We are delighted to be today’s stop on the Strange Tales Blog Tour, and more than a little bit pleased to be featuring author and storyteller Daniel Morden in a Q and A. Strange Tales is a collection of nine short stories inspired by world myths and folklore – full of intrigue, mystery, magic and mayhem. Presented in a hardback gift edition by Firefly Press, it is a thing of beauty publishing on 28th September 2023.
Congratulations on Strange Tales. Thank you! I am proud of the book. It contains some of my favourite stories: stories that have been such fun to tell, and stories that niggle at me, like a pebble in my shoe.
What are the main differences between speaking stories and writing stories?
When you tell a story you can colour the words. Your intonation, gesture, rhythm and facial expression inform the audience’s response. If you say something in a sarcastic tone, the audience will understand it to be a joke. If you write the same words, without the sarcastic tone of voice it could become confusing or even offensive.
Your intonation, gesture etc., means it is obvious which character is speaking, so you don’t have to say, he said. On the page you have to explicitly state who is speaking, especially if there are more than two characters in the scene, which means you have to interrupt the flow of the dialogue with he saids and she saids. Often the dialogue in a spoken version of a story is quickfire and rhythmical, and this is lost because of the scaffolding.
But books are lovely! They are always beside you for you to enjoy, unlike a storyteller. And they travel to more places than I can visit in one lifetime.
How do you go about making the transition from performing a story to writing it down? What are the challenges?
First I write it exactly as I would tell it. Then I send it it to my editor, who replies with comments such as, Who is speaking here? Why does she say this? Give us some adverbs!, the scales fall from my eyes and I realise that the story needs more description and context because the reader cannot hear my voice as they read. The challenge is to try to retain the propulsive momentum of a spoken telling despite the additional contextualising.
Tell us about Daniel Crowley – where and when did you first hear his tale?
I first encountered the story as part of a play called SAVAGE JUSTICE back in the eighties. Because it was a play, they could have great fun with the ghostly party. One actor mimed peeling off his skin, and playing his ribs like a xylophone!
How have you changed the version you first came upon?
The ending felt abrupt: next morning Daniel’s apprentices found him lying amongst the chaos of his workshop. What happened to him then? did this experience change him? So I added a little coda – you will have to read the book to discover if it is an improvement!
Some of the Strange Tales have a gruesome and unnerving aspect. Do you find yourself tempering (or even amplifying) your words for an audience?
When I am performing, I can show the character’s disgusted/appalled/horrified response to what they are seeing, without having to explicitly describe the sight that provoked this extreme response. I have to spell out the horror in the written version, so inevitably it can feel more disturbing! I trusted my editor to rein me in when necessary.
The book is called STRANGE TALES and the cover is ominous. It is very clear what you are getting! My main concern is that the stories are not creepy enough to meet the expectations set up by the cover…
You are twice the winner of the Tir na nOg Award for books with a Welsh context. Does winning awards and recognition have an impact on your craft?
It helps to raise the profile of the book. A writer once said publishing a book is like throwing a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and expecting to hear it land. At this time of year there is always a deluge of new books, most of which disappear very quickly. Winning an award gives the book a second chance to reach an audience.
You often combine storytelling with music. When is this most successful?
Music is very powerful. It can make us feel emotion very quickly. Just think of the JAWS theme. The teller has to adapt their performance to allow the musicians to work their magic. Often I realise I don’t need to say whole paragraphs because in a few moments the music has evoked what I was trying to convey. I think the teller has to behave as if they are another musician contributing to an overall sound, rather than assuming they have to dominate.
Who are amongst your favourite storytellers?
Jan Blake is the real deal. Big hearted, funny, exuberant, shocking, thrilling… you never know what she is going to say next!
What other books can you recommend to readers who have enjoyed your stories?
The Red Gloves by Catherine Fisher – a wonderful collection of eerie stories that will haunt you long after you have finished the book. Clockwork by Phillip Pullman. You can read it in a single (winter’s) evening. Full of magic, mystery and suspense.
