The Screen Thief Blog Tour

We are absolutely thrilled to be taking part in this Blog Tour for Swansea-based author and illustrator, Helen and Thomas Docherty. They really are the perfect picturebook pairing and have just published yet another playful, engaging and colourful story that will entertain by the bucketload.

The Snaffle has arrived in the city and she just wants to play – but everyone is distracted by phones, tablets and devices. They don’t seem to have time for each other. So the Snaffle becomes The Screen Thief and embarks on a mission to change the city into a more playful and more caring place. Ultimately, eating screens doesn’t do this for her, and leaves her feeling lonely, but a wonderful friend called Max is kind and caring and together they put things right.

Clearly ‘screen time’ is a huge issue for parents and teachers and striking a balance is important in all our lives, so this book will appeal to everyone looking to provide more than a subtle dose of encouragement to adopt healthier habits.

Helen’s joyous rhyming text is funny and great fun to read aloud. Thomas’ illustrations are so vibrant and full of detail – we’ve been poring over them over several bedtimes, reading the emotions of the characters and looking how they change through the story.

It’s totally apt therefore that Thomas joins us on this blog tour to give an insight into the illustration process.

Creating the Snaffle: Thomas Docherty on illustrating THE SCREEN THIEF

Throughout the story, the Snaffle goes through a whole range of emotions, so above all she had to be expressive. At the same time she gets up to plenty of mischief, so she needed to be dynamic. I also had to make sure that she was loveable. After all, she acts with the innocent impulses of a small child and that vulnerability comes through at the end of the story.

As always, she went through many versions before we decided on the final design. From the start, her general body shape remained more or less the same. The hard part was solving the question of how to resolve her face and head.  In the end I found that the long ears helped to make her very expressive and the trunk was fun and surprising. It was also good for sniffing and tasting the screens!

It mentions in the text that the Snaffle is small and blue. I was going to be painting the illustrations by hand and I wanted the Snaffle to stand out. I found a bottle of blue ink that I particularly liked, renamed it SNAFFLE BLUE and used it only for painting the Snaffle.

I had a lot of fun hiding the Snaffle in the library, the cinema and the TV shop and I hope children will enjoy looking for her in the illustrations. My favourite moment where she eats a screen is when she is walking away with the ice cream sign from outside the cinema.

When I’m creating a book, lots of the ideas never get included. If there was one set of pictures I would have liked to keep, it was of the Snaffle reacting to the different tastes and textures of the screens. In the end there just wasn’t room for everything.

One early idea that I’m glad was taken out was a moment where the Snaffle is arrested by the police for eating everyone’s screens. It’s just too sad!

The city is full of so many other characters. Originally I imagined these as made up creatures but in the end we went for animals, which made the Snaffle stand out more.

I had so much fun drawing them all glued to their screens, oblivious to everything around them.

Of course the Snaffle wants to join in!

Creating The City

One of the fun things about illustrating The Screen Thief was that it is set in a city. I hadn’t drawn a city before in a picture book and I was excited about all the visual opportunities that this presented. It also meant a huge amount of work as I had to plan the city from scratch.

At the beginning, I tried a slightly futuristic city with rounded buildings and bubble cars. However, in the end we decided that it would be more relatable to children if it was set in the present day.

The most complicated image to compose was the first page when the Snaffle arrives in the city. I tried lots of options including a train station and coming out of a subway. In the end I wanted to show all the main locations in the story on this page, so I went for a roof top view of a square. You can see Max’s house, the Library, the cinema and the park.

I even drew myself a map to make sure I knew where all the other places the Snaffle visits made sense.

The city is full of shops selling all sorts of things (I actually walked past a cactus shop just like this recently!). Of course the Snaffle is only interested in the TV shop…

As always, some of my rough ideas didn’t make it into the book. I did some sketches of inside the animal’s homes and some other locations which would have been fun to include.

Although cities are full of life, the Snaffle soon discovers that they can be lonely places too. There is a moment in the story where despite all the screens the Snaffle has gobbled, she still feels empty inside. What’s missing? Nothing that a screen can give her, what the Snaffle needs is a friend. Setting this scene in a deserted ally seemed to fit the Snaffle’s mood.

