ALL ABOARD FOR THE BOBO ROAD publication day

“All aboard for the Bobo Road, the most beautiful road in the world!”

In my new picture book, Fatima and Galo load the luggage while their dad Big Ali drives the bus. Help count on bikes, rice, melons, goats and chickens as the bus travels through the stunning scenery of south-western Burkina Faso. Illustrations by Christopher Corr.

My wife and I used to live in the northern ‘Sahel’ region of Burkina Faso, the shore of the Sahara desert. We often thought wistfully of Banfoura and Bobo Dioulasso down in the south-west of the country, which are always lush and green by comparison.

Banfoura is famous for its picturesque waterfalls and ancient rock domes, whilst Bobo Dioulasso is the cultural capital of Burkina Faso, known for masks, dancing and drumming. This region is also remarkable for the number of different ethnic groups who live there – literally dozens of ethnic groups living in an area the size of Wales, all with different languages and traditions. Chris Corr has captured the cultural vibrancy of the region in his wonderful illustrations. Check out these stunning Gurunsi houses, for example:

gurunsi_houses

The journey from Banfoura to Bobo is very close to my heart. I have done it on three occasions, with different travelling companions, and all three have great memories attached.

I really enjoyed writing this book and seeing it take shape. Unlike my other picture books, this one went through many completely different drafts. At one point it was even called THE BANANA THAT BROKE THE BUS. I am grateful to my editor Libby Hamilton for coaxing the book into its present form.

Free BOBO ROAD colouring sheets

To celebrate publication day, Chris has produced two fabulous colouring sheets. Feel free to print them out for children to colour in. If the results look good, please do take a picture and email it to me for display here on the blog.

All Aboard for the Bobo Road colouring sheet 1

All Aboard for the Bobo Road colouring sheet 2

You can read early reviews here and buy a hardback copy of the book here, or (even better) order from a local bookshop. Paperback will be out sometime next year, I imagine.

BEEP BEEP! Happy reading!

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 sahelsteve@gmail.com.

ALL ABOARD FOR THE BOBO ROAD cover reveal

It’s finally here! And what a cover it is. As always, a massive shoutout to Christopher Corr, who has brought the story to life with his incredibly colourful paintings.

ALL ABOARD FOR THE BOBO ROAD is the story of two children who accompany their bus-driver father Big Ali on a long journey from Banfoura to Bobo. As Big Ali says, it’s the most beautiful road in the world…

How to Spend a Week’s Wages on a Book

If you read my blog you know that I love Africa. But I will say this: the books there are a bit pricey. In Burkina Faso where I lived, an average new novel (when you can find one at all) has a cover price of 11,000 francs. It sounds like a lot, and it is. For most people in Burkina Faso, 11,000 francs is more than a week’s wages.

That’s right. A week’s wages for a book.

Think of it in UK terms. Minimum wage, £6.50. A week’s wages, £273. Can you imagine spending £273 on one book?

We are fortunate to live in a place where we have access to bookshops, school libraries and public libraries, Kindles and Nooks. We are blessed that we can buy and borrow books without spending a fortune on them.

If you want to spend a fortune on a single book, the place to go is of course Ebay. As you know, there are some very optimistic sellers on ebay. At the time of writing:

  • £273.41 can buy you all 4 volumes of Moral Theology, published in 1713
  • £273.97 gets you a Handbook of Herbs and Spices, published in 2001
  • £273.33 buys you a used copy of Ray Mears’ World Of Survival
  • £271.99 would buy you The Accountants Bad Joke book OR Lumbosacral and Pelvic Procedures

Most of the ludicrously expensive books on Ebay are non-fiction, but I did spot a novel, too. Robert Harris’s thriller The Ghost is currently available at a Buy it Now price of £271.82. The seller of this used book is called Fortune International Ltd (not kidding) and in the smallprint they say: ‘Our company is dedicated to providing you with the best quality, lowest cost products on eBay.’

You can spend a week’s wages on a book if you want to, but thank goodness you don’t have to. We have affordable books all around us. All we have to do is read them.

