Author Interview – Mark Wells, Riddle of the White Sphinx

I am delighted to be able to share with you my exclusive interview with Mark Wells, author of the new children’s series Hidden Tales.

The first book in this exciting new series, Riddle of the White Sphinx, was launched on Saturday 29th June in a themed event held at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences in Cambridge’s historic city centre.

I caught up with Mark ahead of of the launch to discuss the inspiration behind the book, how the project came together, and more.

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Where did the idea for the Hidden Tales come from?

A couple of summers ago, Sorrel and I were sitting outside her mum’s house, chatting about our childhood. We both remembered reading books like Kit Williams’s Masquerade and going on adventures with our friends or exploring different places with our parents and grandparents. Sorrel was worried about the time children spend nowadays in front of a screen and wondered if it would be possible to do a treasure hunt book for children in today’s digital age.  A few weeks later, Sorrel came around for a cup of tea to discuss the idea further. In the subsequent months, we kept meeting up in the evenings around the kitchen table to chat about the possibility of turning it into a series of illustrated children’s books. I suggested that it might be sensible to test the idea in one city, like Cambridge, and Sorrel asked if I could come up with a storyline. That was probably the moment when the Hidden Tales was born.

Was it a sudden ‘aha!’ moment, or a gradual coming together of ideas?

After agreeing to come up with an outline, one Sunday morning I left home with a notepad and pen and went walking around the city looking for inspiration. I wandered into a museum that I hadn’t visited since I was a child and decided to hire an audio-guide to look around the exhibits. As soon as I put the headphones on, something magical happened. The sounds of the other visitors became muffled, and a disembodied voice began speaking to me about the exhibits around me. And that’s when I thought – what if I was the only person the voice could talk to? And what if the voice was not coming from the headphones but from another entity entirely. A soul, trapped here, hiding from a sinister keeper. A Hidden.

An hour later, I was back at my desk typing away, and I didn’t stop until the early hours when I finally went to bed. The next morning, I read through what I had written, and the hairs rose on the back of my neck. I sent what has become Chapter 1 to Sorrel and asked her to tell me what she thought of it. Later that evening, Sorrel called me back to say she had read it to the girls and they loved it and could I write some more? Each weekend after that I went to another museum and wrote another chapter, sending it through to Sorrel for another reading, and before long we had our first book: Riddle of the White Sphinx.

In your bio, you speak very fondly about your time studying in Cambridge, and, in particular, about your curiosity about the secrets of the older buildings around the city – are there any buildings, in particular, that stand out in your mind as having offered the most intrigue?  

There are so many! Everywhere you look in Cambridge there are iron-studded doors, archways or parapets concealing all manner of secrets, while from the rooftops, gargoyles and grotesques watch your every move. In my own college, St John’s, it’s hard to beat New Court with its Eagle Gate and cloister leading to the Bridge of Sighs as a setting for a gothic mystery like College of Shadows – particularly at night with the moon shining through its iron-barred arches. But the Fitzwilliam Museum can look equally mysterious, especially at night when its darkened windows peer out at passers-by like sunken eye sockets.

I understand that you have written several books before now, how has your experience as a writer so far influenced this latest work?

Before coming back to Cambridge, I used to work for Games Workshop, and I loved the dark gothic fantasy worlds of Warhammer. When I left, they published a couple of my short stories set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe before I decided to switch to urban fantasy and set my debut novel College of Shadows, here in Cambridge. Ever since reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of parallel worlds, and when the opportunity came to create one for the Hidden Tales, I took it. The World of Secrets, which is where the Hidden come from, is definitely dark, gothic and mysterious, and it has been great fun imagining a place where those lost souls are trapped.

What did you enjoy most about writing the Riddle of the White Sphinx? Are there any aspects that you didn’t enjoy?

Discovering museums that I didn’t know existed has been brilliant. There are 13 museums in Cambridge, and I visited all of them before focusing on 7 of my favourites for Riddle of the White Sphinx. But to be honest, the whole project has been a joy. Working with the museums, who have been incredibly supportive, local teachers, as well as the rest of the creative team has been wonderful, like seeing the first illustrations come through from Jennifer Bell, our illustrator. One of the most memorable moments was when we applied to the Arts Council to fund the first book, and we received the email telling us they given us the grant. That was special. It has been hard work at times but in a good way.

What would you like children to take away from the experience of reading this book and cracking the codes? Is there any particular message you are trying to convey?

