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.
Carnegie Medal nominee and Tir na n-Og Award winner, Elen Caldecott’s new novel is published with Andersen Press on 2 June. We are delighted to present an exclusive reveal of the cover, illustrated by Rachael Dean.
Cassie’s older brother Byron has fallen in with the wrong crowd – it’s soon clear these boys are wild, reckless and not human at all. They are tylwyth teg – Fair Folk, who tempt humans down into the dark places of the world. And Byron is tempted.
When he goes missing, Cassie and her cousin, Siân, follow his trail to an old abandoned railway tunnel which goes down and down into Annwn, the underworld. Here they find that the tylwyth teg are restless – and angry. Their leader, Gwenhidw, wants to protect Annwn from the damage humans are doing to the world. Byron is part of her plan. Cassie won’t let her big brother be part of anyone’s plan. But can rescuing him really be that easy?
Andersen says the book is suitable for age 9+, and there seems no doubt that this is going to become one of our favourite Middle Grade adventures in 2022. Anticipation levels are heightened!
Author, Elen Caldecott, told us, “When I was a child, my sister and I would beg Mum to read to us from her collection of Welsh Folk Tales – both of us had been named after characters in the book (I’d got off lightly with Elen, my poor sister, not so much). We’d listen, enthralled, to stories of the tylwyth teg, the magical creatures who were easily angered, who beguiled careless humans and led them astray. As an adult, I wanted to return to these stories. But now, I wondered, what would the tylwyth teg make of post-industrial Wales? What would they make of council estates, of children on tablets and smart phones, of chapels converted into flats or boarded-up completely? What would these creatures of legend make of the Wales of today? In The Blackthorn Branch, the past and the present, the myth and the reality, come together in one story. It was a joy to write, and I hope that young readers find just as much to love about it as my sister and I found in those old tales.”
Cover artist Rachael Dean lives in a seaside village just north of Liverpool. Her work is traditionally and digitally painted, and she loves to illustrate natural scenery. She recently became the new illustrator for Dame Jacqueline Wilson and has also illustrated covers for Sally Nicholls, Aisha Bushby, Lauren St John and Bali Rae.
On illustrating The Blackthorn Branch, Rachael told us, “I thoroughly enjoyed delving into the world of welsh folklore for The Blackthorn Branch cover. It was a wonderful story to illustrate and I absolutely loved working on the decorative elements!”
Elen Caldecott grew up in North Wales. After her Welsh language education she studied archaeology and then creative writing, graduating with an MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. Her debut novel, How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant, was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and longlisted for the Carnegie Medal.
Three books have made it to the shortlist of the English-language Tir na n-Og Award; the annual awards celebrate the best books for children and young adults published in 2020.
Organised by the Books Council of Wales and sponsored by CILIP Cymru Wales, the English-language shortlist honours books with an authentic Welsh background for children and young people. There are also two other prizes for Welsh language books for primary and secondary ages.
The shortlist: The Quilt, Valeriane Leblond (Y Lolfa) The Short Knife, Elen Caldecott (Andersen Press) Where The Wilderness Lives, Jess Butterworth (Orion Books)
The Quilt by Valériane Leblond (Y Lolfa, 2020) for ages 5+ is a beautiful, lyrical story about a little girl who lives with her parents on a farm near the coast in rural Wales, around the turn of the twentieth century. Life is hard and the family decide to emigrate to America. To pay for the cost of their journey they sell their possessions but keep a black and red quilt hand-made by the mother from pieces of fabric left over from clothes she has made for the family. Leaving everything familiar behind brings homesickness and a longing – hiraeth – for the little girl, and it is the memories and love contained in the quilt that help her overcome these feelings and adapt to her new life.
The Short Knife by Elen Caldecott (Andersen Press, 2020) for ages 12+ is a story set many centuries ago, in the early Middle Ages, 454, at a time when a new Welsh identity was just starting to emerge, when the Romans had left and the Britons and Saxons were battling to take hold of different territories. It is narrated through the voice of the main character, Mai, a young girl, who up until now, along with her sister Haf, has been kept safe by her father. The story starts with the arrival of Saxon warriors at their farm, forcing the family to flee to the hills where British warlords lie in wait. From here we see Mai surviving in a dangerous world where just speaking her mother tongue could lead to her death, and where she comes to mistrust even the people she loves the most.