Strange Tales is published by Firefly Press on 28.09.2023. Huge thanks to Daniel Morden for answering our questions and to Lucy Mohan at Firefly Press for inviting us. Buy a copy of the book here and also check out links to Daniel’s website and Twitter.
When you read Vivi Conway (and let’s make this clear from the beginning – you must read Vivi Conway, it is stupendous) there are several things that may strike you. It could be the fact that Vivi and her gang have the most incredible heart-racing adventures. It might be that the writing is so lively and engaging that it pulls you in completely and makes you feel instantly a part of Vivi’s world. It may be that this is undoubtedly one of the most inclusive books you have ever read. It would probably be that you fall in love with Gelert the protective ghost hound who speaks in a Welsh dialect that would make Lesley Parr proud, mun.
I was particularly enamoured by a couple of things: firstly, the constant inspiration of Welsh mythology cannot be underplayed here. I mean we’re single-mindedly here for authentic welsh contexts and it feels like Lizzie has pulled out all the stops to do the Wales Tourist Board proud. The book is completely teeming with legends, folk-tales, Arthurian and mabinogion-inspired references. It is excellently done – I love the part where Gelert describes his own demise whilst standing next to his own grave (macabre but extremely moving!); or where Nimuë the Lady of the Lake recounts the story of Pwyll and Rhiannon. Elsewhere, the inspiration is more subtle and the tales have been twisted, diluted or reshaped (just as they have been over centuries).
Secondly, there is great humour here. Real laugh-out loud stuff. Observational comedy and warm-hearted funnies that made me beam as I read. These kids are going through some wild episodes but their sense of humour is maintained throughout. My supposition is that there is a bit of author Lizzie Huxley-Jones in Vivi and that they had a ball writing the story; their warm personality certainly shines through the writing. By the end of the book, not only are you desperate for more, but you feel like you actually want to be in the company of these misfits, and by association, get to know Lizzie Huxley-Jones better. (We promise to try and get them to do a Q and A soon!)
However Vivi Conway floats your boat, one thing is sure; it is a completely joyous book that I will happily recommend to everyone for the rest of my life. The Sword of Legend is full of the most excellent fun.
At the start of the story, Vivi Conway is moving to London. But the night before she leaves, she hears a voice calling her to the lake. It is here that she is given Excalibur and a quest to contain Arawn, the King of the Underworld. She can’t do this alone, and finding her tribe is a central theme to the story – both for real-world Vivi as she settles into her new school in London, and for fantasy-world Vivi as she seeks out the other ‘calonnau’ who are charged with defending the mortal world.
What follows is a story full of magic, myth and monsters that will (mildly) terrify and thrill readers of all ages. There are missing children, seized by the horrifying spider-like Coraniaid who seem to have taken the job of the Tylwyth Teg in kidnapping youngsters and holding them captive in the Unlands (that space between our world and Annwn). As Vivi and her friends Dara, Stevie and Chia learn to tame and hone their magical powers ‘on the job’ the adventure to rescue the missing children takes in the Science Museum, the British Library and the Crystal Palace dinosaurs. It really is an education!
For a fantasy story full of the supernatural it’s also intensely real. Autistic Vivi was bullied in her previous school and is extremely wary of other kids – particularly as she’s now in a new city and feels she cannot give herself up to friendship due to previous experiences. Readers will enjoy following Vivi as she works these things out, opens up, conquers fear and becomes more content with her place in the world. She is battling supernatural demons by day but also inside her head. The parallel nature of Vivi in the human world and Vivi in the Unlands works phenomenally well.
An authentically Welsh, fun fantasy, expertly written with joy woven through every page. A story that encourages everyone to be themselves and to assure growing youngsters that they will find their place. Vivi Conway and the Sword of Legend is essential for every home, library and school; this is a special one I’m going to be recommending to a lot of people. Thanks Lizzie Huxley-Jones for writing.