The park is not mentioned in the text, but it seemed the perfect place to develop the key message of the story. At the beginning, the Snaffle comes across children in the playground. They are so absorbed in their screens that they are not even playing. However, by the end of the story the park has been transformed into a magical space full of activity. Max and the Snaffle have managed to bring everyone together.

Huge thanks to Thomas Docherty for preparing this blog and sharing his insight and these amazing images.

The Screen Thief by Helen Docherty & Thomas Docherty is out now, available from your local independent bookshop, and is published by Alison Green Books. Cover to Cover may still have some signed copies.

This is not the first time that Helen and Thomas have featured on our blog. Check out the interview that we did with them last year.

TNNO2021: Jess Butterworth Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover by Rob Biddulph

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

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

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

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

Image from jessbutterworth.com

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

Which aspect of Welsh wildlife intrigues you the most?

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

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

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

Image from Jess’s Website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds intriguing. Can you tell us more?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The setting feels very authentic. How important is authenticity?

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

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

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

Do you think Cara is changed by her adventure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shark Caller

Blog Tour

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

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

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

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

“Magnificent and beautiful.” Sophie Anderson @sophieinspace

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

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

“Beautiful and lyrical storytelling.” Shapes @shapes4schools

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

“A beautifully written book” Emily Weston @primaryteachew

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

“Vividly depicted… cleverly told.” Rachael @BellisDoesBooks

Believe the hype!” Dean Boddington @Misterbodd

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

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


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

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


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

Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A House for Christmas Mouse

Rebecca Harry

Published by Nosy Crow

This delightfully shimmery new Christmas picture book comes from Cardiff author and illustrator, Rebecca Harry. Rebecca has published a number of well-loved stories with Nosy Crow and this tale featuring Christmas Mouse is a fantastic addition to the set.

Mouse is very excited for Christmas, but first she needs to find a home! On her way through the forest, she meets Fox, Bunny and Bear, all in need of a little help – which she gladly offers. Things don’t look good for Mouse though, the light is fading and it looks like she won’t have a cosy home for Christmas. Luckily, her new friends are about to reward her generosity with a very big surprise…

This is a wonderfully gentle and warm story perfect for 2 to 5 year olds – they will love the character of Mouse who shows great kindness to others and demonstrates how a community is built on caring, hospitality and friendship.

The story leaves you with a glow and the illustrations are equally soft and tender. Rebecca’s smouldering winterscapes set the Christmas scene, making the animal house interiors seem even more warm and inviting with cosy fires and hot chocolate. The added foils on every page bring a seasonal glint to this festive tale.

Grab a Christmassy drink, curl up with your little ones, get cosy and enjoy A House for Christmas Mouse, in which animals teach us all about humanity.

With thanks to Nosy Crow for this gifted copy of A House for Christmas Mouse which is available at your local independent bookshop – or direct from Nosy Crow. Why not follow Rebecca Harry on Twitter or visit her website.

My Name Is River Blog Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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


Emma’s Favourite Journey Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shark Caller

A new novel from Zillah Bethell to be published by Usborne in July 2020.

The Shark Caller is Zillah Bethell’s remarkable new book that leaves you completely stunned and totally in awe of the wonderful storytelling.

Inspired by Bethell’s childhood, The Shark Caller is set against the backdrop of the islands of the South Pacific, and their traditional practice of shark-calling. Zillah was born in the shadow of the volcano Mount Lamington in Papua New Guinea. She grew up without shoes, toys or technology, and consequently spent a lot of time swimming and canoeing in the sea. Zillah’s family returned to the UK when she was ten, she went on to study at Oxford University and now lives in South Wales, but vivid memories of Oceania stayed with her.

Such a stunning book deserves a glorious cover and we are absolutely delighted to exclusively reveal the image below. The cover has been illustrated by Saara Katariina Söderlund, and designed by Katharine Millichope.