A spirit of adventure. When you open a book or step out your front door, there are so many things to discover – but you have to open your mind to see them. What saddens me is how many people walk around this fantastic city, with their faces buried in a mobile phone, ignoring the buildings and people around them. The Hidden Tales is all about going outside and embarking on a real-life adventure, one where you physically visit places and work collaboratively with others to solve a mystery together. When designing the book, for example, we included a Passport page where you can get your book stamped at each museum. These stamps each contain a word that spell a sentence that will help you find the missing artefact hidden somewhere in the city. We did this to reward those readers who make the effort to go to all seven museums. The true heroes of the tale.

I see from the website that the book has a ‘producer’ as well as an author – how did your roles differ when creating the Riddle of the White Sphinx?

There are so many aspects to the Hidden Tales, it wouldn’t have been possible for one person to do it on their own. If self-publishing an illustrated hardback book wasn’t enough, we always wanted to make the Hidden Tales as immersive and accessible as possible for children and families. This meant taking it into schools, organising events for families throughout the holidays and creating a unique launch event at the Sedgwick Museum in the style and character of the Hidden Tales. Add to that the importance of liaising with the Cambridge museums to ensure the story, illustrations and outreach activities worked for each of the venues was a massive task. Without a producer of Sorrel’s experience and abilities, it would never have happened.

Were there any aspects of writing this book that you found particularly challenging?

A couple of the artefacts and characters from the original draft had to be changed after consulting with the museums. One exhibit, for example, was only on loan to the museum, and there was always the risk that the owner would want it back, which would have been a problem! Another aspect was ensuring the level of difficulty in the clues was sufficiently challenging without being impenetrable. The Hidden language for example, which was designed by Fiona Boyd of the Cardoza Kindersley Workshop, is introduced through a series of messages in the illustrations. It took me several weeks to work out how best to reveal the identity of the letters in each chapter. I even went to Bletchley Park to look at some of the techniques that they used to crack ENIGMA to get the approach right.

What stands out to you as the most memorable part of writing this book?

There have been so many, from getting the first illustration through from Jenny to seeing the colour proofs running off the press for the first time at the Lavenham Press. But for me, it was probably my first reading to an assembly hall of children and looking up at the end to see their wide-eyed faces, wholly immersed in the story. For a writer, that makes all the hard work worth it.

Where do you expect the next Hidden Tales adventure to take you?

That’s an excellent question! We haven’t decided yet, but we are open to suggestions. If it works well in Cambridge, we would love to do it in other cities. There may even be a sequel here. The Keeper of Secrets is not going away without a fight!

Is there anything else that you would like say?

One of the features of the Hidden Tales is that it is all produced locally. Other than Jennifer Bell who is based in Nottingham (though she is often in Newmarket teaching equine art workshops) all of those involved in the project live in and around East Anglia. From the Cardoza Kindersley Workshop, the Lavenham Press, book designer, editors, teachers and volunteers, we are all based here. Even the cakes for the launch event came from Fitzbillies!


 

Riddle of the White Sphinx is available to buy online or instore at Heffers bookstore in Cambridge. If you would like more information on the Hidden Tales including the quest, events, schools programme or AHA! Club (Association of Hidden Adventurers) just visit www.hiddentales.co.uk.

Many thanks to Mark for taking the time to sit and chat with me.

 

Spring reads for budding bookworms launched at Heffers Children’s Bookshop

Authors and illustrators Celina Buckley, Jessica Meserve and Puck Koper came together to celebrate the publication of their new books ‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’, ‘What Clara Saw’ and ‘Where Is Your Sister?’ at Heffers bookshop in Cambridge on 24th April.

The Cambridge-educated authors and illustrators secured book deals following the successful completion of master’s degrees in children’s illustration at the prestigious Cambridge School of Art.

Their books, which each have something unique and appealing to offer young readers, were launched in an intimate ceremony attended by local Cambridge book lovers, and regulars to Heffers Children’s Bookshop.

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Left to right: ‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’, ‘Where Is Your Sister’ and ‘What Clara Saw’ on display at Heffers Children’s Bookshop, Cambridge.

I caught up with the authors before the ceremony, to talk about their inspiration for being a children’s book author and, crucially, the advice that they would give to anyone wanting to follow in their shoes.