Blog Tour Content
Lizzie Huxley- Jones recently tweeted about their research in the British Library. We thought it may be fun to pull out some of the myths and legends that have inspired Vivi Conway and the Sword of Legend and highlight some retellings for children. Hope you enjoy…
Gelert is a ghost dog in Vivi’s adventure and a faithful guardian to the children. This is the wiry hound Gelert of legend, and in one very moving scene he transports Vivi to Beddgelert and recounts his story right next to his grave. Try holding the tears in when you get to that part. A really lovely retelling of Gelert for children is the Cerys Matthews version but it also appears in the ‘Tales from Wales’ collection.
Vivi meets Dara at the lake – like Vivi, Dara has been gifted a magical power associated with a figure from mythology. Ceridwen is that mythical legend – a sorceress who had a magical cauldron. The story of how she brewed a potion to give her own hideous son great wisdom, but instead the potion inadvertently spilled on a servant boy, is told brilliantly by Jenny Nimmo in ‘Gwion and the Witch’, illustrated by Jac Jones.
The Lady of the Lake / Excalibur
Also known as Nimuë (or Viviane in some tales), the Lady of the Lake is the Arthurian story of the enchantress who, amongst other things, gives Arthur the Excalibur sword. Vivi and Nimuë are partnered souls and the discovery of Excalibur in Llyn Arian is the start of Vivi’s adventure. This is a story told many times in many ways. I’ve chosen three books which were all nominated for the Tir na nOg Award in their day.
The Afanc is a lake monster from Welsh mythology – an enormous supernatural beast sometimes described as resembling a crocodile, and often a scaly beaver – take your pick! Chapter 1 of Vivi gets us off to an uber-exciting start as Vivi has to wrestle with the Afanc in the lake. There is an afanc pool near Betws-y-Coed and the Showell Styles book provides a guided walk. The Claire Fayers collection recounts the legend of how the afanc was removed to a more remote lake away from the town, and the Dark is Rising sequence features the afanc in the final book.
The Coraniaid feature in the Mabinogion tale of Lludd and Llefelys. They are one of three plagues that descended on Britain during the reign of King Lludd – an undefined creature or people who were characterised by a remarkable sense of hearing – which meant that the land fell silent because no-one could take any action against them. In Vivi’s story the creatures take on an arachnid form and they learn about the Coraniaid plague from a pamphlet in the British Library. ‘The Three Plagues of Britain’ is recounted in Gwyn Jones’ Stories from Wales, while Zillah Bethell retells the story (wherein “even the fool daren’t tell his jokes”) in The Mab. In ‘Island of the Mighty’ Haydn Middleton’s version features tiny folk called the Corannies who were water-tamers (there’s another link to Vivi there, but I think we’ve given away enough spoilers!)
The third calon to be discovered in the story of Vivi Conway is that of Rhiannon – a character from the Mabinogion (though probably better known through the Fleetwood Mac song). Rhiannon is the intelligent, beautiful horse goddess. She features in the first branch of the Mabinogi, but also the third. Aside from The Mab, mentioned above, here are two other versions of the Mabinogion.
Thanks very much to Lizzie, Knights Of and Team ED for inviting us to be part of the blog tour and for sharing an early proof copy of Vivi.
A Cover Reveal of Michelle Briscombe’s new novel with Candy Jar
The Ghosts of Craig Glas Castle, a spooky yet warm-hearted sequel to The House on March Lane, is due to be published on World Book Day, March 2nd 2023.
It had been ten months since the ghosts had started talking to Flora and her best friend Archie at her dad’s reclamation and antiques warehouse. So, when the two friends are offered a trip to Wales, and a break from the ghosts, to pick up some antiques from Craig Glas Castle, they can’t wait to go. But not everything at Craig Glas Castle is what it seems! Another unearthly mystery awaits to be unravelled by the intrepid duo.
The cover, shown below, was created by artist Martin Baines.