Saara Katariina Söderlund is a freelance illustrator. She paints with gouache, sometimes mixing coloured pencil or digital tools into the process. Her own paintings often focus on her love of nature – so for a book set in Papua New Guinea, she was a perfect choice. Saara told us, “I absolutely loved working on this cover. The book has such a special mood and I think it really takes you to the island. I truly enjoyed interpreting that feeling for the cover – and painting all the colourful fish of course!” Saara has also recently illustrated The House of One Hundred Clocks by A M Howell.

Zillah says, “Saara Söderlund has given the greatest gift of allowing me to reinhabit the landscape I left when I was ten. Papua New Guinea in all its fierce, mercurial, quixotic beauty. And I am so very grateful to her.”

You can find out more about Saara’s work on her Instagram, @saarainfeathers or visit her website.


Book Synopsis

The sea is always there,” I say. “It always has been. It always will be. People are born and people die. All the taim they are being born and dying, and all the taim in between, the sea is moving up and down, up and down. All the taim. It never ever stops. Never in all taim.”

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

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


Review

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

https://twitter.com/lamerch/status/1213949228424318976

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you to Usborne, Zillah Bethell and Stevie Hopwood for choosing us to reveal the cover and for gifting a proof copy of the book. Follow Zillah and Usborne on Twitter and seek out Saara Katariina Söderlund on instagram.

Q and A: Sharon Marie Jones

Sharon Marie Jones, author of Grace-Ella: Spells for Beginners and Grace Ella: Witch Camp has kindly answered our questions as part of the Witch Camp Blog Tour. She grew up in North Wales and now lives near Aberystwyth with her family, close to the sea and countryside. Having worked as a Primary School Teacher for 13 years, Sharon is now a full time author.

What are you reading at the moment?
I’m currently reading ‘The Girl who Speaks Bear’ by Sophie Anderson. I loved her first book, ‘The House with Chicken Legs’, so I couldn’t wait to start this one and it definitely doesn’t disappoint! It’s a magical mix of folklore and adventure, friendship and being true to yourself; utterly enchanting.

Could you tell us how you got into writing?
It has always been my dream to become an author, from a very young age. I loved writing stories and spent much of my early childhood living in my imagination! In Secondary School, I won the school’s R S Thomas prize for creative writing.

But once I decided on a career as a teacher, my job and life in general took over and writing was pushed to the back of my mind – but it was always there, lingering, never completely gone.

I was on my second maternity leave when I decided that I would chase that dream of being a writer. I sat down determined to write. I wrote a short story, which was placed second in a competition and published in Writers’ Forum magazine. This was a huge boost to my confidence. I then had a further seven short stories make the shortlist.

I was enjoying writing short stories but knew that my real passion was to write a book for children. I had just returned to my teaching job by then, and as was driving to work one morning, when the name Grace-Ella popped into my head. I pulled into a lay-by and started to scribble frantically in my notebook.

The following morning I set my alarm for 4.30am and I started to write my first Grace-Ella story. I continued like this, writing for a couple of hours every morning, before real life had to take over. It took me a year, by the end of which I was exhausted, but I had finished writing my first ever book. I sent it to Firefly Press with no expectation at all of hearing back from them … but after three months an email pinged into my inbox and my journey with Grace-Ella truly began.

Why writing for children?
I think you just know if you want to write for children. It’s something intrinsic. I wanted to dive back into that imaginary world that I would escape to as a child. I wanted to let my imagination take over again and lead me on a magical journey.

Because children’s books are just that – they’re magical. I loved reading aloud to my class when I was a teacher; looking at the children mesmerised by the words, and loving the, ‘Oh, please just one more chapter’ chorus at the end of a reading session.

I knew once I started to write that my heart lay with children’s fiction. Seeing a child engrossed in a book is so wonderful and to think that a child could pick up a book that I have written and become lost between its pages is an amazing feeling.

Where and when do you write?
I write at home, in my office. I’ve decorated the room so that it feels relaxing and peaceful, a room that I enjoy being in. I can only concentrate fully on my writing when the house is empty and silent, so my writing time happens when my boys are at school.

