Visiting the KAUST school in Saudi Arabia

At the beginning of April I visited the KAUST school in Saudi Arabia, to encourage secondary school students in their own creative writing. Exciting to find so many keen writers among them, including some who are using Wattpad to work on their own novels.

KAUST (the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) is located an hour’s drive south of Jeddah and occupies 14 square miles of Red Sea coastline. In a row of towering seaside laboratories, scientists pursue cutting edge research in impressively mysterious disciplines such as laser diagnostics, chemical kinetics and supercomputing.

The rest of the campus is tidy and somewhat sterile – hundreds of identical, cream coloured staff houses and insipid crossroads where careful, considerate drivers wait for their traffic light to turn green. On my second day at KAUST I was riding a borrowed moped to the school and ended up hopelessly lost among those bland intersections. Five minutes before my assembly was due to start, I was rescued by a kind librarian, who had come out in her car to search for me.

I love international schools and the KAUST school was no exception. I worked with eighteen classes of warm, funny, globally aware students – all of them wired to tell stories, even (or perhaps especially) the less academic ones. I’ve added a few photos below, as well as a couple of testimonials on my author visits page.

Sincere thanks to Catherine de Levay for rescuing me from the neat streets of Pleasantville and for overseeing an otherwise enjoyable visit. Thanks also to Authors Abroad, who are so good at organizing international escapades for authors and poets.

How to make Hilda and Twig costumes for World Book Day

The arrival of HILDA on Netflix means that more girls than ever are dressing up as Hilda for World Book Day this year. Daughter 1 has never before shown any inclination to dress up as a character from one of my books, but apparently she makes an exception for TV tie-ins.

Hilda is a quick and inexpensive costume to put together. We already owned a black beret, so our only expense was a blue wig. Once that arrived, Daughter 1 was kitted out in minutes.

Daughter 2 wanted to dress up as Twig, to accompany her sister. I searched online for Twig costumes: nothing. I looked at polar bear onesies, thinking we might adapt one: too expensive. We decided to make a Twig costume ourselves.

I won’t pretend that making Twig’s head was a quick job, or even that the result looks much like Twig. But it was a really fun craft project to do together. And if you start well in advance of World Book Day, you can do it step by step over a week or two with no stress.

Tape cardboard ears and nose to a balloon. Make glue (equal parts flour and water).
Cover head, ears and nose with three layers of paper
Cut eye-holes. Tape on sticks for antlers. Paint head white and antlers black.
Cut a slit up the back of the head, so it’s easier to get on and off
Paint nose.
Paint inner ears.

Our guide on this journey was the wonderful Mr Otter Art Studio, who made the video below. This video is a foxfox instead of a deerfox, but the process is the same!

Author Visit to Kazakhstan

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting two international schools in Kazakhstan: QSI Almaty and QSI Astana. Thank you to staff and students at both schools for making me feel so welcome, and to Authors Abroad for organizing the trip.

Hilda and the Great Parade is out now (Flying Eye Books)

Is there a more fitting way for an author to celebrate the new year than with the release of a new book? I am pleased to announce that 1 January 2019 saw the publication of the second Hilda TV tie-in HILDA AND THE GREAT PARADE. This story sees Hilda getting to grips with her new life in Trolberg and (as usual) getting embroiled with magical creatures. The book contains plot threads from The Bird Parade and three other episodes from the Netflix series.

This book was great fun to write and it contains one of my favourite characters from the Hildaverse: the Lindworm. Beware, the Lindworm is bigger and more dangerous than her name suggests!

Now that my daughters have read THE GREAT PARADE, they are eagerly awaiting Book 3 HILDA AND THE NOWHERE SPACE which I believe comes out in May. In the meantime they are getting their ongoing Hilda fix from the engrossing game Hilda Creatures. You place food, plants and other items in various locations around Trolberg and the wilderness, and then you wait to see who or what shows up. Here are some of the familiar and not-so-familiar friends my daughters have encountered over the last few days – usually accompanied by squeals of delight.

My family and I are just back from the Pyranees, where they went skiing and I made valiant but pitiful attempts to stand up. During the week we happened across a couple of isolated Hilda-esque cabins in the valleys. Can you spot them?

The Pyraneean setting was perfect inspiration for the fourth Hilda tie-in, which I started work on yesterday – a festive, snowy story containing plot threads from various episodes of Hilda Season 2. (Yes, that’s right, the award-winning Netflix animation has been re-commissioned for another series – watch this space!)

Later this month I am off to another snowy setting, Kazakhstan, where I have been invited to visit two international schools with Authors Abroad. 2019 is shaping up to be a busy year for school visits, so if you are interested in a visit, please book sooner rather than later. You can find session content, testimonials and fees on the school visits page of this site.

Warm wishes to Hilda fans everywhere, and thanks as always to Luke Pearson and Flying Eye Books for the opportunity to be involved with such warm, life-affirming stories.

Book Week in Doha

I spent last week in Doha, Qatar, at the Gulf English School. On Monday and Tuesday I was in their Junior School, Tuesday and Wednesday in the Infant School and Thursday in the Secondary School.

With its illuminated skyscrapers and man-made beaches, Doha is sometimes described as a mini-Dubai, although it’s hard to think of it as a mini anything. The skyline is awe-inspiring. On my first night there I walked through the West Bay area of the city and soon had a crick in my neck from all that looking up.

‘Reading takes us places we’ve never been before’. That was the theme of Book Week. My workshops transported the children far away from the fluorescent lights of Doha to the wonderful Saharan country of Niger, where pale giraffes roam wild and fishermen cast silvery nets across a silent river.

We read the book DON’T SPILL THE MILK and then the children worked on pages for their own book DON’T DROP THE MANGO. They used their knowledge of Qatar’s vast desert to dream up new adventures for Penda.

If you would like me to visit your school, whether in the UK or overseas, don’t hesitate to drop me a line. See my school visits page for details.

Three days in Austria

Two of my books are published in German by Aladin Verlag: BLOOD & INK and TITANIC: 24 STUNDEN BIS ZUM UNTERGANG. I just got back from a short tour of Austria, where I had been invited to talk about my 2015 book Blood & Ink, a book that is ever so close to my heart. As Austria’s new far-right government closes mosques and deports dozens of Turkish imams, now is a good time for frank, wide-ranging discussion of the issues surrounding political Islam. Blood & Ink is a useful springboard for such discussion because all of the characters in the novel are Muslim. No clash of civilizations here. No east versus west nonsense. Just two manifestations of Islam confronting each other within a remote, walled city.

In Vienna on Wednesday I was hosted by Büchereien Wien as part of their Lesofantenfest reading festival. It seemed fitting to be presenting Blood & Ink in Vienna because Timbuktu librarian Abdel Kader Haidara was here himself not so long ago, talking about how solutions to ethnic and religious conflict might be found in the Timbuktu manuscripts themselves.

On Thursday I took the train up into the mountains to Radstadt a pretty walled town surrounded by majestic peaks. I was the guest of BORG Radstadt, discussing Blood & Ink with students in years 8 and 9. Big readers, some of them, and a real pleasure to spend time with. It was warm and bright in the mountains – Bei uns wärmer als in Afrika, proclaimed the local newspaper headlines. Good for the blooming flowers, bad for those living in the mountains, where winter sports are so essential to the local economy.

On Thursday afternoon, the wonderful Peter Fuschelberger from Literaturhaus Salzburg took me to see his childhood haunts in Bischofshofen. A peaceful town known for its chocolate-box beauty and its dizzying ski jumps, Bischofshofen is one of the most important venues in the ski jumping World Cup. On the way up the mountain Peter told me about his sixteen-year-old nephew Florian, already an accomplished ski jumper. Seeing the jumps and hearing about Florian made me long to write a YA novel set in the world of ski jumping. There’s one already (GRAVITY by Juliann Rich) but I suspect there’s room for a second.

On Thursday afternoon I had a short tour of Salzberg, including the gardens of Schloss Mirabell featured in the Sound of Music. Then on Friday I did two talks at the Salzburg Literaturhaus. The young people at these two talks were especially forthcoming and we had worthwhile discussion not just about political Islam but also about empathy, research and cultural appropriation. When is it appreciation and when is it appropriation? Such a hot topic right now. The young people at these events really impressed me with their acuity and common sense.

Thank you to all the students who came to my readings in Austria, and to the fab teachers who accompanied them. Warm thanks also to Martina Adelsberger at Vienna Main Library and to Peter Fuschelberger of Literaturhaus Salzburg. Three days in Austria was not enough, and I look forward eagerly to returning.

A Dogon Story

When I lived in Burkina Faso I wrote dozens of stories, most of which have never seen the light of day. Here is one of them. It’s set in Mali’s Dogon Cliffs, properly known as the Bandiagara Escarpment. I rather like it, except for the phrase ‘home they went to sup’ which sets my teeth on edge.


Atiko was a Dogon boy. He lived with his grumpy gran at the foot of the Dogon Cliffs. Like other Dogon boys, Atiko enjoyed eating onion soup, playing the tamtam drums and chatting to Galemba the Talking Snake. Unlike other Dogon boys, Atiko was scared of heights.

One day, Atiko’s gran said, ‘I’m going up to the cliff-top, Atiko, to visit my onion-patch. I want you to come with me.’
‘I can’t,’ said Atiko. ‘I’m scared of heights.’
Gran glowered. ‘Your father loved to climb,’ she said, ‘your aunts and uncles, too. We’re Dogons on the Dogon Cliffs and climbing’s what we do.’
‘It’s not what I do,’ said Atiko. ‘I’ll just stay down here and chat with Galemba The Talking Snake.’

Gran sighed and took her mittens off, took off her woolly socks. She spat on her hands, she spat on her feet, she clambered up the rocks.

‘How’s she doing, Galemba?’ whispered Atiko. ‘Is she nearly there?’
‘Not yet,’ said Galemba.

On tiptoes like a mountain goat, Gran trod a narrow ledge. She had no time for vertigo when visiting her veg.

‘How’s she doing, Galemba?’ whispered Atiko. ‘Is she nearly there?’
‘Not yet,’ said Galemba.

On tiptoes like a desert djinn, Gran crept along the ledge. She suddenly slipped on an onion skin and fell over the edge.

‘Atiko, help me! Help me! Help me! Atiko! Help me, Atiko!’

‘Gran over cliff,’ Galemba said. ‘Just listen to those wails! She’s clinging to the cliff face. She’s hanging by her nails.’
‘She’s going to fall off!’ cried Atiko. ‘Somebody, do something!’
‘Climb the cliff,’ Galemba said. ‘It’s time to be a man. Forget your fear and climb the cliff and save your grumpy gran.’
Atiko paled. ‘I’M SCARED OF HEIGHTS!’ he yelled.
‘Climb the cliff,’ Galemba said. ‘Don’t hesitate at all! Forget your fear and climb the cliff. Don’t let your granny fall!’

Atiko stood up. He wrapped Galemba round his neck.
‘Help me, Atiko!’ cried Gran.
Atiko kicked his flipflops off. He spat on his hands and feet.
‘Help me, Atiko!’ cried Gran.
Atiko scrambled up the cliff-face and along the narrow ledge. He arrived at the exact same spot where Gran had fallen off.
‘Don’t tread on the onion skin,’ Galemba warned.

Atiko didn’t tread on the onion skin. He knelt down and stretched his hand towards his dangling Gran.
‘Grab my hand,’ said Atiko.
‘I can’t reach it!’ wailed Gran.
Atiko lowered Galemba down towards his dangling gran. ‘Granny, grab Galemba’s neck!’
‘I can’t!’ wailed Gran. ‘I’M SCARED OF SNAKES!’
‘You’re JOKING!’ said Atiko.
‘I’m terrified of snakes,’ said Gran. ‘I fear their toothless grins. I fear their wicked, gleaming eyes and scabby, scaly skins.’

‘Grab me, Gran,’ Galemba said. ‘Forget my toothless grin. Forget your fear and grab my neck and let us haul you in.’

Granny grabbed the grinning snake. Her grandson hauled her up. He carried her down to the foot of the cliff and home they went to sup. From that day on, Atiko was never again scared of heights and Gran was never again scared of snakes. But Galemba the Talking Snake was so traumatized by the day’s events, he never spoke again.

THE END