Where the Wilderness Lives by Jess Butterworth (Orion, 2020) for ages 9+ centres around the character of Cara who lives on a houseboat with her mum, siblings and a dog called Willow. Her dad used to live with them but now lives in a remote part of Wales. The adventure starts when Cara and her siblings find a locked safe one day when they are helping with a clean-up of the canal where they live. A fire destroys their houseboat one night, and while her mum is in hospital and Cara is looking after her siblings, a thief comes to steal the safe. The children leave the house they are temporarily living in to travel in their houseboat with the safe to go to their dad, and then on foot on a journey of survival across Welsh mountains in the snow.
There will be lots of talk on our Twitter channel and on this blog about #TNNO2021 in the coming months, in the lead up to the announcement of the winner on Friday 21st May. We have interviews with the authors and more exclusive content to entertain and educate.
Jo Bowers, Chair of the English-language judging panel, said: “All three books had their stories set against a rich authentic Welsh background, which is a central criteria for this award, and each one did this in a very different way to the others. Each book stood out for many reasons: the sense of place and time in Wales and Welsh history; the overall design, and each surprised and engaged in both the style and content of the story. We felt that each one brought new aspects about Wales in children’s literature.”
Chief Executive of the Books Council of Wales, Helgard Krause, said: “My warmest congratulations to all those involved in bringing these three shortlisted titles to readers. It is so important to ensure that young readers in Wales have a choice of high-quality books which reflect the country and culture in which they live.”
Previous winners of this award include Claire Fayers, Jenny Nimmo, Catherine Fisher and Susan Cooper.
Schools and teachers can get involved by shadowing the awards in the run up to the winner’s announcement. For more information on the award, visit the special pages on the Books Council of Wales website.
Books to develop insight into the culture, people and history of Wales
This St. David’s Day, we’ve decided to take a look at some brilliant stories with a Welsh context. These are books that will fire the imagination and connect children to the landscape and the communities of Wales, both now and in the past. We hope that our suggested reading list is fuel for teachers, parents and reading enthusiasts from Holyhead to Haverfordwest and Highmoor Hill to Hawarden. We also have some suggestions for activities that will help to get to know these books better.
Reception (Age 5)
Tad-cu’s Bobble Hat was Malachy Doyle’s 100th book and was recently included in the Iechyd Da wellbeing pack from the Welsh Books Council delivered to all Welsh primaries. Set in the Cambrian Mountains not far from Machynlleth, the story features a boy and his tadcu (grandfather) on walks through the hills. On one particular trip the snow falls and tadcu lends his bobble hat which is then lost. The book, illustrated by Dorry Spikes, deals with the loss of a grandparent in a very gentle way and the symbolism of the changing seasons can be explored whilst connecting with the intergenerational theme and the welsh landscapes. ‘A touching story that conveys the warmth and joy between two generations, and handles the universal themes of love, loss and renewal with gentleness. On one walk, as Tadcu gets older, his special bobble hat is lost. Winter sets in and with it, life dies. When the thaw of spring arrives, the boy returns to the hillside walk to look for the hat. Its discovery brings comfort and a renewed sense of love and positive memories.’
Year 1 (Age 6)
The Quilt by Valeriane Leblond is a wonderful picturebook that can be read and enjoyed by any age. Children and adults will be captivated by the gorgeous illustrations that take us from rural Wales at the turn of the 20th century to the New World via Liverpool. This book connects us to our past but could also open up conversations about migration, homes, family, travel as well as Wales’ unique landscapes. ‘A beautifully illustrated story about emigration and homesickness. A little girl lives with her parents on a farm near the coast, around the turn of the twentieth century. Times are hard and the family decides to emigrate to the USA, raising the fare by selling all of their possessions except for a black and red quilt lovingly hand-made by the mother. The little girl feels homesick and sad at times, but the memories and love contained in the quilt help her overcome this and adapt to her new life. The book offers a message of hope which is sure to strike a chord with many adult readers: when things look bleak, remember that happy times will return.’