Sharon’s Office

Now that I write full time, I don’t set my alarm for 4.30am! But my writing is at its best in the mornings, so I aim to be at my desk by 10am, after dropping my boys off at school and doing a quick tidy up of the house. I can usually ‘write’ for 3-4 hours – I say ‘write’ because I don’t necessarily mean I’m typing away continuously for 3-4 hours. There’s a lot of staring out of the window, allowing ideas to brew and scribbling notes in a notebook. It’s all part of the process of ‘writing’.

On days where the words are hiding from me and I know I won’t add anything to a story I’m working on, I’ll settle down to read a book and allow another author’s words to carry me away. Some days I need this break and find that I’m ready to get going again with my own story, the following day.

Who are your favourite authors for children?
As a child, my favourite author was Enid Blyton. I devoured her books. My favourite being ‘The Enchanted Wood’ and ‘The Faraway Tree’, which I read over and over.

Now … there are so many! There is such a wealth of children’s authors writing today, which is wonderful. I strongly believe that there is a book out there for every young reader. I have far too many authors I currently love, so I’ll choose the ones who I know for definite that I’ll always rush out to buy their next book:

  • Eloise Williams – her writing is so beautifully atmospheric, I feel like I’m in the story with her characters
  • Sophie Anderson – I love folktales and her books bring a new twist to old folktales and are utterly charming
  • Lisa Thompson – she’s a master at tackling difficult issues, weaving them into a sparkling plot that always keep me gripped till the end
  • Onjali Q Rauf – again, she tackles real-life issues perfectly, with wonderfully believable and relatable characters.

Grace-Ella is a witch in training. What drew you to her story?
I think it’s because it’s the kind of story I would have loved as a child. I was entranced by Enid Blyton’s magic, and discovered that I had my very own fairy door on the trunk of the crab apple tree at the bottom of our garden. If I closed my eyes and tapped on the tiny door three times, I would be transported to the kingdom of the Crabble Fairies.
I was always mixing up my own ‘potions’ in the garden – mixing wildflowers and berries with water in empty jam jars. I would line them up on the outside kitchen windowsill.

So once the name Grace-Ella popped into my head, I knew that she was going to be a magical character. Her story began to flow once I started to write the words. I didn’t plot the story, I let the story take me where it wanted to go. Grace-Ella is the girl I would have loved to have had as a friend when I was 9 years old.

Did you ever go to camp as a child?
No, I never went to a Camp as such. I was a painfully shy child and had low self-esteem and confidence. I loved school and was happy playing with my friends, but away from that security, I always stayed close to home.

I was a Brownie, and they went to Camp every year, but I was always too nervous to go. I do remember us going to Brown Owl’s home one evening where we toasted marshmallows on an open-fire. I remember it feeling magical – being wrapped up warm in the dusky darkness, the smell of smoke floating in the air and the sweet taste of the sticky marshmallows.

I spent a lot of time outdoors as a child. I loved pressing wildflowers after going for a walk in the woods with my dad. These memories came flooding back as I wrote ‘Witch Camp’.

Will there be more Grace-Ella?
I hope so! I still have plenty of adventures for her to go on, so fingers crossed…

How does Wales inspire you?
The first thing I loved about Firefly Press was that they were looking for stories for children aged 7-9 years, specifically based in Wales. Wales is rich in stories. As a child, I listened in wide-eyed wonderment to folktales about giants and the tylwyth teg.

The Arch at Devil’s Bridge

The landscape is a constant source of inspiration. There are so many wonderfully wild places to walk, where stories whisper in the rustle of leaves. The setting for ‘Witch Camp’ is very much based on places I have visited. The map of ‘Witch Camp’ at the start of the book shows ‘The Old Stone Archway’, which is based on ‘The Arch’ at Devil’s Bridge, just outside Aberystwyth.

I often read about authors travelling the world on magnificent adventures, which then feed into their writing. For me, Wales is such a beautiful country and is full of inspiration for stories, I don’t feel the need to stray far. T Llew Jones, Wales’ most famous Welsh children’s writer, wrote stories based in Wales for over half a century!

