This dastardly inventive and hilarious novel channels Dahl and Lemony Snicket in a tale about the Beast in the attic who’s hungry for, well, anything. It’s an absolute delight – brilliantly written so that it can be enjoyed by a wide range of ages (including adults!). Kit (aged 7) thought it was the “best book I’ve ever read”, and it was similarly devoured (gettit?) by 13-year-old Hobbit-loving Noah. The film rights have been snapped up so we’re at the start of something huge. It’s only proper that we should invite Jack to answer a few questions…
The Beast and The Bethany is the first book in a trilogy that was highly-sought after by publishers and has been snapped up by a film company too. These are exciting times for you…
It’s all delightfully bonkers, and I’m still trying to find a way of
telling people I’m a children’s author without blushing purple and combusting
into a flurry of awkwardness.
I’m very grateful for the chance that I’ve been given, and if there’s a
chance that my books can give children the same feeling I experienced when
reading The Bad Beginning for the first time, then I shall be brimming
with ever greater quantities of delight.
The story has drawn comparisons to Roald Dahl, Despicable Me, Little
Shop of Horrors, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Lemony Snicket. Which of these
comparisons is the most accurate/helpful?
It’s a fabulous list of comparisons, isn’t it? May have to frame this
question for my wall.
The plot probably shares most in common with Dorian Gray. It’s about a
511-year-old called Ebenezer Tweezer who keeps a beast he keeps in his attic.
He feeds the beast all manner of things (hedgehogs, chandeliers, the occasional
pet cat), and in
return the beast vomits out presents, as well as potions which keep him young
day, the beast announces that it wants to eat a child, and so Ebenezer brings a
rebellious prankster into the house – one who will be a lot trickier to get
into the beast’s belly than any cat or chandelier. Enter Bethany . . .
The story seems delightfully bizarre featuring parrots who sing like
Elvis and a blob who lives in the attic. What’s the most bonkers detail that
There’s an exceptionally silly scene in Buckingham Palace involving a
stand-off between Bethany, and the Queen’s chief under-butler, Perkins. Fully
expecting to receive a firmly written letter of complaint from Her Majesty
Were there any details considered too farout by your editor?
Unfortunately, my agent and editors have been terribly bad influences on
my penchant for silliness There are now twice as many Elvis parrots, twelve
more squashed muffin sandwiches, and a whole gaggle of villainous household
appliances because of them.
Are you looking forward to seeing your creations come to life on film?
This was another moment when I squealed ungainly with delight. The beast
and I couldn’t hope for better partners in Heyday Films
and Warner Bros., in our quest to delight and terrify as many children as
Do you have more of an affinity to The Beast or Bethany?
Both are far too ill-mannered for my tastes, and frankly I don’t think
either of them would care to spend any time in my company unless they could
chomp my head off, or pull some ghastly prank on me.
I have far more in common with Ebenezer Tweezer, and his obsession with
velvet waistcoats and eccentric teas. He has better hair than me, and somewhat
looser morals, but aside from that I think we’d get on very well.
Have you already completed the trilogy? What can you tell us about the
other 2 books?
The series is essentially going to be about two
misguided people trying, and miserably failing to become do-gooders. All whilst
saving themselves and their friends from the beast’s dastardly, bone-crunching
I’m currently in
edits for book 2. After that,
the beast, the Bethany, Ebenezer and I are going to have a long, serious think
about what we can try and get away with for the next book.
You are a scriptwriter and podcast presenter – how did you get into
writing for children?
I had been working on another book for a few
months, which just sort of collapsed at the seams. The characters weren’t
behaving themselves, the plot was pettily refusing to come together, and my
interest in the thing was wilting faster than a dying daffodil.
I started The Beast and the Bethany, because I
wanted to have some fun writing again, and because the idea had been scratching
away in the back of my brain for a while.
I’ve now buried that other book in the back garden.
What are you reading at the moment?
For years I’ve been struggling with a worrying habit for Victorian
literature, and it only seems to be worsening. Currently I can be found wearing
a cloak, carrying a candle, and cackling menacingly at The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie
Where and when do you write?
I write exclusively in my dressing gown, which can make my attempts to
write on train journeys a little awkward.