About the authors and their books

‘Where Is Your Sister?’ by Puck Koper

‘Where Is Your Sister?’ by Dutch illustrator Puck Koper is a revamp of the classic children’s search and find adventure – a set of ‘Where’s Wally’ training shoes for the next generation of puzzle heads.

Picking through the colourful madness on each page, readers set out to find Harriet, a young runaway, lost, or hiding, in a manic department store. The madness intensifies on each page, as more and more people join in the hunt, before Harriet is finally reunited with her family.

The book’s author, Koper, an illustrator from Rotterdam in the Netherlands, previously illustrated several children’s books, before writing and illustrating ‘Where Is Your Sister’ as part of an MA in Children’s Book Illustration from Cambridge School of Art.

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Puck Koper

The book is a crafty riot of patterned dots, stripes, squiggles and checks, and was printed using Pantone ink to ensure that none of the colourful madness in Koper’s original illustrations is ever lost during production.

“I loved making the busy scenes,” says Koper, while chatting about the method behind her illustrations. “For example, I have a toy department in [the book], and I really loved to think about what should be there, and who should be there.”

“I have all the characters listed in the endpapers of the book, at the front and the back, so you can look out for them, and check out their little stories and follow them,” she says. “There is actually a thief in the book that you can follow – and as a little clue, he isn’t on the last page, he doesn’t make it to the end.”

The illustrations in Koper’s book are certainly unique, but the author hopes that some Dutch readers might be able to notice one particular illustrator from whom she takes some inspiration – “Her name is Fiep Westendorp, she’s a hero,” she says, laughing.

“Really, I think you get inspired by everything, by movies, by things you see in the street – by people you see in the street,” she says. “My book is filled with people I saw somewhere, matched up with things I saw and people I know – I get inspiration from everywhere.”

‘Where Is Your Sister?’ is published by Pan Macmillan, and available to buy online from Amazon and Waterstones.

‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’ by Celina Buckley

‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’ is a beautifully and creatively illustrated children’s picture book which retells an Irish legend about an enchanted salmon with the power to impart all the knowledge in the world to the first person who eats it.

A much-beloved tale among children all over Ireland, the original fable was a childhood favourite of illustrator and author Celina Buckley, from Rylane in County Cork. A primary school teacher by trade, Buckley says that she has always loved art and illustration, but was never sure how to truly develop her passion.

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Celina Buckley

“When I was training to be a teacher, I remember looking through some picture books for teaching practice and I just thought, this is something that I could do, and I would absolutely love it,” she says.  “I did the week-long summer class at Cambridge School of Art, and I loved it, and then I applied to do the children’s publishing MA and I was accepted.”

Buckley completed her masters in illustration while on sabbatical from her teaching job – she developed ‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’ as part of her final project.

“Irish legends are often word heavy, they are mainly text with just a few illustrations, so I wanted to make it into a picture book that younger children could read from start to finish,” she says, when asked about her inspiration for the book.

“This one had a big impact on me when I first heard it. So I decided to start with that story. I would like to do a series of Irish legends – and then write and illustrate my own as well. I want to keep going… and improving,” she says.

A traditional legend that children are sure to love, it is the illustrations in ‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’ that really make the book stand out. Buckley used observational drawing to develop her artwork, using collage to build up individual scenes and experiment with colour and texture.

“The forest in the beginning of the book is the forest by my house, and it’s really nice… to draw it from observation, and then to collage it, and then see it in the book – all those places mean something more to me,” she says.

It’s not just the artwork that benefitted from Buckley’s love of collage, as she also created her own font to compliment the book’s interior. Each letter in the alphabet was intricately cut out, before being and scanned in and edited to create a font that is truly unique to her style.

‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’ is published by Starfish Bay Children’s Books, and available to buy online from Amazon and Waterstones.

‘What Clara Saw’ by Jessica Meserve

Taking inspiration from a true story about a unusual relationship between a tortoise and a baby hippo, ‘What Clara Saw’ is a clever and charming tale about one girl’s enlightening trip to a wildlife park, and the lessons she learned from the animals.

Having previously published several children’s books, and illustrated several more, Jessica Meserve embarked on an MA in Children’s Book illustration from Cambridge School of Art in a bid to further develop her artistic personality. ‘What Clara Saw’ was developed as part of Meserve’s final project for the MA.

Jessica Meserve
Jessica Meserve

“I was really inspired by a book [about] unlikely friendships between animals” says Meserve, smiling. “There was this lovely story about… this little baby hippo [that] was taken to an animal reserve [and] became enamoured with a 150-year-old giant tortoise.”