I feel strongly that stories based in Wales should reach young audiences far and wide. Every child should experience the magic and wonder of this beautiful country, and one way for them to do that, is by reading stories from Wales.

One of your own mottos, as signalled on your website is “be proud of your achievements”. This comes across in Grace-Ella: Witch Camp. Was it a conscious decision to allow these messages to filter through your writing and Grace-Ella’s character?
I hadn’t even thought about that so no, it hasn’t been a conscious decision. I’m a perfectionist and my own worst critic in everything I do. As a child, I never felt quite good enough, even though I was often ‘top of the class’ in terms of my work. I’ve also taught children who found it difficult to feel a sense of achievement, often comparing themselves to others and in their minds, finding themselves lacking.

With Grace-Ella, I wanted her to be able to shine at something. She struggles a little with schoolwork and worries that she won’t be able to do her work well, so I wanted to give her something new that she would be good at.

I’ll always remember a young girl I taught, who felt her schoolwork wasn’t good enough and would get herself into a worried mess when having to do tests. She would compare herself to her sister and friends and feel that she wasn’t as good as them. I wanted to help her find that something that she sparkled at. It came when the class were put into groups to work on creating a stall for the school’s Summer Fair. One of the items her group decided to make was bunting. Once this girl started sewing, there was no stopping her! The other three members of the group worked on other items whilst she developed her sewing talent and made all the bunting herself. On her last day of school, she gave me a handmade cushion which was perfect in every way.

We all have the ability to shine at something, it’s just a matter of finding what that is.

What else should we ask you?
Can I do magic? Yes! I can make a coin disappear…

What comes next for Sharon Marie Jones?
Lots of published books I hope! I have stories other than ‘Grace-Ella’ that I want to write, and it would be wonderful for some of them to become published books.

But right now, what comes next for me is a cup of coffee and diving back into writing Grace-Ella Book 3…

Thanks again to Sharon for answering our questions! You can follow her on Twitter and should visit her website.

To read a full review of Grace-Ella: Witch Camp, click here.

Blog Tour: Grace-Ella Witch Camp

Witch Camp

Sharon Marie Jones

Firefly Press

We are enchanted to be the final stop on Sharon Marie-Jones’ Witch Camp Blog Tour. Grace Ella has a special place in all our hearts but is loved especially by Nina who was absolutely thrilled to read an early copy of Witch Camp.

The books are aimed at young readers and are probably best suited to 7-8 year olds; although Nina is 10 and counts Witch Camp amongst her favourites (along with Malory Towers, Amelia Fang and Wendy White’s books). Short chapter books of this quality are few and far between, but Sharon has created a likeable and realistic character with depth for us all to relate to. In fact, we’re keen to read more about Grace Ella and are thrilled that book 3 is being written.

In this episode, Grace-Ella gets invited to Witch Camp and makes friends with others in her cabin. An adventure is on the cards when the friends go into the woods against the rules. But do they have any choice if they are to make amends for the broomstick incident? Friendships and making right choices are explored through this engaging and irresistible story.

The text is interspersed with Adriana Puglisi’s delightful illustrations and give the story another dimension and added interest. It’s a bewitching and beguiling story that will charm and delight. In Nina’s words, “an awesome read!”

To celebrate the Blog Tour, Sharon Marie Jones has kindly answered our Q and A which you can find here.

To buy a copy of Witch Camp, visit the Firefly website or visit your local independent bookshop.

With huge thanks to all at Firefly Press and to Sharon for their support with these posts. We received a copy of Witch Camp in return for this honest review and book cover endorsement.

Review: The Comet and the Thief

We are delighted, enthralled and completely enraptured to be taking part in The Comet and the Thief Blog Tour. We are pleased because The Comet and the Thief was written by Ruth Morgan, one of our favourite authors. We are pleased because today is launch day for The Comet and the Thief. And we are pleased because the book is really rather good.

So before we get to the blog tour extras, let’s tell you about the book. I, Daddy Worm, was given an early digital copy of the book by publishers Gomer and I absolutely loved it.