My most productive times are before I’ve had breakfast, and before I go
to bed. I’m like a needy puppy – I need the reward of a pain au chocolat or
bedtime in order to get me writing.
What are your favourite books for children?
The books I’ve enjoy most are the ones that feel like they’re too
mischievous or macabre to be written for children. Books like those belonging
to Mr Snicket and Mr Dahl deserve all the praise and plaudits that are heaped
upon them, and I would also put in a very warm word for a book called ‘The Day
My Bum Went Psycho’ by Andy Griffiths.
Can you tell us about your Welsh connections and inspirations?
Well, one of the biggest influences on my writing has to be the modern
series of Doctor Who, and frankly anything written by Russell T Davies – what a
My running/ out-of-breath stroll route in Wales also takes me past the
Mrs Pratchett’s Sweetshop plaque – the one featured in Roald Dahl’s Boy, so
that always cheers me up. It also gives me an urge for sweets, which
immediately undoes any of the good work done by my attempt at exercise.
We’ve heard that you’re fond of tea. Any thoughts on Welsh tea?
Several. Enough to bore even the most patient and indulgent of listeners
However, I shall spare your readers the agony by confining my
recommendation to any of the loose-leaf delights from Waterloo Tea Gardens. The
Orange Blossom green tea is a personal favourite.
Can you tell us something about your next book/idea/future plans?
I’ve always loved horror stories with a supernatural tinge, and especially those that can make you jump between laughter and screams. So currently having a bash at one of those.
Huge thanks to Jack for answering our questions! You can follow him on Twitter. The Beast and The Bethany is published by Egmont and you can pick up a copy in your local independent bookshop.
My Name is River, the new novel from Emma Rea is published on Thursday 6th August by Firefly Press. Earlier this year, we hosted the cover reveal and Q and A with Emma – you can see that post by clicking here.
For the blog tour, we thought we’d ask Emma Rea for her favourite journey books seeing as main character Dylan journeys from Machynlleth to Brazil in this brilliant adventure. But first of all, let’s take a look at the story…
In My Name is River, 11 year old Dylan takes matters into his own hands when a pharmaceutical company plans to buy the family farm in Machynlleth. Dylan senses unfairness, injustice and there is more than a whiff of foul play so he sets off to the company headquarters in Brazil intent on uncovering the scandal.
This is a true adventure, probably unlike anything else you’re likely to read this year – My Name Is River is a dynamic ecological thriller with thought-provoking real world messaging. That may sound earnest – I promise it’s not – there’s plenty of action and adventure bursting through its pages, from speed boat chases to kidnappings and piles of peril in the Amazonian rainforest. This is James Bond with a conscience for 10 year olds.
What really makes the story though is the characters. Emma Rea kept Dylan from a previous book (Top Dog, published by Gwasg Gomer) and he’s likeable, determined and principled. However, it’s fair to say that the Brazilian characters steal the show. Lucia is a street child; a bold, resourceful and gutsy girl who has fought and found her own way. She is written with great warmth and humour by Emma who clearly has a soft spot for her. The relationship with Dylan is honest, caring, respectful and loyal – readers will love this demonstration of friendship.
If you’re looking for exciting and compelling entertainment it’s here in spades in this accomplished and thrilling novel.
Emma’s Favourite Journey Books
In My Name Is River, Dylan embarks on an incredible journey. We asked Emma to tell us about her choice of books that all contain journeys…
absolutely love Kensuke’s Kingdom
by Michael Morpurgo, not only for the family voyage across the world’s seas,
nor just for Michael’s long stop on an island before he can continue his
journey home, but for the way Michael and Kensuke make friends very slowly,
fall out badly, and manage to restore their faith in each other. I defy anyone
to finish this book without needing six handkerchiefs.
I Am David by Anne Holm is unbeatable. Twelve-year-old David escapes from a concentration camp and travels alone across Europe, armed with nothing but a compass and a bar of soap. Crackling with tension and dotted with small kindnesses, this is a book with an emotional punch you never forget. More handkerchiefs needed.
Holes by Louis Sachar is full of eventful journeys: from Latvia to the US, all over Texas, across the desert and up to the top of a mountain that resembles ‘God’s Thumb’. The plot reaches back four generations, encompasses powerful themes, and is leavened with mystery, humour and several endearing nicknames: Armpit, Zero, Squid and Barf Bag to name a few.