“Scientist always try to say that it is because the tortoise was about the size of a female hippo, or there is some other reason, and I think there are just some relationships that you just can’t explain,” she says. “This is one thing that I wanted to get across in the book.”

“The other thing that I wanted to get across is a celebration of children being able to see these things which adults sometimes over analyse, or try to explain, and children can sometimes see them more clearly.”

One of Meserve’s main passions, she says, is drawing children, and developing her characters based on the ‘quirky’ behaviour of those around her – particularly her own daughters, whose individuality and unique world view are a source of constant inspiration.

“I have two lovely girls of my own, and one thing they struggle with is having differing opinions from teachers, and I really wanted to celebrate children being able to question authoritative figures,” she says.

The ‘authoritative figure’, or ‘bad guy’ in ‘What Clara Saw’ is a primary school teacher – aptly named Mr Biggity. “He’s not really a bad guy,” laughs Meserve, “but he is a little bit narrow minded!”

“I want children to feel like they are allowed to question grownups, and they can make their own judgements about the world. Children’s opinions really matter, and sometimes they can see things much more clearly because their judgment isn’t clouded by what they think they can see.”

‘What Clara Saw’ is published by Pan Macmillan and available to buy from online from Amazon and Waterstones.

 

Dr Seuss: How The Grinch Stole Christmas | 60th birthday

It’s that time of year again, and this one is a special one, because one of the world’s best-loved children’s Christmas stories is turning 60, and it’s had a special makeover to celebrate.

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This beautiful new edition of Dr Seuss’s Christmas masterpiece ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ is the perfect addition to any Christmas list. The illustrations and charming storyline remain the same, but are joined by a welcoming introduction by Charles D Cohen which explores the origins of the story, and the true meaning of Christmas – this is all contained within a beautiful clothbound cover and presentation box.

I absolutely love the Grinch, I include the 1960s animated short and even the Jim Carey feature in this, but of course nothing is a patch on the original. It is one of Dr Seuss’s best known stories, and with good reason. It took just a month to write, and two months to illustrate, but no other book so perfectly explores and presents the true meaning of Christmas.

You all know the story, and I’m sure I don’t need to bore you all with an explanation of the excellent storyline, writing style, or even illustrations – that said, Dr Seuss’s illustrations never cease to amaze me, in with this book in particular I love the use of red and black, making the pages seem at one dark and festive.

The story itself remains the same, a true Christmas classic, but the really nice thing about this new edition is the introduction.

It is said, and I cannot help but agree, that most people think of Dr Seuss as the Cat in the Hat – but remember that even the happiest people have their bad days. Dr Seuss, whose real name, for those of you who didn’t know, was Theodor Geisel, actually based the grisly, green-eyed character that stalks the page of this Christmas caper on none other than himself.

As his stepdaughter Lark Dimond-Cates once said: “I always thought that the Cat… was Ted on his good days, and the Grinch was Ted on his bad days.”

Seuss created the Grinch as a character at the tender aged of 53, on the day after Christmas day 1956, as an expression of his own concerns about the festive season. It’s an alarming thought, that someone who wrote such wonderful, magical children’s book could struggle with the spirit of Christmas, but Seuss did, and he used the Grinch to help work out exactly how he felt about the holiday.

So the intro says, Seuss was looking into the mirror, brushing his teeth on that Boxing Day morning, when he saw the Grinch peeking back at him.

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“Something had gone wrong with Christmas, I realised, or more likely with me. So I wrote the story about my sour friend, the Grinch, to see if I could rediscover something about Christmas that obviously I’d lost.”

This is, in fact, alluded to a little in the text “For fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now! I must stop this Christmas from coming! … But HOW?”

The introduction goes on to explain a little more about the books notoriety. It was first published back in 1957, an interesting year for Christmas which saw the launch of three separate which encouraged readers to rethink the true meaning of Christmas. These included: The Year without Santa Claus, The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It became a year when people were forced to think about what Christmas really meant to them – and people loved it! All the books received prominent praise, and went on to become films in their own right, but none was quite as special as the Grinch, who became a Christmas staple, paling only in comparison to Santa Claus, and Rudolph.

However, unpleasant the Grinch character may seem at first, the book reminds us of an important fact – Christmas is about more than just presents. There is a deeper meaning to the book, though, expressed through the image of the Grinch, and the Whos coming together, that no one should be alone on Christmas, and that anyone can be part of a community.