Burkina Faso Popular Uprising

Burkina_revolution

The riot shield war trophy was one of yesterday’s iconic images. There were many, of course. Parliament burning. The Rond Point des Nations Unies obscured by tear gas. Angry young men in the TV station. 24 hours later, the uprising already has its own Wikipedia entry: 2014 Burkinabé uprising.

It has been brewing for a long time, of course. Any president who hangs onto power for 27 years must expect to become increasingly unpopular.

Living in Burkina Faso on a tourist visa, a guest of the state, I always had to be very careful what I said about President Blaise Compaoré. My references to him in my books tended towards the cryptic. The powerhungry villain of SOPHIE AND THE PANCAKE PLOT was Alai Crepe-Sombo, an unsophisticated anagram. My last novel OUTLAW was dedicated to journalist and novelist Norbert Zongo, who was one of the President’s most courageous and outspoken critics.

zongo

There seemed to be some ‘mission creep’ going on yesterday. What started as an action to prevent Parliament from changing the constitution turned into an all-out demand for the President to resign with immediate effect. His refusal to do so has angered protesters, who are still occupying many of Ouagadougou’s most important landmarks. We shall see what today brings.

To my Ouagadougou friends and erstwhile neighbours, bon courage. Tomorrow we’ll discover what our God in Heaven has in store! One more dawn. One more day. One day more!

Update (Friday, 1330): A few minutes after I posted this, Blasie resigned as President, calling for a 90 day transition and then elections. This is a huge moment for West Africa. Blaise has defined an era, not just for Burkina Faso but further afield as well.

Children’s books about elections – Kindle ebooks

Political elections are tricky subjects for children’s fiction, and need to be written with a light hand. With the American 2012 Presidential Race now upon us, here are three recommendations for children’s adventure books which deal with election shenanigans. The links here are for Kindle ebooks, but paperbacks are also available – just follow the Paperback link from the product description page.

I have to declare an interest – the third book in this list is mine. To my knowledge, Sophie and the Pancake Plot is the only election-themed children’s adventure story not set in the US. Please correct me in the comments section if this is not the case – or if you have written an election story for kids, feel free to plug it in the comments.

1. Election Day by Margaret McNamara

Election DayToday is election day in Mrs. Connor’s class. The students will listen to speeches and vote for a new class president. Today is also Becky’s first day at Robin Hill School. She thinks she would make a great class president, but she’s new and has no friends yet. When Becky takes a chance and makes a speech, the whole class is surprised by the winner!

Ages 4+

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2. The Election-Day Disaster by Ron Roy

The Election Day Disaster kindle editionKC and her best friend wake up to a trick not a treat the morning after the White House Halloween costume party. With the presidential election only a week away, someone has posted damaging photos of the president on the Internet, photos that were digitally doctored! Will they ruin Thornton’s chances for a second term? Or can KC and Marshall rescue the election?

Ages 6+

3. Sophie and the Pancake Plot by Stephen Davies

Sophie and the Pancake Plot kindle editionElection day is just around the corner and Sophie’s best friend Gidaado is working for Presidential candidate General Crepe-Sombo. But Sophie discovers that the famous General is not at all the kind, peaceful man he pretends to be. To expose the villain before he becomes President, Sophie will need a dog whistle, a carnivorous plant and an albino camel as fast as the harmattan wind.

(Ages 7+)

OUTLAW shortlisted for the Hampshire Book Award

I was pleased to learn today that my latest teen book OUTLAW has been shortlisted for the 2012 Hampshire Book Award. The result will be announced in June.

So here is the Hampshire Book Award 2012 shortlist:

  • Burning Secrets – Clare Chambers
  • Outlaw – Stephen Davies
  • Reckless by Cornelia Funke
  • Theodore Boone – John Grisham
  • Half Brother – Kenneth Oppel
  • Angel – L.A. Weatherly

Hampshire Book Award shortlist 2012

Outlaw appears on Best Books 2011 list chosen by School Library Journal

Stephen Davies OUTLAW

I am thrilled by the news that OUTLAW has found a place on School Library Journal’s Best Books of 2011 list, in such excellent company as Patrick Ness (A Monster Calls), Marcus Sedgewick (White Crow) and Veronica Roth (Divergent).