Little Honey Bee also has illustrations by Valeriane Leblond and is written by Caryl Lewis. The Welsh landscapes are evident throughout the story which will connect readers to the rich plantlife of their locality through a sensitive story about a bee-keeping grandma. ‘One wintry night, Elsi is left on her grandmother’s doorstep. Elsi is as silent as snow until Grandma shows her a secret at the bottom of the garden…’
Year 2 (Age 7)
Owen and the Mountain by Malachy Doyle and Giles Greenfield has echoes of Tadcu’s Bobble Hat in that it highlights a warm and loving relationship between a boy and his grandfather. Climbing the remote Welsh mountain can be seen as a metaphor that is difficult for both grandfather and grandson. Ultimately this is a story about love, achieving your heart’s desire and the glory of nature. ‘Owen is visiting his grandad and he wants to climb the mountain. But his grandad is not sure. The journey is long and tiring and when they succeed they are not only happy to have completed a difficult task but have also learnt a bit more about each other.’
The Seal Children by Jackie Morris is a story built on the celtic myth of half-woman half-seal selkies, and is set just above St. David’s Head. ‘When a fisherman falls in love with a selkie she gives him her sealskin as a sign of her love, and bears him two children, Ffion and Morlo, before returning to her own people. When a stranger comes to the village, telling of a land far away, the children remember their mother’s stories of the cities of gold and pearls beneath the waves…’ The Hamilton Trust have written teaching notes for The Seal Children aimed at Year 4, and you can hear Jackie read the book below.
Cities in the Sea
While considering books for this list, it became clear that there are many excellent quality stories about the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod – the prosperous land accidently flooded when the gates to the low-lying kingdom were left open. These three versions are suitable to read together (and work great as a read-aloud) to bridge the journey between Year 2 and Year 3.
Year 3 (Age 8)
Wendy White has some really brilliant stories all about Welsh communities. Short manageable chapters make these great books for newly independent readers to try for themselves. But there’s great humour to be had in reading aloud – especially the Welsh caricatures in the seasonally apt St. David’s Day Is Cancelled.
The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo is a classic story that has to be included in this list. About to mark its 35th birthday following the recent TV adaptation by Owen Sheers, The Snow Spider is another story that features the Welsh landscape almost as an additional character. It’s also great for empathy as readers have to come to terms with the reactions of different family members to the disappearance of Gwyn’s sister. More mature readers could be encouraged to investigate the links to the Mabinogion. ‘Gwyn’s grandmother leaves him five gifts: a brooch, a piece of dried seaweed, a tin whistle, a scarf, and a broken toy horse. She tells him they will help make him a magician – but can Gwyn use them to bring his missing sister, Bethan, home?’
Year 4 (Age 9)
Two books that have dual Italian-Welsh heritage are Sweet Pizza and King of the Sky. Both of these books provide opportunities for children to discover an important part of Welsh history – Italian cafes or ice-cream parlours were commonplace at one time. Sweet Pizza by G.R. Gemin, is about a South Wales valley café under threat; Joe, has an entrepreneurial spirit like his immigrant ancestors; he is unwilling to accept that the café is a lost cause and has ideas to breathe new life into it and make it the centre of the community once more. The pride that Joe feels for his own heritage, his ancestors and the valley in which he lives is obvious and infectious in this heart-warming book. ‘Joe loves his Italian heritage: the language, the opera, the lasagne! But it’s hard to celebrate his Italian roots in Bryn Mawr, South Wales, where his mam is sick of running the family’s tatty café. Just like his great-grandfather, who opened the café in 1929, Joe is an entrepreneur. He vows to save the family business, and to spice up the tired High Street with a little Italian flavour!’