The story centres on Kit, the eponymous Georgian thief, who finds a mysterious and magical medieval book which connects him to the inhabitants of a cursed village 300 years in the past. Evil Lord Colwich is also after the book, having initially hired Kit to steal it for him, and a tense chase ensues.

It’s an intriguing and engrossing adventure as Kit flees London and affiliates with Saroni, a travelling puppeteer in Bath; which proves to be a decent hiding place if only for a short amount of time. It gives Kit some breathing space to be able to explore the book and the villagers who each have their own page. Kit strikes a bond with Zannah and ultimately works out a way to go through the book and into the village. Colwich is no quitter though and he is determined to find the book. Will Kit work out how to save the villagers or will Colwich catch him before he can?

If you are familiar with Ruth Morgan’s other recent release, Ant Clancy Games Detective (Firefly Press) then you will know that it is a brilliantly fun and immediate fantasy adventure – perfect for 9-12 year olds. The Comet and the Thief is quite different; aimed at a slightly older audience (11 to YA?), it’s sophisticated storytelling and intricately weaved plot lines exploring trust, friendship and witchcraft are an absolute joy, forcing the reader to surrender to the thrill of Ruth’s virtuosity.

What the two books have in common is that they are both extremely well crafted, with inventive worldbuilding and insightful commentaries on their subjects. This book surely cements Ruth’s reputation as a writer of real quality and ambition, who should be revered as one of the best in Wales right now.

The Comet and the Thief is a vividly imagined, pullman-esque page turner. It is a totally compelling and brilliantly written novel, perfect for fans of Julie Pike, Frances Hardinge and Kiran Millwood-Hargrave.

Thanks so much to Gwasg Gomer for providing a digital copy of the book in exchange for this review. If you’d like to buy your own copy, visit GWales or Hive or your local independent bookshop.

And now to the blog tour extras… Ruth Morgan has very kindly written this exclusive content about her writing routine…

Ruth Morgan: “My Writer’s Routine”

A couple of years ago, I visited an exhibition about ‘Queen of Crime’ Agatha Christie at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and one exhibit in particular grabbed my attention: her well-travelled typewriter.  Agatha wrote many of her detective novels whilst accompanying her archaeologist husband Max on his expeditions to the Middle East and I found it touching and reassuring to discover that she got on with the task of writing wherever she went and whatever the conditions.  I must admit, I still occasionally dream of my perfect writer’s retreat: an uncluttered desk, a view of the sea and uninterrupted hours during which the words flow effortlessly onto my laptop screen. It will always remain a dream but that shouldn’t really matter. The fact is, if setting up her modest typewriter on whatever she could balance it on that day was good enough for Agatha, it’s good enough for me!

I have got my own routine when I write, and it has evolved to fit into a busy life with the everyday demands of family and also my much-loved work as a part-time teacher in a local primary school. I have been teaching for thirty years and writing for children seriously for about twenty but that’s covered everything from picture books, poetry and non-fiction to scripts for animation and radio. I am one of those writers who does as little planning as possible because I love the adventure of not knowing where the story’s going to take me. There are real thrills to be had along the way, as more and more of the story reveals itself. That’s why I only ever begin a longer novel with the vaguest idea of a plot, although I have to keep feeling an excitement and belief in the ideas at the heart of the story, in order to know it’s worth carrying on.  In the day-to-day business of writing, I tend to think in scenes and particularly love writing dialogue. 