A good review also from Armadillo magazine:

This is, quite simply, a cracking action thriller.

It has all the classic elements: a swashbuckling outlaw; a capable but aimless young hero brought to maturity through adversity; a feisty heroine; corrupt officials; gadgets; kidnap; and a countdown-to-disaster climactic scene. It is, however, very definitely an action thriller for the 21st Century, and none of these classic elements feels in any way clichéd in Stephen Davies’ capable hands.

Jake Knight, son of the UK ambassador to Burkina Faso, is kidnapped along with his younger sister Kirsty by… well, by whom? His kidnappers are not whom they at first seem, and nor are his initial rescuers. Helped by a charismatic African Robin Hood figure, Jake must find his way home before the wrong man is hunted down and killed for his abduction.

Davies lives in Burkina Faso, and his writing brings a real sense of the country to the reader; but he also clearly knows his modern technology, and he makes full use of – among other things – his hero’s smartphone to keep the story belting along in a way that would make Ian Fleming proud (who knew, for instance, that you can charge your phone using AA batteries and cream?).

Outlaw is clever, moral, action-packed, and a great story. If that’s the kind of book you like, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

OUTLAW was published in the US last month by Clarion. Here are the links to the OUTLAW page on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Why there are no zombies in OUTLAW

I wrote OUTLAW in Chichester Library during my sabbatical year in the UK. The library is within slingshot distance of Waterstones, so I used to go there on my lunch break and pore over newly published fiction. During one such lunch break I leafed through Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, looking at the pictures and chuckling and wishing that Outlaw had more zombies in it. Or any, for that matter.

As I walked back to the library that day my mind was spinning. Perhaps it’s not too late, I thought. Perhaps I could introduce some zombies in my novel without breaking the plot. Cram them in, shoehorn them in, Ctrl-v them in by the bucket load – then sit back and inform my publisher that they will need to find an African zombie illustrator. No, two African zombie illustrators – one for the cover, one for the innards.

My favourite motivational book is Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. She devotes several chapters to describing how you need to give your left brain permission to think wildly and freely, and how you should not let your right brain jump in too fast with a No-no-no-it’ll-never-work. Good advice, right up until the moment your left brain suggests parachuting a regiment of zombies into your work-in-progress. When this happens, there is only one course of action: extract your left brain, pulverize it and dance on the remains with hobnailed boots. Which I did, right there in the library foyer.

Right brain thought it had won, of course, and over the next few days it was even more obnoxious than usual. So imagine right brain’s confusion the following week when the following happened: I was sitting at my computer reading about Mungo Park (a famous Scottish explorer of West Africa who features several times in Outlaw) and came upon this webpage explaining that there was a mystery surrounding Park’s disappearance in the heart of Africa. Not just a mystery, but a zombie mystery:

Park’s disappearance was big news back in England, where the public had developed a fascination with explorations in Africa. A rescue mission was quickly put together under the direction of Africa Society director Joseph Langley. Langley and his team traced Park’s route, sailing up the Gambia and crossing the jungle to get to the Niger.

At the end of the second day on the river, the team paddled around a bend and laid eyes on the legendary city of Tellem. In his 1808 account of the mission, Dark River, Langley recalls his team’s disappointment upon finding that, far from being a city of gold, Tellem was a small village constructed of mud. As the team drifted closer, they saw dozens of Africans emerging from their homes and walking towards them with a peculiar, stiff-legged gait. In his account of the trip, Langley remembers being initially heartened by the sight of the villagers: “They wore brightly-coloured garments and the broadest of smiles.” But as he got closer, Langley realized that what he had mistaken for smiles were actually the grimaces of flesh-hungry zombies: the entire village had been transformed. Langley ordered an immediate retreat, but the canoes became swamped in the rapids. As the voracious zombies waded into the river, Langley was swept into the current and carried several miles downriver. He eventually reached a friendly village; the villagers took him to the mouth of the Niger, where he was picked up by a British ship.