King of the Sky, meanwhile, features an Italian boy who is finding it hard to call Wales home. Only when he meets the pigeon-racing Mr Evans does he begin to connect and start to belong. Nicola Davies’ perfectly pitched prose and Laura Carlin’s earthy illustrations make this a delightfully evocative book about Wales’ recent past. The book is one of many on this list that would work with all ages, and there are lots of teacher notes available to download. We particularly like the ones from Walker and Amnesty. We made a video about King of the Sky when it was shortlisted for the Tir na n-Og Award in 2018. It made me smile to go back, so here it is again…
The most recent winner of the Tir na n-Og Award (an award for children’s books that have an authentic Welsh context), is Storm Hound by Claire Fayers. I have recently used Storm Hound as a Whole Class Read in my Year 4 class so can vouch that it totally engaged and enthused the children. Based on both Norse and Welsh mythology the story centres on a family new to Abergavenny who adopt a puppy from the Dog Centre; he just happens to be one of the Hounds of Odin’s Wild Hunt! Funny, fast-paced and hugely satisfying with lots of layers to unpeel. ‘Storm of Odin is the youngest stormhound of the Wild Hunt that haunts lightning-filled skies. He has longed for the time when he will be able to join his brothers and sisters but on his very first hunt he finds he can’t keep up and falls to earth, landing on the A40 just outside Abergavenny. Enter twelve-year-old Jessica Price, who finds and adopts a cute puppy from an animal rescue centre. And suddenly, a number of strange people seem very interested in her and her new pet, Storm. People who seem to know a lot about magic . . . Jessica starts to see that there’s something different about her beloved dog and will need to work out which of her new friends she can trust.’
The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr was only published at the start of 2021 but it already feels like it belongs in this list. In fact, it feels like a classic as you read it and I’m sure many schools will be adopting it for their teaching as the word begins to spread. It’s a brilliant World War II evacuee story that we described as “a moving love song to the valleys”.
‘When Jimmy is evacuated to a small village in Wales, it couldn’t be more different from London. Green, quiet and full of strangers, he instantly feels out of place. But then he finds a skull hidden in a tree, and suddenly the valley is more frightening than the war. Who can Jimmy trust? His brother is too little; his best friend has changed. Finding an ally in someone he never expects, they set out together to uncover the secrets that lie with the skull. What they discover will change Jimmy – and the village – forever.‘
The Clockwork Crow is a world-class fantasy for children by Catherine Fisher, set at the end of the Victorian era. Taking the myth of the Tylwyth Teg and using it to inspire a trilogy of stories located in a Mid-Wales manor house, provides a treasure trove of interesting links. The eponymous Crow has a mystery of his own, but the talking corvid is not the central character. Seren is an orphan who seeks to belong and is determined to solve the central mystery of a missing child. ‘A magical story of snow and stars; a mysterious gothic Christmas tale set in a frost-bound Victorian country mansion. When orphaned Seren Rees is given a mysterious package by a strange and frightened man on her way to her new home, she reluctantly takes it with her. But what is in the parcel? Who are the Family who must not be spoken of, and can the Crow help Seren find Tomos, before the owner of the parcel finds her?’
Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day is an extraordinary book. A witty, gritty, profound adventure set in the heart of Snowdonia. It’s got sibling rivalry, dragons and mountains. It’s fresh, it’s real, it’ll make you cry. One reviewer described it as “Jacqueline Wilson meets Alan Garner” and there’s no doubt that this is a raw coming-of-age adventure. ‘Max wants to be just like his dad – fun, loud and strong. Instead, he always seems to be accidentally getting into fights and breaking things. But when his dad starts bringing home mysterious boxes, even more mysterious wads of cash starts turning up. Then Dad disappears. And it’s up to Max to look after his sisters until he comes home.
When they run away to a remote village in Wales, he’s convinced that no one will find them. He’s Max Kowalski. Of course he can look after three kids with no grownups around! Although, he can’t stop thinking about where Dad really went. And the whispers of a golden dragon, asleep under the Welsh mountains…’
Gaslight is a highly atmospheric and very dramatic historical fiction set in Victorian Cardiff. Wales’ Children’s Laureate, Eloise Williams has crafted a rich and vividly descriptive novel that will have you on the edge of your seat. Nansi is the central character, trying to solve the disappearance of her mother, whilst scraping a living between bit parts on the Empire Theatre stage and thieving from rich households. Nansi dreams of finding her own identity and freeing herself from the perilous life she leads. In parts bleak and brutal, this is a gripping tale that will fire many imaginations. ‘All Nansi knows is that her mother disappeared on the day she was fished out of Cardiff docks. Now, in 1899, she can’t remember anything else. With no other family to turn to, she works for Sid at the Empire Theatre, sometimes legally, sometimes thieving to order, trying to earn enough money to hire a detective to find her mother. Everything changes when Constance and Violet join the theatre, both with their own dark secrets. Nansi is forced to be part of Violet’s crooked psychic act. But it’s when Constance recognises her, and realises who her mother must be, that Nansi’s world is turned upside down forever. She is soon on the run for her life and she will have to risk everything if she’s going to find the truth.’