Michelle Briscombe was born in Cardiff but now lives in Barry, South Wales, with her husband and two children. She has been a Primary School teacher for over 18 years, enjoys walking and often takes walking holidays with her family who all have a keen interest in the natural world. She has been a Literature Wales Bursary recipient and placed second in the Wells Festival of Literature short story competition. Michelle has also been shortlisted for a short story competition by Royal Society of Literature.
Artist Martin Baines is a professional storyboard and concept artist. He has worked extensively in the field of storyboards for advertising agencies. As an illustrator of book jackets and comic strips he has worked with Match of the Day Weekly, the Wallace & Gromit comic, the Beano and People’s Friend. He is a regular illustrator for Candy Jar and has done several covers for the Doctor Who spin-off, Lethbride-Stewart.
We are so pleased to be kicking off the Honesty and Lies Blog Tour. Eloise Williams is a true hero of ours and we absolutely adore her writing. As Wales’ first Children’s Laureate she worked her socks off to encourage a love of reading and writing for pleasure across the whole of the country. She is also the most amazing encourager and supporter of artists in Wales, raising the visibility of quality children’s literature on both sides of the River Severn. When we’ve met her, she has been kind, thoughtful, optimistic, funny and always willing to chat. As an editor of The Mab (with Matt Brown), she brought together an incredible assembly of talent to produce new versions of the Mabinogion stories for the children of the 21st Century.
Honesty and Lies is a truly brilliant novel. Set in Elizabethan times, in the court of the Queen, Honesty has fled West Wales for London. A chance meeting with Alice finds her working as a maid. Whilst Honesty is keen to make a name for herself, to escape the menial tasks and get closer to the Queen, Alice has a reason to stay hidden. She keeps her head down and aims to go unnoticed. The friendship between the two is put under the spotlight by Eloise, expertly aided by a dual narrative in the first person. You really feel a part of the secrets and lies – the frustrations, the claustrophobia, the anger and desperation of the teenagers. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read with a brilliant climax. Eloise’s best yet!
Another Eloise novel means another chance to ask her some questions! Thanks for indulging us once again Eloise!
What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished reading Fear Ground by Jennifer Killick which is a little bit creepy but absolutely hilarious and a definite must read. Balanced at the top of my teetering TBR pile is The Shadow Order by Rebecca F. John. I’m really looking forward to it.
Where and when do you write?
All over the place and at no specific time. It depends how busy I am with other things. Often, I’m dashing from school to school, so I only have time to write in the evening or make notes on scraps of paper throughout the day. If I’m at home, I sometimes write in my attic room which is very small and has a slanted ceiling so it’s easy to bump your head if you aren’t careful, but I can often be found writing in the garden, the kitchen, in the woods, or on the beach. Lots of my writing is done in my head before I ever put pen to paper, or fingertips to laptop keys.
What was the seed that began Honesty and Lies?
Honestly, I can’t remember what it was exactly. A mixture of things, I think. I’ve always loved London and am fascinated by its history. I recently took a trip to Greenwich and a boat back along the Thames to Southwark. I think that had a lot of influence as you get a very different perspective of London from the water. I’ve also been wanting to write something through two different points of view for a while and the contrast of rich versus poor, appearance versus reality, honesty versus lies seemed to fit perfectly into the court of Queen Elizabeth I.
This is your 6th novel. What do you know now that you wish you’d known before Elen’s Island?
That you should define what success is for you as a writer and not compare yourself with anyone else. It’s not a linear path and there are huge emotional ups and downs. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky and I’m very grateful, but I have had lots of times when writing has been hard for many different reasons. I now define my success as a writer by my dedication to telling the story in the best way I can. That’s the only thing I can control and really, it’s the most important part.
As Wales’ inaugural Children’s Laureate, you travelled the country inspiring hundreds of children to read and write. You must have learned some lessons yourself?