Here it is then: the innermost secrets of my writer’s routine. In the evening I’ll unwind by listening to music or some light reading, basically the aim is to feel happy and relaxed at bedtime. Then, when I’m in bed, I think around and about the scene I intend writing the next day, for example what the characters are going to say to one another or what’s going on in my hero’s mind, which will often be reflected in their surroundings. Crucially, I consider how that scene is going to drive the story on, but not in a stressy way: these pleasant thoughts simply drift around in my head as I drop off to sleep.  I will get up early the next day – a non-teaching day – and start by editing what I wrote the day before.  Then I’ll carry on writing the next scene and a lot of the groundwork will have been done already, although I still won’t know exactly what’s going to happen: that will emerge as I write.  If it’s a good day, I’ll complete at least half a chapter, 1,500 words or more before I have to go and do the shopping or organise some other family stuff to keep our home lives running smoothly.  On a not-so-productive day, I’ll only get as far as editing the last bit.  On a hopeless day, something else will happen and I’ll have to shelve my plans altogether. Most of the time, I manage to get something onto my screen. I am definitely a morning person when it comes to work, and if I can produce something I’m happy with by 9 a.m., the rest of the day’s looking good.

Not very exciting sounding, is it? No-one sees the thrills: those go on inside, but you have to work hard for them. However, there’s something else.  When you are really into a story and have got to know your characters well (which is vital, your number one job as a writer, really), it’s like having an alternative life you can dive into and daydream about at any boring moment.  In The Comet an the Thief, I especially enjoyed writing the theatrical scenes, where my hero Kit is learning his craft as a performer from his master, the puppeteer Saroni. Several times in the queue at the supermarket I floated off into a wonderful daydream and witnessed one of their marionette shows playing in some wayside tavern: 

Kit would peep from behind the stage and was amused to see the audience enthralled by his master’s performance, their expressions altering as he played with their feelings almost as though they were puppets too.  In some of the coaching inns, the crowds were squeezed in rows several deep along the balconies as well as down in the yard.

I realise all I’ve talked about here is me, me, me.  When I write, I am thinking about my young readers too, I promise! I hope that if I get excited about and engrossed in a story, that’s going to communicate itself to my readers. It also adds another dimension to my life and that’s a wonderful feeling, one I would lose were I stressing about when to find time to write or beating myself up over not having written enough that day. I think if you are like me and have lots of tasks to juggle, you have to find some routine of your own and accept that conditions and never going to be perfect. Anyway, when there’s a lot going on in real life, there’s plenty of inspiration to draw on. What would I write about at that uncluttered desk staring at the sea for hours on end?  My mind would be a blank!

THANK YOU SO MUCH RUTH FOR YOUR TIME AND COMMITMENT TO THIS BLOG!

Ruth has been writing for children and young adults for more than 20 years, everything from picture books to novels, plus many scripts for animation and radio series.  She is also a part-time teacher at a local primary school – a constant source of inspiration.  In the small amount of time that’s left, she loves to dance, play ukulele and stargaze.
You can follow Ruth on Twitter @alienruth and Instagram ruth.morgan.ant.clancy

The Secret Dragon

Ed Clarke

Puffin

The Secret Dragon is a wonderful story set on the South Wales coast, inspired by visits to the beaches of the Vale of Glamorgan. Ed Clarke lives in London but the story evolved as he visited his parents.

Mari Jones, inspired by her father, is a young fossil hunter and aspiring scientist. She makes a remarkable discovery on the beach one day – a tiny gwiber or wyvern hatches from the rock. Mari’s mother is tolerant of her passion for paleontology but is far from encouraging and so Mari feels unable to share her revelatory discovery. But can she keep the secret to herself? She wants to honour her father’s memory with ‘Gweeb’ and so begins to study it carefully, putting together her findings before ‘going public’. However, the secret is hard to keep, especially as the dragon is full of mischief and keeps escaping.

This is a great adventure story full of humour and heart. Mari, an isolated and quirky individual, is forced to learn the value of friendship and family. She’s a great character – resourceful, headstrong and determined – even when things are against her. Ed Clarke’s narrative is enchanting and absorbing with more than a touch of danger and there are plenty of life lessons along the way.

The Secret Dragon is recommended for readers 8+, but there is plenty to keep older readers engrossed and engaged throughout.

We received a free copy of The Secret Dragon from Puffin in exchange for this honest review. You can find out more about Ed Clarke at his website or you could follow him on Twitter.

The cover of The Secret Dragon was illustrated by Ben Mantle. If you’d like to buy a copy, why not visit your local independent bookshop or buy online.