Year 7+ (Age 12 and up)
Traditionally our blog has focussed on the primary years, but as our children grow up (two of them are now over 12) we are learning more about books for more mature children and young adults. We are therefore delighted to recommend these titles for secondary age children.
Non-Fiction for all ages
The book Wales on the Map was published a couple of years ago, and is an indispensable guide to Wales, it’s regions, landscapes, culture and history. It really is essential reading for all and is presented with gorgeous double page spread illustrations in a large format book. Elin Meek has done the research and written the little facts in readable bitesize nuggets while illustrations are by the ridiculously talented Valeriane Leblond, who has several books on this page.
For those looking to explore specific periods of history in Wales, then the Wicked Wales series published by Gomer presents the information in a similar manner to the Horrible Histories books.
Folk Tales and Legends
We’d also like to recommend some folk tales and legends to spark your imagination – there are a number of really fantastic versions available. A special mention for the newly published Welsh Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends by Claire Fayers which is a cracking compilation of short stories – some familiar, some not so familiar, but all told with Claire’s friendly fireside storytelling voice – there’s a real focus on building each story and telling it well. It’s going down a storm in our house with all ages from 8 to 46 (am sure it appeals to older and younger too!).
Claire is also contributing towards a new collection of stories from The Mabinogion. The Mab has now received full funding for publication and will feature stories from some of our best-loved authors, put together by Eloise Williams and Matt Brown. You can pre-order your copy here.
Here’s a gallery of other folk tales and legends that have captivated us:
5 Activities to encourage Reading for Pleasure with books from Wales
Many of these ideas are credited to research carried out by the Open University Reading for Pleasure groups, in association with the UKLA (UK Literacy Association). I have provided links to the examples of practice on their website, where relevant. These are all tried and tested methods in my own classroom and can be easily transferred to the home setting. This is not about comprehension tasks or analysis of writing – it’s about firing a spark and reading for pleasure!
1. Book Blanket
A Book Blanket is essentially where you lay out books and encourage readers to look, read the blurbs, dip in, see what appeals and then, importantly, talk about it. If you’re in school you can do this with a whole class and have a little crib sheet that they fill in, or tick the ones they like the look of and want to read later. At home, you can engage in more detailed conversations about why books appeal; what do we think they will be about; have we read anything similar? Book blankets are normally carried out on a ‘theme’ so collecting together books about Wales is an ideal opportunity. If you don’t have many books about Wales, you could widen it to books by Welsh authors.
Similar to the Book Blanket, Book Tasting is a means to show children that there are more genres, more authors, more stories to be found. It is about widening their reading repertoires and showing them new stories in a fun and interesting way. Provide a selection of books for children to look at. Make it fun by turning the classroom into a cafe – tablecloths, menus, flowers… that kind of thing. You could put on an apron and be the waiter/waitress attending to the cafe customers. Children can write down the menu of books they have chosen and discuss with friends which ‘flavours’ they enjoyed most and would like more of. Again, it’s important to encourage ‘book talk’ – find out why particular books are chosen. A special Welsh cafe for St. David’s Day would be rather wonderful wouldn’t it?
Here’s one for the grown-ups. The research by Open University shows that a teacher who has good knowledge of the available books is much better placed to give a suitable recommendation and foster reading for pleasure in the classroom or home. If you want a vibrant and diverse collection of books for children to explore, which should include books from Wales, then you have to develop your knowledge of these texts.
Much has been written about the reliance on celebrity authors and also the reliance on the authors of our childhoods like Dahl and Blyton, but for many teachers it’s seen as a professional responsibility to increase their own knowledge of available books.