The poor Grinch has never had a friend, or a family, and certainly never been part of a community, and cannot understand the Whos. In particular, he hates the Who-Christmas-Sing, a time when the Whos “would stand close together, with Christmas bells ringing. They’d stand hand-in-hand. And the Whos would start singing.”

Through the magic of Christmas, and seeing the Whos resilience even in the absence of presents, the Grinch learns to enjoy the true meaning of Christmas and to spend time and share a meal with the Whos, and as such to become a part of their community.

It is not a religious story, Seuss made sure of this. Like many of his books, Seuss wanted to ensure that the Grinch would teach children that people who look different, and come from different places can still come together as friends. A message we could all do with remembering at such troubling times.

As the intro concludes, most readers can notice a little something of the Grinch in themselves, I know I definitely can. I love Christmas, but I have had my troubles with it in the past, fed up with the endless money, presents and complete and utter faff that comes with it. At some point, though, I realised how I was only depriving myself by feeling this way, and by doing away with my own faff, I learned to enjoy Christmas for what it is, a time to be thankful, to spend time with friends and family and celebrate life, a time for quiet, reflection – and now I love it again.

The Grinch is an important holiday figure, and the Grinch, as a story, is one I can never get through the Christmas season without reading. I didn’t realise, until I saw this new edition, that the Grinch was approaching its 60th year in publication. I had already decided to start a little ‘tradition’ with my youngest nephew, of buying him a Dr Seuss book for his birthday and Christmas each year, this year’s Christmas present was to be the Grinch, and I am delighted that there is a special, beautiful new edition that I can share with him.

 

Happy Roald Dahl Day!

The last two weeks have been crazy – many a lost purse, blocked drain and sick cat to keep me busy, so I do hope you’ll forgive my radio silence.

Couple of pieces of good news for you:

Firstly, I have recently received a beautiful copy a super-exciting new children’s book, The Grotlyn, by Benji Davis, the much-loved author of The Storm Whale – I’ve read it, and it’s fantastic, so keep your eyes peeled for a review in the next couple of days, and maybe consider buying a copy in the meantime.

Secondly, but most importantly, it’s Roald Dahl Day!

I hope you have all managed to take a little time out to appreciate, or celebrate in some way, this wonderful children’s author. As for myself, I plan to watch the film adaptation of The Witches the second I get home tonight – the book has always held a special place in my heart – partly, but not just, due to the present of mice.

I love mice, after all, mice, I am fairly certain, all like each other. People don’t.

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In the meantime, to keep myself ticking over, and for the personal enjoyment for each and every one of you reading this, here is a little excerpt from the book. It’s quite possibly the loveliest thing you will read all day, and sure to breed all the good thoughts – remember, if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely 🙂

“How long does a mouse live?”

“Ah,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you to ask me that.”

There was a silence. She sat there smoking away and gazing at the fire.

“Well,” I said. “How long do we live, us mice?”

“I have been reading about mice,” she said. “I have been trying to find out everything I can about them.”

“Go on then, Grandmamma. Why don’t you tell me?”

“If you really want to know,” she said, “I’m afraid a mouse doesn’t live for a very long time.”

“How long?” I asked.

“Well, an ordinary mouse only lives for about three years,” she said. “But you are not an ordinary mouse. You are a mouse-person, and that is a very different matter.”

“How different?” I asked. “How long does a mouse-person live, Grandmamma?”

“Longer,” she said. “Much longer.”

“A mouse-person will almost certainly live for three times as long as an ordinary mouse,” my grandmother said. “About nine years.”

“Good!” I cried. “That’s great! It’s the best news I’ve ever had!”

“Why do you say that?” she asked, surprised.

“Because I would never want to live longer than you,” I said. “I couldn’t stand being looked after by anybody else.”

There was a short silence. She had a way of fondling me behind the ears with the tip of one finger. It felt lovely.

“How old are you, Grandmamma?” I asked.

“I’m eighty-six,” she said.

“Will you live another eight or nine years?”

“I might,” she said. “With a bit of luck.”

“You’ve got to,” I said. “Because by then I’ll be a very old mouse and you’ll be a very old grandmother and soon after that we’ll both die together.”

“That would be perfect,” she said.”

 

‘The Wishing Star’ by M Christina Butler and Frank Endersby

I have a real soft spot for books about mice.