Absolutely. It reaffirmed my belief that stories connect generations. I also learned that young people are endlessly creative and courageous and that made me challenge myself more. They taught me to take risks and to laugh at myself when something failed. If you are failing, you are trying. They’ve also taught me about individuality and how it should be celebrated. One group of young people made me a thank you card which advised me to ‘stay weird’. It’s one of my favourite possessions.
What is your writing routine?
I laughed when I read this question. I’m not very good at routines. For a while, I tried to kid myself that I had a routine but really, I was just aspiring to be an organised writer. I’d keep reading about other writer’s routines and thinking, yes, that sounds like the right way to do it! Then I’d get up at the crack of dawn and write and think, yes, I am better at this time, until that pattern dwindled. Then I’d try writing late at night until that dwindled too. Eventually I just accepted that my writing routine is a bit haphazard, I’m afraid. I spend long periods of time thinking and then I’ll write something in bursts. It always seems like a minor miracle when I’ve managed to finish a story.
Honesty and Lies is brilliant, and totally brings into focus a relationship between two girls. Interplay between characters and particularly the development of friendships is a common theme for you. Did you enjoy writing these characters?
Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I loved creating Honesty and Alice. Creating different characters is one of my favourite parts of writing. These two were particularly fun because they are both flawed in different ways. I always give my characters a really hard time and I felt really guilty to put them through so much! That’s why their friendship was so important. Together they are strong. They are so real to me, and it was very difficult to leave them behind.
What is your favourite period in history? Why?
Ooh, I’m not sure. I loved writing about the Elizabethans, but I also loved writing Gaslight which is set in Victorian Cardiff. I’m a big fan of historical fiction so am reading lots about different periods of history at the moment. This is a tricky question. Can I go for the 1980s? My niece learned about the TV adverts from the Eighties as part of her homework once and it was so strange to think of my own childhood as ‘history’. That was a good lesson for me. It made me remember that people from history were real people. I mean, I knew it, but it brings it home every time I think about it.
What do you hope young readers will get out of Honesty and Lies?
I’m really hoping they’ll enjoy the story if they love historical fiction and that it will give them a taste for it if they haven’t read any before. There is so much wonderful historical fiction out there and if this book opens the door to the past for even one young reader, then my work is done!
Which of your characters is most like you?
That’s a really difficult question – I can see elements of me in both. I think probably Alice though. She keeps a lot on the inside and gets irritated easily because she is worrying. I’m a worrier too! She also chooses to be kind at every opportunity, and I hope that I do the same. Alice has a quiet nature and that’s one of the qualities I like most about her and about myself too.
What books can you recommend for fans of Honesty and Lies?
Flight and Safe by Vanessa Harbour are great historical reads. Anything by Emma Carroll, Lucy Strange, Lesley Parr, Catherine Johnson, Phil Earle or Kiran Millwood Hargrave.
If you want a pre-order I’m really looking forward to Rhian Tracey’s forthcoming book, ‘I. Spy’.
What are you excited about right now?
I may have some exciting book news on the way, but my lips are sealed!
How would your 10 year old self react to what you do now?
I think I’d be very surprised! It took me a long time to realise that I’m at my happiest when I’m allowed to be quiet. For a long time, I thought that I had to be loud and outgoing to be interesting. I think that being loud is often confused with having something to say and with being a success. I love that I can now accept myself for being the quiet person I was always meant to be.
What is next for Eloise Williams?
I’m working on a few writing things in my own haphazard way but am mostly looking forward to spending some time with my family. Autumn is my favourite season so there’ll be lots of dog walks, warm jumpers, pumpkin soup and ghost stories involved.
If you weren’t an author what would you be?
A detective. I like to think I could be the next Miss Marple!
Huge thanks to Eloise for putting up with our questions, and to Karen for organising the blog tour. Honesty and Lies is available to buy now. Order direct from Firefly Press.
What’s the strangest thing to be sent through the post? Well, after a few hours down several internet rabbit holes, I can tell you that there are no limits to the things that people have attempted to send through our beloved Royal Mail. Pets, children, suffragettes, bricks, shepherd’s pie (warm), game (just a label around the neck will do) and a severed ear have all been wrapped and sent in the history of the international postal service. “Mail artists” have sought to push the envelope (thank you very much) and write addresses on unwrapped items such as leaves, apples, potatoes and a piece of toast.