So how about this: get out a map of Wales and place the books in their geographical locations. Are there gaps on the map? Do you have books that children in your community can relate to? Are there some places in Wales that inspire more stories than others? Do the characters reflect the realities of the children you teach/parent? You may want to explore the Tir na n-Og shortlists of the past in conjunction with our blog post.
Adopt an author is an idea to engage with one author and find out more about their work. In the context of Books from Wales, you could choose any of the authors, although it would work particularly well with Claire Fayers, Eloise Williams, Jenny Nimmo, Valeriane Leblond, Catherine Fisher, Jenny Sullivan, Sian Lewis, Jackie Morris as these names have more than 1 book set in Wales. You could widen it to include authors from Wales – in which case this graphic will be useful…
Children could be encouraged to become an expert in that author and produce a presentation; make promotional posters; record readings (try to keep the focus on the book, themes and connections – this isn’t a biography.)
5. Write a Letter
This is a bit old school, but authors love to hear when children have enjoyed their books. Writing a letter helps to connect the child to the book and to the author. Why not get children to write to the author of their favourite book set in Wales, explaining why they like the book so much? P.G. Bell, Welsh author of The Train to Impossible Places, is a big fan of letter writing and has produced some supportive resources.
Composing a tweet is a similar idea – and sometimes more challenging for a child to express themselves in a limited number of words.
The shortlists for the Tir na nOg Award 2020 have been released. Organised by the Books Council of Wales and sponsored by CILIP Cymru, the awards celebrate the work of authors and illustrators published in 2019.
There are three categories – Welsh language books for primary age children, Welsh language books for secondary age children and English language books for all ages. The English language award celebrates books with an authentic Welsh background.
Chief Executive for the Books Council of Wales, Helgard Krause said, “The Tir na n-Og Awards are an opportunity for us to celebrate the talents of our writers and illustrators who are creating world-class content for our children and young people.”
We have to agree that the English language shortlist is very strong – there are books here that would win easily in a different year, and the decision of the judges will be difficult.
Last year’s winning author, Catherine Fisher, tweeted her congratulations to the shortlistees:
The 2020 Shortlist for the English Language Category is as follows:
The Secret Dragon, Ed Clarke (Puffin)
Set on the coastline of the Vale of Glamorgan, The Secret Dragon is a gorgeous story full of fun and fantasy. It’s great for those around aged 8 and above and has a real focus on science and discovery. Fossil hunter Mari Jones makes a remarkable discovery on the beach, and decides to keep it to herself. There’s an interesting and sensitive sub-plot about family breakups that makes this an absorbing tale for all.
Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It, Susie Day (Puffin)
Max and his sisters escape Southend to the mountains of Snowdonia – 6 miles from Llanberis; without their dad, without any adult, without telling anyone. Max Kowalski is a fantastically original and heartfelt tale about growing up, dealing with siblings and inner dragons. This witty and emotional book takes on toxic masculinity and shows middle grade readers that empathy and stories make for a better world.
Storm Hound, Claire Fayers (Macmillan)
Storm (a hound from Odin’s Hunt) finds himself fallen to earth on the A40 a few miles from Abergavenny. This fast-paced and highly satisfying mash-up of Norse mythology and Welsh legend is firmly rooted in the Welsh landscape. Jess adopts the puppy but his magic is much sought-after by suspicious characters. It’s an accomplished, funny fantasy with a very human story at its heart.
Where Magic Hides, Cat Weatherill (Gomer)
Where Magic Hides is a collection of short stories anchored in the four corners of Wales. Ancient kings, trolls and unicorns bound through the pages but the real message is for the contemporary world: magic can be found if you know where to look.
Creating these short summaries has highlighted the many connections between the shortlisted books. Clearly, the Welsh landscape is a unifying factor but there is also the magic and fantasy element. See also: dragons and creatures of mythology; children battling inner demons; the humour and wit of the author. As we say above, all fully deserving of the shortlisting and all worthy of your time. There are some classics here and we look forward to the winner being announced in late May.
Chair of the judging panel, Eleri Twynog Davies said, “All four books on the shortlist are of very high quality. It is so important that the children of Wales can see themselves reflected in Welsh literature, and that children outside Wales have a window on another culture.”
The sequel to The Secret Dragon by Ed Clarke is released in April.
