Happy New Year

cornwallWe had a good break in a cottage in Prussia Cove, Cornwall, over the holidays. I spent much of it asleep in front of a woodburning stove, occasionally waking up to play Ticket To Ride with the girls or to read a few more pages of the Rub of Time, a delicious collection of essays by Martin Amis.

Also on my bedside table Being Read pile is The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, which my sister Debbie gave me for Christmas. It’s one of those books like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas where pretty much anything you say about it constitutes a spoiler, so I’ll refrain, except to say it’s clever and thoroughly engrossing. Thanks Debs!

Back to work, now, and another year of writing and school visits awaits. I’m currently doing rewrites on my YA novel about a rebellious chess prodigy. I have a list of possible titles for it, but none of the candidates thus far are screaming CHOOSE ME! Tricky things, titles. Often the very last thing to fall into place.

Next week I start outlining Book 2 of an exciting new fantasy series. I’m not allowed to say anything about that project yet but will no doubt shout about it from the rooftops come September, when Book 1 is published.

School visits: I do have one day still available in World Book Week – Wednesday 28 February. Let me know if your school is interested in a visit that day – see here for details.

A very happy new year to anyone reading this. Hope it’s a good one for us all.

Torben Kuhlmann to illustrate German edition of Survivor:Titanic

Thrilling news recently – Torben Kuhlmann is illustrating the German edition of my book Survivor Titanic. The Hamburg based author-illustrator is best known for the modern classic Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse. Here is a sneak preview of his Titanic illustrations. Such attention to detail.

8 Children’s Books about the Titanic disaster

Many children are fascinated by the story of the Titanic and it is often studied in primary schools as a window onto early twentieth century history, particularly in Key Stage 2. Today is the 105th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, as good a time as any for some recommendations of good Titanic books.

Survivor: Titanic by Stephen DaviesBefore I go on, I should declare an interest. My own Titanic book came out earlier this year. Survivor:Titanic is published by Scholastic as part of their new historical fiction SURVIVOR series. Jimmy from Ireland and Omar from Lebanon meet aboard the Titanic and are exploring the ship together when tragedy strikes. The book is written for reluctant readers, but can be enjoyed by anyone 8+.

Here are eight of the best children’s books about the Titanic – four non-fiction and four fiction – in no particular order.

Non-fiction

1. Story of the Titanic

Story of the Titanic by Steve NoonWhen it comes to portraying the details of this disaster, show don’t tell is key, and cutaways are definitely the best way of showing the inside of the Titanic both before and after the iceberg struck. Steve Noon’s book is highly recommended by Titanic geeks on Encyclopedia Titanica, as well as on Amazon. A real feast for the eyes.

2. Titanic (Eyewitness)

More Show-Don’t-Tell from another sumptuous DK picture book. Really brings the story alive with anecdotes, secrets, facts and puzzles. Perfect for homework projects about the Titanic tragedy.

3. On Board the Titanic: What it was like when the great liner sank

on board the titanic - shelley tanakaTanaka’s book uses real historical characters to tell the story. Jack Thayer’s account is particularly interesting. He was seventeen at the time of the sinking and was one of the few men to stay on the Titanic until the very last minute and still survive. A thrilling true-life story.

4. Inside the Titanic

Ken Marschall made a name for himself for lavish illustrations of books about the Titanic, and this is probably his best one. Like Steve Noon, he uses cutaway illustrations to make readers feel they are actually inside the doomed liner. The real-life accounts of passengers focus on the children aboard the Titanic, which is a particularly compelling (and harrowing) approach.

Ken’s paintings almost seemed to be stills from a movie that hadn’t yet been made. And I thought to myself, I can make these paintings live. It became my goal to accomplish on film what Ken had done on canvas, to will the Titanic back to life.

James Cameron

Fiction

There are dozens of children’s books set on the Titanic, including several time travel offerings where a modern-day hero gets transported back to 1912. The four I have chosen are not time travel stories, but they have all proved popular with young readers.

I SURVIVED is historical fiction, describing ten year-old George Calder’s battle for survival. Lauren’s book is gentle fare, especially considering the terrible setting, but it is well researched and enduringly popular.

Michael Morpurgo’s KASPAR PRINCE OF CATS is an absolute classic. Insired by Michael’s time as Writer in Residence at the Savoy Hotel, this book is charming, evocative and unpredictable, and it deals with mature themes in a very elegant way.

I can’t survey children’s books set on the Titanic without mentioning POLAR THE TITANIC BEAR. Another classic with beautiful full-page colour illustrations. Polar is a teddy bear, of course, and this is the Titanic as told through his eyes. Starts with him being sewed and stuffed in the factory and ends with- well, that would be telling.

TITANIC: MY STORY by Ellen White is the thrilling story of a young orphan Margaret Anne who can hardly believe her luck when she is chosen to accompany wealthy Mrs Carstairs aboard the great Titanic. This is a really good read, but something of a slow burner. It takes a while for Margaret Anne to get aboard the Titanic. When she does, the story is unputdownable.

If you are a teacher in the UK and your class is studying the Titanic, I would be happy to visit. My Titanic presentation covers the background to the tragedy, the research involved in writing historical fiction and some tips on writing exciting action scenes. Do contact me for more details.

The Secret of Mulan

Yesterday I received copies of TALES OF HIDDEN HEROES, Pearson’s new Bug Club Comprehension title. It contains two stories, one by Malachy Doyle and one by me, beautifully illustrated by Teresa Martinez.

The Secret of Mulan is a retelling of an old Chinese poem about the girl Mulan, who saves her father from certain death by going into battle his place. I enjoyed spending time with the Mulan legend and studying the character of Mulan herself, an ancient oriental forerunner of today’s badass YA heroines. I haven’t got around to watching the Disney treatment of the story but I love the various Chinese versions of the tale (link). Fascinating to see how the story evolved over the centuries: Mulan herself remains surprisingly constant but the arch villain changes to reflect the taste (or rather distaste) of each new day. In my retelling I have returned to the baddie of the original poem – the fearsome bandit Flying Swallow and his weaponized bronze cymbals.

TALES OF HIDDEN HEROES is not yet available for pre-order, but I’ll let you know when it is.

New Books and Events in 2017

2017 is shaping up to be a busy year of book releases and school visits. First up, the books:

SURVIVOR: TITANIC (Scholastic) comes out this Thursday, and is the first in a new gripping series of first-hand surival stories.

SAHARA DISCOVERY (Rising Stars, 28 April) is a non-fiction book about the Tuareg people of the Sahara. See featured image above.

SAHARA SURVIVAL (Rising Stars, 28 April) is a story about a Tunisian family whose plane has to make an emergency landing in the middle of the desert. Both books are beautifully illustrated by Hatem Aly.

BLOOD & INK is coming out in the US in September, published by Charlesbridge. Cover to be revealed soon.

Later in the year, Pearson UK are publishing my retelling of the well-known Chinese story of Mulan. I loved writing this one and am very excited about its publication.

As for school visits, the diary is filling up fast. Author visits in schools inspire children to read widely and also to write for pleasure. At the time of writing I still have three days available in the week of World Book Day 2017: 27 and 28 February and 1 March.

DateSchoolLocationActivity
10 JanuaryWest Leigh InfantsBristolWorkshops
16 JanuaryArk Priory ActonTalk
3 FebruarySt Matthews CofEBradfordWorkshops
20 - 25 FebruaryInternational SchoolsLagosTalks and Workshops
27 FebruarySydenham High SchoolSydenhamBook week visit
2 MarchCasterton Sedburgh CumbriaBook week visit
3 MarchBilton JuniorRugbyBook week visit
9 MarchCardwell PrimaryWoolwichBook week visit
10 MarchNotre-Dame PrimaryPlumsteadBook week visit
13 MarchCologne Literary FestivalCologneTalk
19 - 31 MarchInternational SchoolsSaudi ArabiaTalks and Workshops
23 MayHome Farm ColchesterAble Writers Day
24 May
St Anne's Catholic SchoolSouthamptonTravel Writing workshops
15 JuneHoly TrinityMargateAble Writers Day
22 JuneWilliam Cobbett JuniorFarnhamAble Writers Day

You can find more information about my school visits (including content, rates and testimonials) by visiting the Author Visits page on this site. Alternatively, for details of my Able Writers Days, please go through the events agency Authors Abroad.

Don’t Spill the Milk artwork

Back in September I enjoyed visiting Bishop MacKenzie in Lilongwe, Malawi. It is now Book Week there and Year 4 have been doing some wonderful paintings inspired by DON’T SPILL THE MILK. Well done, all of you!

If art is your thing, you may also enjoy these ALL ABOARD colouring sheets, drawn by Christopher Corr. Click on an image to download a printable pdf.

colouring1

colouring2

Roald Dahl Day

To celebrate the centenary since Roald Dahl’s birth, pupils at my daughter’s school are dressing up as characters from Roald Dahl books. I wanted my daughter to go as Mrs Twit (because THE TWITS has always been my favourite) or as Matilda (because it’s an easy costume to make!) but Libby had other ideas.

Her first comment on the matter was ‘I don’t like Roald Dahl.’ I picked my jaw up from the floor and pretended not to have heard the heresy. The truth is, Daisy Meadows (Rainbow Fairies) is currently an all-consuming fire in my daughter’s heart, leaving little room for other suitors. We have listened to CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY in the car and her class is currently reading THE ENORMOUS CROCODILE, but she doesn’t know the other stories yet.

Her second comment was ‘I want to go as Veruca Salt’. She didn’t stamp her foot or wag her finger in true Saltesque fashion, but she managed nevertheless to bend her father to her will. So Veruca Salt it was, complete with golden ticket in her hatband. She went merrily off to school saying, ‘I want an oompa loompa, I want a squirrel, I want five thousand two hundred Pokecoins’ etc.

Daughter 1 as Veruca Salt on Roald Dahl Day 2016

There were plenty of other Charlie and the Chocolate Factory characters at the school gates, as well as a gaggle of Matildas and one excellent Mrs Twit (with a ping pong ball for an eye – love it!).

mrs-twit

When I was my daughter’s age I read and adored Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Twits, George’s Marvellous Medicine, Fantastic Mr Fox, The Witches and The BFG. I was in awe of Roald Dahl then and even more so now. I do hope that my daughters enjoy his stories for themselves in due course.

Here’s a documentary about Roald Dahl’s life and work. Watching it I learned lots of interesting things about the great man, including that he wrote the screenplay to the Bond film YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. If you’re interested in Dahl and his work, you’ll be sure to enjoy it.

Reading makes better readers but not better humans

The wonderful Michael Kevane (of Friends of African Village Libraries fame) has recently produced a short video (below) about his time as a Fulbright Scholar in Burkina Faso.

He wanted to discover whether reading fiction affects the economic preferences of individuals. By ‘economic preferences’ he means trust, contribution to public good, risk-taking and patience.

The resulting research paper makes for fascinating reading. It concludes:

Much as advocates of reading fiction would like to believe that reading transforms lives, deepens empathy, and develops better intuitions about the interior lives of others, the reality is more likely to be that effects are small or short-lived.

Or, as he phrases it in the video:

Reading makes better readers but not necessarily better humans.

As an author of books for young adults, it would be lovely to think that my ilk are saving the world. And no doubt Michael, as a champion of African village libraries, would have been pleased if his research had uncovered a clear link between reading and development. Alas, this is not the case. Reading provides relaxation, enjoyment and solace, but that’s pretty much all.

My great grandfather Edward Tegla Davies – Part 3

This is the third and final part of my series on Edward Tegla Davies. If you missed the earlier instalments, here they are:

My great-grandfather Edward Tegla Davies – Part 1

My great-grandfather Edward Tegla Davies – Part 2

Today’s instalment sees Tegla searching for the Holy Grail, musing on lightning-struck sheep and refusing an OBE from the Queen.

The Vineyard magazine, 1878Y Winllan (The Vineyard) was a Wesleyan magazine for children, published monthly in Welsh. Edward Tegla Davies started off as a reader of Y Winllan, then became a contributor and finally became its editor.

In 1878 the copy you see here was placed inside a glass bottle and hidden behind one of the foundation stones of a new Welsh Wesleyan Chapel in Aberystwyth. The chapel closed in 1992 and the bottle was discovered in 1999 whilst work was being undertaken to convert the building into a tavern.

Edward Tegla Davies was in his mid twenties during the Welsh Revival, a period of explosive church growth in Wales in 1904-5 that sparked a Christian ‘awakening’ in many other countries. During that time, chapels were not being closed or turned into taverns. Quite the opposite. Taverns were going bankrupt and churches were full to bursting.

According to the Dictionary of Welsh Biography, Tegla had a conversion experience after attending a preaching festival at Coedpoeth, and decided to enter the ministry. In the course of his life he ministered in Abergele, Leeds, Menai Bridge, Port Dinorwic, Tregarth (thrice), Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, Denbigh, Manchester (twice), Liverpool, Bangor and Coedpoeth.

Lionel Madden writes:

Tegla was not a natural preacher, but he laboured to make himself effective. Here he describes his early efforts.

I was born into the tradition that you were not a preacher unless you were a ‘tuner’ (one who employs sing-song cadence in the delivery of a sermon). I would do my best, making myself terribly hoarse and leaving me with a very sore throat on a Monday morning. I was envious of those tuners who could provoke tears, for the proof of a successful service in those days was that the congregation was in floods of tears. The only tears I could conjure up were tears of compassion for my raucous attempts.

Edward Tegla Davies preacher and authorHe moderated his preaching style, adopting a more conversational approach, but never quite lost the sense of strain. There were, however, other features that more than compensated for this and propelled him into acceptance throughout Wales as one of the leading preachers of his day. He was a master of apposite illustration and of clear exposition. His idealism ran alongside a fiercely critical mind, and the boldness with which he advanced one or the other made what he said perpetually challenging. Above all he appeared to be a prophet for his time.

Tegla did not prize preaching for its own sake, and his tone was wry when he wrote about the ‘tuners’ and the ‘two-sermon-a-night’ preaching meetings. He was more interested in ongoing discipleship, and for this the home setting was more significant than the church.

I am firmly of the opinion that the smallest contribution to the spiritual life of the Church in my time has been preaching at preaching meetings. I am convinced that the chief reason for our intellectual and spiritual poverty, and our lack of influence in the world, is that we have failed to educate our children, young people and all ages, in the basic principles of our faith.

It is no surprise, then, that many of Tegla’s stories for young people touch on spirituality. One of the tales in the collection Hen Ffrindiau (Old Friends, 1927) was called Samuel Jones the Hendre. Here are the bare bones of the story:

There were two farmers at harvest time: Samuel Jones the Hendre and Mr Herbert Fron. Samuel Jones’ land was very poor compared to Mr Herbert Fron’s fertile and copious land. When it was decided to decorate the chapel for the Thanksgiving Service, most of the fruit and vegetables came from Mr Herbert Fron’s fields and green houses. Samuel Jones was not at all happy about this, as he could only offer thorns and brambles. Shortly before the service began, Samuel Jones crept into the church and slyly exchanged Mr Herbert Fron’s abundant crops for his own thorns and brambles. The outcome was that everyone refused to participate in the service. They said that it was impossible to thank God in the middle of thorns and brambles. Everyone refused, except for one, and that was Samuel Jones himself. He had remembered a verse from Isaiah 66 – “Has not my hand made all these things?” – and he worshipped happily alone, surrounded by his thorns and brambles.

The Holy GrailAnother of Tegla’s works for children tells the story of the Holy Grail. In the post Davinci Code era we tend to think of Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland as the final resting place of the Grail, but medieval specialist Dr Juliette Wood believes that Wales has a much stronger thread of grail legends. In March this year, Dr Wood delivered a lecture at the Museum of London entitled The Phantom Cup that Comes and Goes, giving evidence for the Welsh claim and making reference to Tegla’s work:

Edward Tegla Davies (1880-1967), a well-known Wesleyan Methodist minister, produced a charming curiosity called Y Greal Sanctaidd. This booklet for young readers traced the history of the grail legend with the emphasis on its relevance for Wales. Tegla summarized the medieval grail texts, pointed out parallels with early ‘pagan’ Welsh literature, such as Ceridwen’s cauldron, and presented a short exposition on how modern writers, among them Alfred Lord Tennyson, used the motif in their work. The focus was on the spiritual meaning of the grail and its continued relevance to Welsh life, but the distinctiveness of Tegla’s book lies in the fact that it is aimed at a young audience.

At Dusk by Edward Tegla DaviesNone of my great-grandfather’s works for children are available free online in translation. All I could find in English is the adult essay That Grave from his book Gyda’r Hwyr (At Dusk, 1957). The essay is his account of a country walk with a friend to visit Cardinal Newman’s grave. I was thrilled to find this because it gives real insight into Tegla’s spirituality, his love of nature and his keen critical sense. The whole essay is worth a read, but here are three extracts which I found particularly interesting.

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First, Tegla’s thoughts on the fine line between faith and superstition. The passage demonstrates his love of animals and his flair for asking interesting questions.

After going some two or three hundred yards on this get‑away‑from‑it‑all pathway we turned to the left. On one side of the turn is an old shed and on the turn, on a small rise, there is a cross and inscribed on it are the following words:

LAUS DEO. In thankful remembrance of June 30th, 1866, when Divine Providence saved our schoolboys all collected round their father prefect under the adjacent shed, from a sudden thunderstorm when the lightning playing around them struck with death as many as ten sheep about the field and trees close by.

It would perhaps be uncharitable to suggest that as Providence had saved the boys and the prefect it should also have thrown its covering over the poor sheep as well, especially as the ruler of Providence is the author of the parable of the Lost Sheep. By praising Providence in this way does not this testimony also diminish it by making it seem rather miserly in its defensive operations? The line between superstition and faith is a fine one and is quite characteristic of the faith that put up this stone.

And this on the Catholic Church:

There is something hellish in the Catholic Church and there is something heavenly too. It was she who created Catherine de Medici and her followers, whose likes not even Gehenna could have imagined. And it was also she who created Francis of Assisi and his ‘friars’, and not even Paradise could have devised more lovely lives than theirs.

And this, when finally he and his friend arrive at Cardinal Newman’s grave:

We just stand there, not uttering a word, and we stare for a long time, spellbound, and the eloquent simplicity is the most spellbinding thing of all.

And now to another grave, that of Tegla himself.

Edward Tegla Davies tombstone

Edward Tegla Davies died in 1967 and was buried alongside his wife Eleanor (he used to call her ‘Nell’) in Gelli cemetery, Tregarth.

He had once said that his writing was just one element in his work as a minister of the gospel, and that he wanted a statement to that effect inscribed on his gravestone. But in the end, he got a different quotation: Yn feunyddiol fonheddig. A mwyn ei threm yn ei thrig. I’m eagerly awaiting a translation of the second bit, but the first bit means ‘Noble daily’.

Noble daily. This is the man who never took his dog collar off, even on the beach – not from pomposity but from a desire to be easily spotted by anyone who might need the help of a Christian minister. This is the man who entertained his grandchildren by drawing faces on acorns, and moved his congregation to tears of compassion for his raucous attempts at ‘tuner’ preaching. A nature lover who was almost as concerned for the sheep struck by lightning as for the schoolboys saved from it. A man who considered himself a rebel all his life, and ended up declining an OBE in 1963, four years before his death.*

I have enjoyed getting to know my great grandfather these last three days. This morning I woke at 4 a.m. and could not get back to sleep for thinking about him, wondering in particular how he would have applied his talents to today’s fiction market. In Tegla’s day, most literary critics viewed fiction-writing and preaching as a dodgy combination. Even more so today. Every how-to book on my writing shelf condemns ‘preachiness’ and ‘moralizing’ as the two unforgivable sins of the modern author. But I can’t help admiring the passion and integrity of this Welshman who let Christ shine brightly from every word he wrote. He never took his collar off – neither on the beach nor in his books.

_____

*Why did he decline his OBE? Dad wrote to me that Tegla ‘was never a Welsh nationalist, but he was a patriot, and may not have fancied being honoured by the English monarchy.’ That said, he was not the only writer to decline an MBE, OBE or knighthood. CS Lewis, Roald Dahl, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh and Robert Graves also turned down honours.