What are your favourite journey books? Get involved and let us know in the conversation on Twitter.
Thank you to Fireflies Leonie and Megan for supporting us with materials and a proof copy of My Name Is River, given in exchange for the review. Lastly, thanks to Emma for her engagement and for writing such a brilliant book!
On Friday July 31st, live on BBC Radio, Sophie Anderson was announced winner of the Children and Young People’s category for Wales Book of the Year 2020. Her book, The Girl Who Speaks Bear (Usborne) is a wildly imaginative and lyrical folk tale about finding yourself. Full of magic and hope, it is a skilfully written and rather brilliant adventure.
The Children & Young People category was added for 2020, designed to enthuse a new generation of readers, raise the profile of Wales’ talented authors, and establish that literature for children is on a par with that which is intended for adults. Readers of this blog will not need convincing that children’s books are full of hope, bravery, wit, empathy and love. Recognition of this is growing and quality examples from Wales are becoming far more widespread as demonstrated by the shortlist.
Children’s Laureate for Wales, Eloise Williams, says that the introduction of this category confirms children’s literature as an important artistic form. “I am so delighted to see Literature Wales recognising and celebrating children’s literature like this; we’ve got a wealth of children’s writers who are producing superb books – the quality is so high, engaging readers of all ages.”
In addition to the category win, The Girl Who Speaks Bear also won the People’s Choice Award decided by a public vote. Sophie sees this as a validation of the new category, “I am over the moon,” she told BBC Radio Wales, “Children’s books are books for everyone; they wrap up the big things we all feel, helping children to navigate the world.” Echoing the rather brilliant essay by Katherine Rundell, ‘Why you should read children’s books, even though you are so old and wise’, Sophie recently said, “I honestly believe some of the most important, most philosophical, and most enjoyable books are labelled for children.”
It’s important to note that the other two children’s books on the shortlist are worthwhile additions to any home. Butterflies for Grandpa Joe by Nicola Davies (Barrington Stoke) is about Ben’s attempt to engage and comfort his grieving grandfather. The story moved WBOTY judge Ken Wilson Max to proclaim it “a powerful, deeply sensitive story, beautifully told.” On Susie Day’s Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It, which was also nominated for this year’s Tir na n-Og Award for children’s books set in Wales, Eloise Williams said, “This is a humorous, touching, beautiful story about the metaphoric mountains that some young people have to climb.” Both books come highly recommended by Family Bookworms.
We’re really grateful to Sophie Anderson for agreeing to answer a few questions following her award, and we’re really pleased that Sophie has recommended some high-quality children’s books towards the bottom of the page.
What was your reaction on learning that you had won the Wales Book of the Year category?
Complete and utter disbelief! The news came via an e-mail from
my publisher, Usborne, and I e-mailed back with the response: ‘Am I reading this right? Has BEAR won in the
Once the news was confirmed and had sunk in a little, I was over the moon of course, and ran outside to tell my husband and children, who are always so happy to celebrate with whoops of joy and plenty of hugs!
Is being Welsh important to you?
Absolutely. All the Welsh people I know, myself
included, are proud of their Welshness and consider it an important part of
Since I moved away from Wales (when I was
eighteen) my Welshness has only become more important to me. I still think of
Wales as my home, and I believe I always will. It is where my family live, and
some of my oldest and dearest friends. But it is much more than that too …
I feel Welshness as something in my soul. It’s
difficult to define, but it relates to the landscapes, the cultures, and the
people of Wales. I’d describe it almost as a lyricalness, a deep emotional
connection, and I think if you’re Welsh (or have spent some of your life in
Wales) then you understand this!
Does being Welsh have any influence on your
Definitely. With my Welshness being part of my soul and identity,
it is bound to come out in my writing. I think many Welsh creatives are deeply
inspired by beautiful landscapes, ancient heritage, and poetic language,
because these things are so important in Wales.
When I look at my own work, and the work of other Welsh authors,
I often feel these strong connections to the land and to the tales of old, and
also sense a deep passion and almost symphonious way of expressing thoughts,
experiences and emotions.
You also won the public vote. How does that
make you feel? I desperately wanted one of the children’s books to win the
public vote, so I was absolutely thrilled with this news. It feels like the
most wonderful of celebrations for the new Children and Young People’s category
of the award.