I’m sure it has something to do with how tiny they are – almost the perfect size for living in a doll’s house, and so somehow just right for ascribing human qualities to.

Obviously, ‘The Tale of Two Bad Mice’ was an absolute favourite of mine as a child, but even as an adult I still find myself drawn to any children’s book with a mouse on the front cover – ‘The Mouse and His Child’ and ‘Redwall’, though aimed at a slightly older audience, are two of my favourite finds in recent years.

‘The Wishing Star’ is the latest addition to my children’s book shelf, and one I look forward to sharing with the little people in my life.

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Little Brown Mouse and Little Grey Mouse are the best of friends, and spend all their days together, doing the things that best friends do. They climb trees, and pick berries and have such a jolly time, each content in the others company.

‘I’m so lucky to have you as a friend,” said Little Grey Mouse.

One night, the two friends see a beautiful wishing star fall from the night’s sky and disappear into the nearby lake, and set off in their boat to find it. The night is full possibilities, with so many lovely things awaiting them, like untold adventures, and an unlimited mouse-sized pantry – but there is only one star, and both little mice want to make a wish.

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How will they decide who gets to choose the wish? And what happens if someone gets to the star before them?

‘The Wishing Star’ is a book about friendship, which carries with it important message of not letting little things get in the way of what really matters. Unlimited pantries and adventures forgotten, the two little mice realise that what really matters is that they have each other, and other friends they meet along the way, which is more than anyone could ever wish for.

This book would serve as a good bedtime read to share with younger children, with a good amount of dialogue allowing for adults to express their own creative flair by choosing voices for the various characters. It would also work well as an introduction to reading for those children who are setting off for school this autumn – the charming illustrations, and a simple, thoughtful storyline providing a perfect stepping stone to discover the joys of reading by yourself.

‘Copycat Bear’ by Ellie Sandall

I was drawn to this book by the illustration on the front cover; there was something vaguely nostalgic about the big, scratchy blue bear that seemed to pull on a distant childhood memory and invite me back inside. Who am I to try and resist?

This book is short and sweet, so I will try and keep my review so.

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Mango is little bird with a big attitude, and an even bigger best friend – Blue the bear. The two make an amusing pair, one big, trundling and blue, the other small, swift and orange, but Blue doesn’t seem to care. No matter what Mango does, he always tries to copy her. Whether it’s jumping from branch to branch in the tropical trees or attempting to sing a jungle ditty – he even pretends that he can fly!

Mango cannot stand it!

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When it all gets too much, Mango flies off in a huff – knowing at least Blue can’t follow. But it doesn’t take long before she starts to feel lonely… Where is her copycat bear?

‘Copycat Bear’ is a story of that celebrates friendship, while teaching an important lesson about tolerance and understanding. It reminded me slightly of Rainbow Fish’ – a firm childhood favourite of mine – both in the colours and imagery used, and it its attempt to reflect the importance of kindness and empathy.

The effect is quite something; at times I felt more than a little sorry for Blue.

Thank goodness for happy endings.

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Like all good picture books, ‘Copycat Bear’ is there for children to enjoy, with amusing anecdotes – like a bear attempting to fly – paired with beautifully captivating images, but also alludes to some important and valuable life lessons.

With this in mind there are two main messages running through the book that even young children can learn from. Firstly, that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and though copycats can seem annoying, they might just be the ones who love and respect us the most. But also, and perhaps most importantly, that being different is ok.

‘Under the Silvery Moon’ by Colleen McKeown

The perfect bedtime companion, this beautiful children’s book is soft, sweet, and magical.

So often it’s the words or images alone that make a children’s book, with the other standing in the side-lines paying an occasional well-placed compliment. This little book strikes the perfect balance between the two, with beautiful flowing words perfectly captured by magical, moon-dappled imagery.

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“Around us swirls a summer song; it’s whispered through the trees.
The evening wind is blowing through the softly rustling leaves.”

The sun has set, and bedtime has long past, but one little kitten is struggling to sleep. Snuggled up in the hay lofts of a cosy wooden barn, the scene is perfect for slumber, but outside, animals are stirring, and the night-time noises fill the little ginger tom with fear.

Under the Silvery Moon is the softly sung lullaby of Mother Cat, as she guides her little one on a journey through the sounds of the night, stopping to visit each nocturnal creature along the way.