Though Langley had gone further into Africa than any white man before him, he found himself the subject of scorn upon his return to London, where his zombie story was derided as a self-serving excuse for a failure in leadership. However, later accounts from the Asante tribes of East Africa lent support to Langley’s account. Denkyira, the Asante king, informed the English garrison in Gambia that he had led a raid on Tellem and destroyed many zombies, including several white men. The king presented the garrison commander with the clothes and personal effects of these men. Among the items was Park’s diary, with its ominous last entry: “Tomorrow, we should reach Tellem, a city that has haunted my dreams since I was a child. I cannot sleep for the excitement.”

I minimized Opera, maximized Open Office, and started rewriting Outlaw. My heart was pounding. Sparks flew off the keyboard. The zombie mystery surrounding the death of Mungo Park would become the central feature of my reworked plot, providing a dose of horror and a whole barrel of Zeitgeist. The story arc would be exquisite. The teenage protagonist’s journey would bring him inexorably closer to Tellem, the location of Park’s disappearance. Fleeting encounters with zombies on the road would prepare the way for a full blown battle in the final pages, culminating of course in a thrilling duel: African Zombie King versus African Robin Hood, no holds barred, to the death.

As I went to bed that night, I even had a title for my surefire bestseller: ZOMBIES VERSUS OUTLAWS.

It was so very nearly perfect. But then in the dead of night I was woken by a thought even more chilling than the zombies I had been imagining: What would Hemingway say?

The curse of the Hardcore Hemingway Fanboy (HHF) is that whenever HHF sits down to write, Hemingway stands close behind the right shoulder, gurning, tutting, smoking and being raucously and unapproachably brilliant. He comes to you even in your dreams where you think you are safe, bearing down on you to dispense pithy advice littered with #writetips and #writequote hashtags (for even as a figment of a literary imagination, Ernest is keen to move with the times).

Before he got very far into his rant, it was clear that the great man was not keen on ZOMBIE VERSUS OUTLAW. He sneered so much that his upper lip actually touched his nose. Then he drew himself up to his full height and said what he always says to young writers:

Write when there is something you know, and not before.

Forget posterity. Think only of writing truly.

Write as well as you can with no eye on the market.

Know what to leave out.

Which is not to say that no one should write zombies. He or she who knows zombies must write zombies. But it was time to face facts – I do not know my zombies. I’ve never even seen Dawn of the Dead.

The next day, the WIP was retitled Outlaw and the Tellem zombies were banished forever. The Zombie King grinned, shrugged and waded stiff-legged into the River Niger, closely followed by my chances of fame and fortune. But at least Ernest was grimly satisfied. And the silver lining, which he himself discovered as a young writer in Paris in the twenties, is this: The pictures in the art galleries always look better when you’re hungry.

How Chobbal the albino camel got his name

Fama is one of our neighbours here in Burkina Faso. She is eighteen and she makes a living from selling chobbal, which is porridge made from sour milk and millet. Every morning Fama gets up early and pounds millet in a wooden mortar until it is a fine flour. She mixes the flour with water and herbs and cooks it over a fire.

When the millet is cooked she leaves it to cool and forms it into balls (about the size of pool balls). She puts these millet balls in a calabash (a bowl made from the calabash fruit) and takes them from door to door. Each ball costs 50 African francs – that’s about 7 pence (10 cents). To make the chobbal, she simply mixes the millet balls with milk. She says it tastes better if you use yesterday’s milk rather than today’s.

Chobbal is delicious but it has a reputation for making you go to sleep. So don’t eat it at lunchtime if you’re working in the field or herding cows in the countryside.

I chose Chobbal as the name of the camel in Sophie and the Albino Camel. Like an albino camel, chobbal is an off-white colour – and very smelly!