It appears Holly Rivers was inspired by these tales to write The Boy in The Post (charming and funny with a golden heart), her second novel with Chicken House. The book features children mailing themselves to New York in order to solve their problem. You see, the Shalloo siblings have taken on a job for the summer holidays. Their mum is too wrapped up in her second-hand car business to give them her attention and so they answer the call of Grandy Brock to help him establish a new kind of postal service. The kind of postal service that has animals delivering the mail. Animails. Yes that’s right – Grandy Brock has a menagerie of feathers and furs (as well as a rather impressive number of his own children) and is trying to get his new business venture off the ground.
Taber, the youngest of the Shalloo siblings, is responsible for training Geronimo, a pelican, to find it’s way home. Using inbuilt navigation systems, this all goes rather swimmingly (soaringly?) and the bird becomes the best homing pelican you can imagine. However, following an international flight, the bird fails to return home and Taber holds himself responsible. The young boy takes off in the middle of the night, posting himself with a shipment to New York. Taber’s brother and sister become very concerned for him and crate themselves off in a similar manner, embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.
The book has a very classic, vintage feel. The characters are brilliant – written with so much joy you can’t fail to fall in love with them. Grandy Brock is a favourite. He’s eccentric and peculiar but has “a mischievous twinkle in his eyes that hinted at adventure and excitement and fun.” He’s warm and generous and shows kindness that the Shalloo siblings have rarely seen. The book is also laden with some of the best postal-related puns you are ever likely to feast on (it’s all in the delivery!) Now that’s definitely something to write home about.
We’re delighted to be able to share this Q and A with Holly Rivers which delves a bit further into the inspiration behind the book:
Tell us a little about your new novel, The Boy in the Post
The Boy in the Post is a postal-themed adventure story set across land, sea and sky! It follows the Shalloo siblings — adventurous twelve year old Orinthia; nature-loving five year old Taber; and sensible middle child Séafra.
During the summer holidays the three siblings accept a summer job from an eccentric old man called Grandy Brock who lives in a tumbledown windmill. He and his five adopted children are opening a very special postal service called The Mailbox Menagerie, which is to be staffed entirely by animals and birds! The Shalloo siblings become especially fond of Geronimo, a homing pelican. But when the big bird fails to return from a delivery to New York, the Shalloo siblings have no choice but to post themselves across the Atlantic to find her…
What inspired the story?
The story was inspired by a fascinating article published by The Smithsonian Institute, about children who were sent through the mail in the 1900s. Yes, back then it was legal to send your kids through the post! The first child delivered by the U.S. parcel post service was a boy in Ohio, in 1913 — his parents paid 15 cents for the stamps and insured their son for $50, who was then delivered to his Grandmother’s house a few miles away. Even though these children weren’t technically stuffed into mailbags (and instead travelled in the mail vans of trusted postmen) I couldn’t help but start imagining prospective characters being wrapped in brown paper and stamps being stuck to their foreheads; and the idea for The Boy in the Post was born!
What was your favourite piece of information that you uncovered in your research?
I loved reading about loads of other weird and wonderful things that have been sent through the post and intercepted over the years — a turnip with the recipient’s address carved into its flesh; a hive of live bees; false teeth; jars of scorpions; prosthetic limbs; a pair of underpants with an address scrawled across the crotch; a first edition copy of Ulysses deemed ‘obscene’; a brace of game birds; a tree trunk; a building’s worth of bricks; and two suffragettes hoping to get to Herbert Asquith! The bizarre and eccentric side of humanity never fails to inspire and entertain me!
Who were your favourite characters to write?