We pass the shadow-like figure of a fox, singing his night-time song, a happy trundling badger, barking with delight, a host of croaking frogs, bathing by the light of the moon, and snuffling, scurrying hedgehogs, out for a midnight snack.

Elsewhere, a mother duck snuggles with her ducklings, and other animals, tired from a busy day, get some well-earned rest – just as little kittens should.

Mother Cat’s soothing lullaby shows the night is full of noises, but none we need to fear.

Under the Silvery Moon is a calming bedtime read, perfect for settling any little one to sleep, the soft rhyming text and beautiful, dream-like illustrations paving the way for a sweet slumber filled with nocturnal adventures.

‘Beijing Smog’ by Ian Williams

Social media is a powerful thing, even in a world where government-sanctioned firewalling attempts to keep it under wraps. In a place where public opinion is learned, not formed, and freedom of expression is non-existent, innocent Tweets, shares and updates can be taken all too seriously. Even the smallest of jokes can end up spiralling out of control.

41Q5eoeLSxL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_So goes the story in ‘Beijing Smog’, the debut novel from Ian Williams, former correspondent for Channel 4 News and the Sunday Times newspaper, who spent more than two decades living, working and reporting on China. Dark, cynical and somewhat satirical, Williams presents a modern Chinese society that is suffocating and depressing, and might prove for hard reading were it not for an entourage of well-rounded, relatable characters, and, what I hope will prove to be, Williams’ signature satirical humour.

A book of multiple pathways, ‘Beijing Smog’ centres first and foremost on the life of Wang Chu, a video-game-addicted computer science student and the unexpected father of revolution, who hides behind the screen of his smartphone, in a world inhabited by crazed monkeys, brain-hungry zombies, and poorly drawn aliens.

Wang’s devil-may-care attitude to social media has a far more prominent effect on his followers than he could have ever imagined. How could anyone have foreseen that an innocuous Tweet, subtly poking fun at the modern Chinese government, could start a revolution? That all it would take to undermine the ruling Communist Party is a simple, crudely draw stick alien with a wide bulbous head and round, sloping eyes? It started life as a joke, but the Party are not laughing.

As he wanders blindly into the heart of the storm, Wang’s story intertwines with that of two others: Chuck Drayton, an American diplomat, sucked into the world of cyber security not by desire, or ability on his part, but apathy and incompetence of everyone else; and Anthony Morgan, a listless British businessman, striving to keep his Chinese partners on track while revealing his true feelings via VPN with gloomy predictions published under the Twitter tagline @Beijing_Smog. As their stories collide, the alien revolution set in motion by Wang takes on an unpredictable life of its own, threatening all those involved, none more so than the Party itself.

This is a book about espionage, corruption, censorship and alienation. Cyberspace and the choking Chinese smog form a striking metaphor of the disorientation that clouds the main characters’ brains and the wider Chinese public. As government sensors work tirelessly to conceal, delete and mould online opinion, businesses boom with the sale of inadequate gas masks and smog apps and university students hide within a world far more palatable than reality. It may seem apathetic; a generation of students unable to look up from their phones and at a total loss when the internet goes down, but it is online that revolution is brewing.

This is not an historical novel, nor an exact representation of life in the People’s Republic, but rather a book which seeks to capture the madness and intensity of life within a highly censored society. This is something that Williams achieves without a doubt, his sparky style and dark satirical humour creates a world where student sinks overflowing with ramen dishware, shabby coffee shops with more tab than substance, and cracked smartphone screens, sit alongside bloated, machete-mutilated corpses, hungry Siberian tigers, and invitations to ‘tea’ with the university authorities. A world where a single slipped word could see a person disappear.

This review was first published online for E&T Magazine 

‘There’s a Bear on my Chair’ by Ross Collins

I’m a sucker for a book with rhyming couplets.

Rhyme offers so much opportunity to explore the written word in children’s books – archaic and dated words fit right into the flow of text, alongside nonsense terms and odd turns of phrase. In short, anything goes. Get the rhythm right and the rest will follow, children are sure to love a book that rhymes.

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This book caught my eye in WHSmiths during one of my regular lunchtime strolls at work, and I decided to give it a read, sucked in by the triple rhyme in the title, and the furious mouse on the cover image. What’s his story?

It’s a simple book – but the simplicity is what makes it so excellent. Collins writes in rhyming couplets using only ‘Air’ words, and the result is quite delightful.

