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.

School visits in Lilongwe and Blantyre, Malawi

Just back from a wonderful two week trip to Malawi, organized by Authors Abroad. I visited Lilongwe in the centre of the country and Blantyre in the south. I am very grateful to the five international schools which hosted me there, to the students at Saint Andrews who regaled me with folk tales, and to the Morse family who took me to see the Majete Wildlife Reserve – a truly magical day.

Here are some pics of my time in Malawi. Most of the animal photos are by Tracy Morse.

Fulani folk tales about Rabbit, Hyena and Crocodile

One of my favourite things to do in Burkina Faso was to visit remote cattle-herding settlements and listen to folk stories told by ingenious Fulani men, women and children. Many of these stories were ‘trickster’ tales, where a small cunning rabbit succeeds in outwitting larger, fiercer creatures. The downfall of the big creatures tended to be provoked not just by the rabbit’s cleverness, but by their own greed, pride or anger.

Crocodile and Rabbit in Fulani folk story

Last September my new book for schools came out. Published in the Harper Collins ‘Big Cat’ series, it is a collection of four traditional Fulani tales in which the wily rabbit pits his wits against Hyena and Crocodile. It is illustrated by Steve Stone, who has brought the tales wonderfully to life.

new book of Fulani folk tales

Fulani folk tale workshop

This year I am offering Year 4 workshops based on the book. The format of the session is as follows: we start with a quiz that highlights the importance of the ‘trickster’ figure in ancient and modern storytelling, from Anansi to Puck to Robin Hood to Bart Simpson. Then we use concrete examples to tease out general characteristics of trickster figures. Finally, children work in twos to create and present their own trickster characters. This workshop is a great introduction to stories from other cultures. See my school visits page for details, or write to me at

Donkey Droppings – a Fulani folk tale

Here is a silly story based on a real Fulani folk tale. Hope you enjoy it.

Lobbo and his granny lived in a town called Gao on the edge of the Sahara Desert. One morning Lobbo packed his knapsack and saddled Granny’s donkey. ‘I’m off to Timbuktu,’ he said. ‘I’m going to seek my fortune.’

Across the plains the donkey trotted. The sun climbed high, the wind blew hot. Lobbo scanned the barren sands and suddenly cried ‘Stop!’

A shiny blob lay on the sand before him. ‘Gold!’ Lobbo cried. ‘A nugget of gold! A gleamy dreamy gobbet of gold!’ He picked it up and rode on.

Among the dunes the donkey tottered. The sun climbed higher. The wind blew hotter. Lobbo cupped a hand to his ear and suddenly cried ‘Stop!’

Pipers were piping. Drummers were drumming. A VIP was coming – but who?
Lobbo turned and hid the gold nugget under Donkey’s tail.

Coming towards them was a glorious procession of horses and camels, minstrels and knights, princes and princesses. And in the front row, atop a white stallion, sat a king. ‘I am the Ruler of Timbuktu!’ boomed the king. ‘GET OUT OF MY WAY!’

‘Of course,’ said Lobbo, standing still. ‘Wait a minute, and we will.’
‘WAIT?’ roared the king. ‘A KING WAITS NOT! You’re asking me to wait for WHAT?’
Lobbo shrugged. ‘Donkey doesn’t know who’s who. He doesn’t care a fig for you. Right now he’s concentrating hard on pushing out a poo.’
‘A POO?’ cried the king. ‘You want ME to WAIT for your DONKEY to POO?’
‘Yes please,’ said Lobbo.


The donkey strained. The donkey shivered.
The donkey brayed and his hind legs quivered.
The donkey flailed, and – lo and behold –
From under its tail fell a nugget of gold!

The king stared. The princes and princesses stared. The knights and minstrels and horses and camels all stared.

‘Boy,’ said the king. ‘Have you ever been told, your donkey’s droppings look just like—’
‘Gold?’ said Lobbo. ‘It’s strange but true. He always poops gold instead of poo.’

The kingly eyes grew big and round. He did a backflip to the ground. He lifted up the golden poop and gave a most unregal whoop.
‘It’s REAL!’ he cried. ‘The boy spoke true. This beast poops GOLD instead of POO!’

Lobbo bowed. ‘Your Highness, it was nice to meet you here. You can keep the golden dropping as a little souvenir.’
The kingly eyes rolled roundabout. His jaw went slack. His tongue lolled out. ‘Don’t beat about the bush,’ he cried. ‘I want to buy that donkey NOW.’
‘No,’ said Lobbo.
‘I’ll give you this treasure chest,’ said the king.
‘It’s not enough,’ said Lobbo.
The king, he broke his pipes and drums and kicked his fiddlers three. He ranted. He raved. He misbehaved. He punched a baobab tree.
‘I WANT THAT DONKEY!’ shrieked the king. ‘I swear I’ll give you ANYTHING!’
‘Thank you,’ said Lobbo. ‘I’ll take everything.’

Three days later Lobbo got home. ‘Granny, I’m home!’ he cried.

‘I’ve brought you scrolls from Timbuktu and salt from Taudenni,
I’ve brought you peacocks, pygmy goats and pomegranate trees,
A hundredweight of sticky dates, a tin of desert snuff,
And caravans of camels that can carry all your stuff.
I’ve brought a mob of minstrels and a regiment of knights,
Some ostriches and tortoises and hippopotami,
I’ve brought a turquoise bracelet and a jewel-encrusted crown,
And we’ll get the palace later, once the king has knocked it down.’

Granny frowned. ‘Where’s donkey?’
‘I sold him,’ Lobbo said.

Granny stripped a millet stalk and chased him round the huts. ‘You sold my donkey!’ Granny shrieked. ‘You imp! You scamp! You klutz! I don’t want minstrels, ostriches or shiny bric-a-brac. I love my faithful donkey – so you’re lucky he came back!’

‘He came BACK?’ cried Lobbo.
Donkey stepped out from behind a tree and kicked Lobbo up the bum.
‘OWW!’ yelled Lobbo.

‘Donkey’s wonderful,’ smiled Gran. ‘It seems he ran away. He crossed the desert back to Gao, and got here yesterday. Now listen up, young Lobbo. Don’t bother to unpack. This fortune here’s not ours, my dear, so kindly send it back.’

Lobbo sighed and told the knights, ‘Go back to Timbuktu,
And tell the king I’m sorry but our deal has fallen through.
Give him back his goats and scrolls and all this other stuff…
I have a granny and a home, which means I’m rich enough.’