When The Secret Dragon was launched last year, it garnered a lot of praise for its joyous and enchanting story of keen fossil hunter and aspiring scientist, Mari Jones. We called it a “great adventure full of humour and heart”. We loved the setting of the heritage coast, making it eligible for this year’s Tir na n-Og Award shortlist, to be announced in the next few weeks.
Imagine our delight then to be tasked with the cover reveal for Summer of the Dragons, the follow-up coming to all good bookshops on 16 April 2020. And this is really special because it is, once again, illustrated by Ben Mantle. Ben is quickly gathering a reputation for some amazing MG and older fiction covers – see recent examples for stories by Jenny McLachlan, Fleur Hitchcock, Piers Torday and Carlie Sorosiak.
Ben Mantle comes up trumps again with this stunning sunshine design:
“I just love Ben’s artwork and feel so lucky to have him as the cover illustrator,” Ed told us. “On Summer of the Dragons he really captures that seaside holiday feeling too. Who wouldn’t want to have a summer holiday on the Welsh coast? Especially when there’s tiny dragons around…”
Ben was born in Leamington Spa in 1980, and developed a very early interest in things artistic. He studied animation at Surrey Institute of Art & Design, then gained valuable experience working on Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride” before moving to Brighton to work as Head of Animation in a media company.
He was part of the animation team creating the BAFTA winning ‘Big and Small’ CBeebies website and since 2008, has been working as a children’s book illustrator from his shared studio in Brighton. His picture book collaborations with Lucy Rowland, amongst many others, are well-loved and we look forward to the rest of 2020 when he will illustrate the follow up to The Land of Roar and publish a new picture book with Catherine Emmett, entitled King of the Swamp.
Set against the stunning seaside backdrop of the Welsh coast, Summer of the Dragons picks up the story of budding scientist Mari Jones and her pocket-sized dragon Gweeb. A year after she discovered Gweeb on the beach, life is getting back to normal for them both, when two unexpected events turn it upside down again. First comes the news that Mari’s mum Rhian is expecting a baby, meaning that her boyfriend Gareth and Mari’s best friend Dylan will be moving in with them on the farm. Even more incredibly, Gweeb’s family have returned to lay their eggs in the same cave where Mari first found her secret dragon.
With tourists flocking to the beach for the summer, Mari has her work cut out to keep the dragons hidden and safe, especially when disgraced scientist Dr Griff Griffiths turns up on the hunt for a story. And when Griff manages to find and steal Gweeb’s precious egg, Mari must stage a daring rescue mission before it’s too late . . .
Gweeb’s snout emerged once more from Mari’s hoodie, took a sniff of the sea air and nosed out into the open. A second later, the little dragon had sprung forth and rocketed off into the distance. Gweeb loved the beach almost as much as Mari did. With its slatted layers of rolling, undulating rock, it provided the perfect terrain for exhilarating , low-flying aerobatics, and the dark caves cut into the cliffs provided the perfect hiding places, should anyone appear unexpectedly.
When Ed Clarke isn’t writing for kids, he is a film and television executive and producer, working with writers to make drama for grown ups. He lives in North London with his wife and two young daughters, who would both desperately like a pet. He realises they may be disappointed now if they get a rabbit rather than a dragon.
Thank you so much to Puffin for asking us to host this cover reveal. You can find links to pre-order Summer of the Dragons at their website. It is out on 16th April 2020. Please also take the time to follow Ed and Ben and Puffinon Twitter.
A new novel from Elen Caldecott publishing with Andersen Press in July 2020.
The Short Knife is a totally absorbing, powerful story of belonging and identity set in the 5th century as the Saxons invade Britain.
We are lucky to have received a proof copy of the book and it is an absolute triumph – not least in the poetic richness of Elen’s writing, this is a treat for all readers. David Almond calls it a “distinctive and engrossing tale”; Tanya Landman describes it as “grim and gritty but ultimately uplifting – a beautiful tribute to the courage and ingenuity of sisters”; Hilary McKay says it is as “bright and real as the midsummer sunshine”.
We are in total agreement and thought it an awesome achievement. An awesome book deserves an awesome cover – so, with illustration by Miko Maciaszek here it is…
Miko Maciaszek is a graduate of illustration at Sheridan College in Oakville, Canada. He is currently based in Warsaw and has illustrated for The Washington Post, medium and Sports Illustrated. Miko told us, “It was an exciting challenge to capture the essence of this grand adventure. The great art direction from the team and the abundance of beautiful material I was given to work with inspired the illustration.”
The cover perfectly evokes the atmosphere of the novel and the forthright power of Mai. Elen reacted with glee at the cover, “I’ve loved seeing the different roughs. They’ve been bold, full of adventure and the final version is just so blinking gorgeous!” she told us. “Huge thanks to all the team, especially Miko.” You can find out more about Miko’s work on his Instagram, Twitter or visit his website.
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 in the process. A celebration of difference and finding your own way, when even speaking your mother tongue can be dangerous.
“They crossed the yard, coming closer. I had my back to the hall door. Behind the hall was the storage barn. To my right, the old byre, long since empty of cows, though still standing, built as it was with sweat and good Roman nails reused. I stood alone to guard it all, with only the useless short knife at my waist; it was meant for eating, cutting cheese and bread, no more.“
Dr. Elen Caldecott graduated with an MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University and was highly commended in the PFD Prize for Most Promising Writer for Young People. Before becoming a writer, she was an archaeologist, a nurse, a theatre usher and a museum security guard. Elen’s debut novel, How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant, was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Prize and longlisted for the 2010 Carnegie Award.
Thank you so much to Andersen Press for asking us to host this cover reveal. You can find links to pre-order The Short Knife at their website. Please also take the time to follow Elen and Miko and Andersen Press on Twitter.
Storm Hound is Claire Fayers’ fourth novel following two award-winning books in The Accidental Pirates series and last year’s riveting Mirror Magic. A Hound from Odin’s Hunt has fallen to Earth as he seemingly couldn’t keep up with the pack. The thunderous skies break open and the beast lands on the A40 just outside Abergavenny. On falling to the realm of humans he transforms from a wild beast to a small puppy and is taken in by Jessica Price, her brother Ben and their father.
The torrential weather causes Jess to name the puppy Storm and he immediately gets the attention of several suspicious characters who sense his magic. The three professors display dubious demeanours and have questionable motives for being “seconded” to Jessica’s new school. Meanwhile her new friend David’s behaviour is often shrouded in mystery, especially when he’s around his peculiar Aunt. For the sake of Storm, Jess has to work out who she can trust.
Storm Hound is fast-paced and highly engaging – the narrative is driven and satisfying. There is a lot of humour in the book, derived from the relationship between man and dog (and who is the boss); with the interplay between cat and dog, and sheep and dog giving much cause for the giggles. There’s no humour amongst dogs though – Storm may be little but when he gets angry his shadow suggests his true status – and other dogs are in no doubt of his power.
The book is indebted to Welsh mythology and legend with Claire putting her own spin on the Hounds of Annwn and borrowing Welsh enchantress Ceridwen and her son Morfran for her characters. The whole book is firmly rooted in the Welsh landscape too with the story unfolding in the shadow of Mount Skirrid – an oddly profiled Black Mountain allegedly flattened by the foot of the devil.
Whilst the book is full of Claire’s trademark magic, enchantments and fantasy, Storm Hound stands out because it is the most human story Claire has told. Jess’ parents have just split up and she is having to deal with a move away from her established friends – a new house, neighbourhood and school. She has to look after her younger brother in this transition and cope with being away from her mother. Despite the downpours and tempest in the weather, the largest storm is reserved for her internal struggle. There are many parallels throughout the book between the puppy and Jessica: the puppy does not belong; he finds it hard to communicate; he worries that he cannot protect. Huge credit to Claire for including these realities, and credence also for not trying to resolve them all (sorry – slight spoiler!).
For us (the book has been enjoyed by Mummy, Daddy and Noah), this is Claire’s most accomplished book yet. It’s funny and fast-paced and the layers of subtext allow for a wide age range to enjoy. This perfect Storm comes highly recommended.
Thank you to Macmillan for sending us a proof copy of Storm Hound in exchange for a review. Storm Hound is available now from your local bookshop or direct from Macmillan. You can visit Claire’s website here or follow her on Twitter.