The story has a childish humour running through it that adults and children alike are bound to enjoy. A poor little mouse discovers a selfish polar bear sitting in his favourite chair, which simply is too small to share. The poor little mouse attempts all sorts of amusing tactics to shoo the bear (to make him go back to his lair), he gives him quite a nasty glare, he tries to tempt him with a pear, he jumps out in his underwear, but nothing works. The bear just simply does not care. You get the picture.

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In the end, the mouse gives up, being driven to the end of his tiny mouse tether by this big troublesome bear. He leaves his house, distraught and beaten, to find a new place to rest.

Once the mouse has gone, the bear, of course, gets up and walks home.

Here we find the delightful twist in the tail.

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I confess, I laughed. I laughed loud, and insisted that my colleagues give the book a read. Waiting patiently for the satisfied chuckle I knew was coming once they reached the end of the book.

It’s simple, but clever, and I really didn’t see it coming.

This book would be perfect for sharing with children, to help foster a love of reading from a young age. It’s no ‘Cat in the Hat’, or ‘Green Eggs and Ham’, but it does have a vaguely Dr Seuss-esque feel to it, in style, substance, and illustration – a winning combination that truly represents the power of the written word.

 

‘A Portable Cosmos’ by Alexander Jones

More than 100 years after it was first discovered, and following on from decades of research by scientists and theologians alike, author Alexander Jones reveals a new and unknown approach to understanding the mysterious Antikythera mechanism.

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Since the dawn of society, mankind has striven to understand the forces that dictate history. Ancient Greeks found answers in fate, with shrouded white beings, known as the Moirai, depicted alongside the gods as the bringers of destiny.

It would be easy to suggest that fate was at play in 1901, when sponge divers off the coast of a small Greek island stumbled upon the ruins of an ancient shipwreck, which just happened to be one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time.

The contents of the wreck, dating back as far as 60 AD, revealed untold wonders of the lives of the privileged in Ancient Greece. The vessel was laden with artistic masterpieces in the form of bronze and marble statues and intricate glassware and ceramics. Most important of all, though, was the unique Antikythera mechanism – the crumbling remains of an ancient gear-driven device, since dubbed the first analogue computer.

‘A Portable Cosmos’, written and researched by Professor Alexander Jones, from New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, attempts to unpick the murky history of the Antikythera mechanism. The book presents the device as a gateway to the understanding of scientific thought in Ancient Greece, where the divine and the methodical were inextricably entwined.

Jones takes the reader on a journey through the various years of research into the mechanism’s background, as well as into the device itself, affording a glimpse beneath the corroded surface and into the interior gears and cogs.

Since its discovery more than 100 years ago, scholars and scientists have dedicated years of research to uncovering the secrets hidden beneath the mechanism’s corroded exterior. The symbols, writings, gears and cogs uncovered by years of investigation have revealed that the mechanism is some kind of advanced astronomical calculator, with dials given over to tracing cycles of time and the movements of the sun, moon and planets.

Various theories have arisen as to the machine’s true function, with it being labelled as both an astrolabe and a planetarium at various stages throughout the 20th century. It was not until Derek de Solla Price began researching the object in the 1950s that the word ‘computer’ arose and with it the idea that the device could have been used to determine certain predictions and calculations.

For Jones it seems unlikely that the mechanism was created to compute data in any practical way, but rather, was more likely created as a reflection of certain beliefs and aspirations in Ancient Greece. Navigational and other purposes would have been much more easily supplied by other, cheaper means, whereas the range and breadth of information expressed by the mechanism is far and beyond the realms required by any merchant ship.

Instead, Jones poses the idea that the device may have served as vessel for teaching the ‘educated layman’ how astronomical phenomena were interwoven with the natural and social environment. Take a glimpse at Ancient Greek texts and one can see the presence of mechanical thought within the understanding of astrological forces. Vitruvius described the heavens themselves as spun about mechanically – viewing astrological revolutions as driven by a system of invisible, interlocking parts. For some, this theory went further, into the very nature of fate itself.

Within the Antikythera mechanism, each astrological and chronological function had a rich context in Ancient Greek life and as such serves as the perfect gateway to understanding astronomy and scientific technology within society at the time. Just as fate and serendipity fascinated and guided the hands of ancient scholars, so too has it dictated the journey of the Antikythera mechanism, from a corroded piece of rubble to one of the most important discoveries of modern times.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine