Award-winning writer and adventurer Matt Dickinson has been to the top of the highest volcano in the world, he's survived a beaver attack in Alaska and, as anyone who has read his Everest Files books would guess, he's climbed the world's tallest peak but, as a father, what's the best adventure he's been on with his five children? What devices does he use in his writing to try and hold the attention of young readers who are surrounded by so many other distractions? Which children's books has he enjoyed reading? We catch up with him ahead of the release of his new children's book, Popcorn-Eating Squirrels of the World Unite!
Your Mortal Chaos and Everest Files series have been big hits with older children and teenagers around the world, what inspired you to write a book for younger readers?
Well, first I would say that I am now (and always have been) basically a big kid! But seriously. One of the nicest things about being a parent (I have five children) is that moment when they really get into reading. With my own kids they have switched onto it at different ages but I’ve always felt the six to ten years old phase of being a reader is particularly exciting and the Popcorn-Eating Squirrels series is written with that in mind.
Why is this age band an exciting one to write for? Well a combination of factors. Firstly, it’s a time when the imagination is firing up in all sorts of amazing ways. Secondly, kids this age really do have a crazy sense of humour. Thirdly, they are just starting to read independently and to engage with larger-scale stories. So Squirrels has been a chance to write with the ‘brakes off’. Let the slightly nuts side of my imagination go wild and have some real fun with the characters. I’m loving it and am intending to write more Squirrels books very soon.
How is the process different to writing for a young-adult audience?
A young-adult audience is a very sophisticated readership. But it's also one that has a lot of distractions. Social media, gaming, Netflix are all competing for their attention and as a writer you are up against all of that. I have always sought to bring a ‘real world’ feel to my young-adult books which has come from my own experiences (for example on Everest with The Everest Files) and I think that is a key part of the process. It’s quite controlled, and based on real life.
When you write for younger readers the process is really different. With Popcorn-Eating Squirrels I most certainly haven’t based it on a ‘real world’ experience, it’s a pure flight of the imagination with no limits on craziness and bonkers stuff. A popcorn machine that magically turns squirrels into zombies? Bring it on! A team of honey badgers who set up a vermin control company? Why not? So the process of writing for younger readers has more opportunities for fun. Plus they have far fewer distractions so once they get into a book they can really focus on it.
What was it like working with the book's illustrator, Calloway?
Working with Calloway Berkeley O’Reilly has been a great pleasure. It’s my first time to work with an illustrator and I think that our partnership will go from strength to strength. He’s a very young guy and this is his first book so it’s also a thrill to think that this is where his illustrator career starts! The most interesting thing has been to see how HIS imagination has given the pictures a special quality. I love it!
Can you give us five top things to love about squirrels?
1. They are real survivors
2. They're sociable creatures that can adapt
3. They can solve problems to get food
4. They have feet which can swivel through 180 degrees
5. They plan ahead – e.g. storing food for winter ... that is really smart
For anyone who hasn't read one of your books before, how would you describe your style of writing?
I think of myself as a storyteller first and foremost. I like to write in a style that is direct, in which the characters themselves dictate the action through their decisions.
I am definitely in the ‘less is more’ mindset. I cut my own work down rigorously before I send it to anyone. Some of my chapters have fewer than fifty words! My stories do move along fast, for that reason!
As a father of five, what’s the best adventure you’ve been on with your children?
Gosh there have been so many! But I think the all time epic was flying on a float plane into the wilds of Alaska and being dumped at a cabin. On that journey we saw Grizzly bears fishing for salmon and otters playing just a few metres away. Raw nature. Awesome!
Can you recommend other children’s books that you like to read?
I love the books of Philip Reeve and Sarah Macintyre, they are absolutely brilliant. And The 13-Storey Treehouse series is also superbly funny. As a one off book Wed Wabbit is also really worth a read.
What’s next on your adventure and writing agenda?
So far as writing is concerned it's full-on with the Popcorn-Eating Squirrels now. I want to build it into a series that kids will really enjoy. When it come to my own personal adventures I think I might be going back to Everest next year … watch this space!!
Kieron Black, a professional artist known around the world for his artwork, has signed with Shrine Bell, to write and illustrate a two-part children’s book series. The first book, The Goblin’s Blue Blanket, will be published in March 2019. With many strings to his creative bow, Black produces exceptional watercolour and acrylic mountain landscapes, cartoon strips, skateboard decks and book illustrations. He has illustrated many books throughout his career, but this is the first time his own words will be published alongside his colourful creations. Ogie is the goblin with the beloved blue blanket. When it goes missing, he and his cat, Gerald, go off in search for it but meanwhile miss out on the opportunities for adventure they are offered along the way. All parents will remember a time their child lost a much-treasured item, and for Black the inspiration for the book came when his daughter left her toy at a local fair and had to wait until the next day before she could retrieve it.
Black is thrilled to be collaborating with outdoor-adventure publisher Vertebrate Publishing, and believes it’s the perfect fit for the series. ‘Every time I'm in the hills, the Alps, the Mournes, wherever, I'm seeing Ogie, or something just like him, staring at me from behind some cairn or outcrop. It’s probably marmots, or sheep. But anyway, Ogie comes from the mountains. How perfect then that it should be Vertebrate – a publishing house steeped in the mountains – that picked up his story. I'm delighted.’