Knowing that so many adult readers took a children’s book into
their hearts and took the time to vote for it really is such a wonderful thing,
a brilliant reminder that children’s books are not just for children – they are
exceptionally well-crafted stories that can deeply move readers of all ages.
You are no stranger to awards. Is this one any
This one feels like a celebration of both my
Welshness and my writing, so it does feel very special – like a big warm hug
from my motherland!
Different awards are judged in different ways;
some recognise commercial success, others look at the technical quality of
writing, and some look at popularity with readers (which you could argue is
often a function of marketing and publicity!).
Wales Book of the Year is judged by a panel of
talented and erudite judges. Knowing the quality and range of books they will
have considered makes me feel honoured they chose BEAR. But it must be such an
impossible decision – like picking one jewel in a treasure chest bursting with
equally beautiful jewels!
Whilst it is wonderful to see BEAR with a crown
of sorts, I think the really brilliant thing about awards like this is in the
celebration of the longlists and the shortlists, because they present an
opportunity to promote a wide selection of fantastic books to readers who might
not have heard of them.
Seeing children’s books part of Wales Book of
the Year for the first time has been a wonderful experience for this reason,
and I truly hope it marks a jump forwards in celebrating and increasing the
visibility of this beautiful sector of literature.
The quality of the shortlist was very high. Have you read the other nominees?
I read Max Kowalski when it was first
published and adored it. I hadn’t heard of Butterflies for Grandpa Joe
until the shortlisting, even though I am a huge fan of Nicola’s work, so this
really highlights how important awards can be in terms of raising awareness of
new titles. I’ve read Grandpa Joe now of course, and think it is a
really beautiful, special book.
You will hopefully be contributing to The Mab –
a collection of Britain’s oldest stories – with 10 other Welsh writers. Does it
feel like you’re part of a Welsh writers’ club?
It really feels like I’m part of a family!
Welsh children’s writers are so friendly and supportive of one another. I think
because we all have some shared experiences, and also share this undefinable,
lyrical Welshness, it does make us feel close to one another.
All of us work together to promote children’s
literature in all its forms, celebrate each other’s books and recommend a wide
range of titles. There is no competition between us, because we feel like we
are on the same team – if we can create readers, then all of our books will be
What other quality Welsh fiction can you recommend?
Now this is the hardest question because there is so much Welsh fiction that I adore, and so many Welsh authors who I deeply admire – Catherine Johnson, Zillah Bethell, Stephanie Burgis, Claire Fayers, P G Bell, and Jackie Morris just to name a few!
But onward to choosing a few titles …
The Quilt, written and illustrated by Valeriane Leblond is a breathtakingly beautiful picture book that stole my heart recently. It holds a moving story of migration, explores themes of home and hiraeth, has a gorgeous message of hope, and I loved the symbolism of the quilt.
Nest of Vipers by Catherine Johnson (around 9+) is a thrilling historical
adventure with the most wonderful group of characters who I still miss long
after reading! I would recommend any of Catherine’s books in a heartbeat, she
is a huge talent and her books are massively important as they are some of the
few books seeking to write lost and erased stories – such as the story of Matthew
Henson, in her book Race to the Frozen North.
The Snow Spider trilogy by Jenny Nimmo is my third choice. Such beautiful stories,
they really capture some of the Welshness I’ve talked about in this interview:
the love of landscape, the nods to ancestry and heritage and the tales of old,
and the stories have a dreamlike, magical quality that I always associate with
And one more shout-out! Even though you asked for fiction I’d like to highlight a non-fiction book: What is Masculinity? by Darren Chetty and Jeffrey Boakye is outstanding and deserves a place in every school and library (and if I had my way every home too!).
If you asked me about the future of Wales Book of the Year I would talk about my hopes for even more categories under a Children and Young People’s umbrella. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a children’s non-fiction award, and a children’s poetry award, like there is for the adult books? And also, an award that celebrates illustrators and illustrated books, as they are such a massively important part of children’s literature too!
Huge thanks to Sophie Anderson for indulging us with this blog post, and massive congratulations on your double win. If you haven’t yet read the prizewinning book, you can order it now from your local independent bookshop. Sophie’s next book, The Castle of Tangled Magic is due out in October, published by Usborne.
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.