I had a hoot (excuse the pun) coming up with ideas for my animails — the animals and birds that work at The Mailbox Menagerie. I really let my imagination run wild and ended up penning a homing pelican who gets paid in sardines; a fruit bat who will only work the night shift; a pair of Sphynx cats in charge of licking stamps; an octopus who can deliver 8 parcels at a time; and snakes who cane spell out postcodes with their bodies. All the while I had my own pet chihuahua, Silver snuggled up on my lap — whose snores and farts and woofs made the experience all the richer! She even turns up in the last chapter of the book…..
What do you think the key message is to take away from the book?
I hope that the story inspires readers to embrace more old-school ways of communicating in their post-pandemic lives. During lockdown — a time dominated by zoom calls and emails — sending and receiving letters from family and friends during brought me so much joy; and there was nothing lovelier than hearing the postman coming up the garden path. I hope the book inspires children to switch off their screens, go buy some stamps and put pen to paper. I’m always open to receiving letters from new pen-pals!
You wrote the book during lockdown, how was that as an experience compared to writing your first novel Demelza and the Spectre Detectors?
When I was working on Demelza I was able to take my laptop to so many different locations to write — libraries, cosy pubs, cafes, parks, the northbound Piccadilly line, number 91 bus! But because of lockdown and the fact that all of our worlds had suddenly become a lot smaller, the entirety of The Boy in The Post was written at an antique desk gifted to me by Grandma. I was surprisingly focused and motivated during lockdown and managed to write the first draft of the book fairly quickly. Penning an epic transatlantic adventure also meant that I could travel the world and go on a journey even though I wasn’t allowed to leave the house — it felt like a real tonic!
You work as a children’s workshop facilitator, does this help to inform your writing?
As you can see from the acknowledgments sections of both Demelza and The Boy In The Post, the children I work with are a huge inspiration to me and my writing. They buoy me with their ideas, energy, humour, warmth and imagination, and I’m always jotting down the unusual and funny things they come out with! Being around children so much reminds me to remain playful, and they stop me from turning into too much of a grumpy old grown-up!
Thank you to Holly and Laura for the Q and A and for allowing us to host today’s post on the Blog Tour. The Boy in The Post is available now to buy in your local independent bookshop, published by Chicken House. You can follow Holly on Twitter.
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.
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.
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.
Earlier this week, a crowdfunding campaign was launched to finance a new version of The Mabinogion for young people. These are the earliest prose stories of Britain and have been hugely influential on storytelling across Europe. With contributions from 11 acclaimed Welsh writers for children, the new book promises to be an epic retelling for a new generation. Each tale will be written in English then translated into Welsh by Bethan Gwanas and will feature glorious illustrations from the incredible Max Low.
The book is being put together and edited by Children’s Laureate Wales, Eloise Williams and Matt Brown who will also contribute a story each. Matt posted this video to explain more about The Mab.
The book, which is not yet a reality, is seeking publication through Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher. Readers choose a reward – everything from a signed copy of the book to author virtual visits – pledge their money, and wait for the project to be 100% funded.
At Family Bookworms we are giving this project our full support and backing and would encourage you all to visit the unbound website to donate if you can. As one of our worms says:
Eloise Williams, Children’s Laureate Wales and author of 4 novels set in Wales, told us, “As far as we know, there isn’t another collection like it! We have so many amazing people working on the project and we are so excited to bring the stories to everyone.”
So let’s take a look at the amazing cast of contributors and hear directly about their involvement, their excitement and their motivations…
The Mab will feature illustrations by Max Low.
It’s been a real pleasure to be involved in #TheMab launch. Please head over to Unbound to donate if you can. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the funding target over the coming months.
Thanks to all the authors and illustrator for giving us some exclusive content. While we wait for The Mab, and if you have any money left after donating on Unbound, you can head over to your local bookshop and buy a book by one of the contributors. Here’s our recommendations*:
*Firefly Press will publish Daydreams and Jellybeans by Alex Wharton in Spring 2021.
**Images on this page (the author profiles) were made by EW Graphic Designs and are not to be reproduced without permission.