With Black’s full-colour, vibrant and magical illustrations alongside a poignant story with a moral, the Ogie stories promise to be a hit for all with an active imagination and sense of adventure.
Shrine Bell, the fiction imprint of outdoor specialist Vertebrate Publishing, is to release Popcorn-Eating Squirrels of the World Unite! – the first in a new two-part series by Matt Dickinson – in autumn 2018.
The narrative brings readers into the world of four unlikely heroes whose hunger-driven ambition to get hold of the Pop-O-Matic 3,000 machine causes popcorn pandemonium.
Thrilled to be working with Dickinson again on what will be his fifth book with Vertebrate, managing director Jon Barton said, ‘Matt Dickinson is one of Vertebrate Publishing’s most high-profile authors with a fantastic international reach. These will be his first books for primary school children, following on from his fantastically successful teen Everest Files trilogy. Matt’s vast experience working in schools with librarians and teachers made this deal so perfect for us.’
Dickinson’s filmmaking career as a director/cameraman for National Geographic television and the Discovery Channel has taken him to some of the most remote corners of the earth – often in the company of the world’s leading expeditioners. Inspired by his 1996 ascent of Mount Everest with actor Brian Blessed, Dickinson’s popular Everest Files series has seen him make appearances at hundreds of high schools across the UK and abroad in a bid to promote literacy and cross-curriculum learning. Now Dickinson has turned his hand to writing for primary school children with the aim of encouraging the younger generation to get reading.
When asked why he wanted to write a book about squirrels, Dickinson responded, ‘When I was young I really wanted to be a squirrel. I mean it. I totally did. My friends wanted to be dolphins and man-eating lions and Tyrannosaurus Rexes and so on, but me? Squirrel. One hundred per cent. What’s not to like? Shiny eyes. Fluffy, silky fur. They zoom about the trees with athletic grace, flying between branches with daredevil nonchalance. I wanted to write a series of illustrated titles with a strong identity to capture the imagination and with the potential for the next books to come out every four to six months.’
Popcorn-Eating Squirrels of the World Unite! will be published by Shrine Bell on 6 September.
Reissued this February with an all-new cover, Arrowhead, the third novel by award-winning author Ruth Eastham, awakens an ancient Viking curse, from which Jack and his friends must save the world. Weaving aspects of Norse mythology with race-against-the-clock tension as the modern world is turned on its head, Ruth draws you in to a thrilling emotional journey. We caught up with her to talk about character construction and what inspired her to write the book.
1. What was the inspiration for Arrowhead, have you always had an interest in Viking history?
Several ingredients were the inspiration for Arrowhead. One was a visit to the atmospheric Lindisfarne in Northumberland, the site of that notorious raid that kicked off the Viking Era. The other inspiration was when I read an article about a 5,000 year old man, Otzi, found in a melting glacier in the Alps, northern Italy. It’s a fascinating cold case murder story (!) and I was lucky enough to be able to visit the body. That got me thinking … If a 5,000 year-old body can be preserved in a glacier, what if …? What if the body of a young Viking was found, trapped for 1,000 years in the ice cave of a glacier? And then … How did he become trapped? What if his last act as he was dying was to carve runes in the ice, runes warning of some terrible danger? The rest, as they say, is history!
2. Your books always include a throwback to the past, do you enjoy the blend of ancient and contemporary or modernising well-known stories and retelling them anew?
My daughter thinks history is boring - but I keep telling her, it’s because she’s not being taught it in an inspiring way! History is part of us, and I find it fascinating to think about following the branches of my family tree further and further back in time and think about how my ancestors might have lived, and what it was like to be them. I enjoy exploring well-known stories from the past, and then thinking about how I can re-tell them with a twist.
3. You’re often praised for the believability of your characters. What advice can you give to budding authors struggling to bring their characters to life?
Thank you for saying so! Well, for me, the voice of a character has to be authentic, and distinct from the other voices in the story, as this marks out their personality. And – very important – your characters have to have flaws and failings, to make them believably human. But we need to like them too, and root for them, despite their sometimes getting things wrong, and they have to be pro-active and making decisions. And as for antagonists – even they have to have redeeming features!
4. The protagonists in your books have all been boys so far. Was this a conscious decision and do you think you might make a girl the central character in your next book?
In fact a recent book of mine, an illustrated short novel called The Moonlight Hare, has a girl as a main character! I really like the dynamics of the two boys and a girl trio. Actually all my books, without exception, have strong female characters vital to the plot, who are all very much major driving forces in the story. Lia in The Memory Cage, Sasha in The Messenger Bird, Emma in Arrowhead, Yara in The Jaguar Trials, and Emmi in The Warrior in the Mist.
5. What do you imagine happened to Jack and his friends after the final pages? Could they go back to living normal lives after such dramatic adventure?
Ah, well, that is for the reader to decide! I don’t think you could entirely go back to a normal life after being chased by murderous classmates, together with a blood-thirsty, resurrected Viking warrior, do you?! Tough things have happened to the characters, but I hope the ending is satisfying and meaningful for the reader, if not a total happily ever after.
After seeing the brilliant ideas designer Nathan came up with for the front cover of my first novel, The Memory Cage, I couldn’t wait to see his artwork for my brand new book, The Warrior in the Mist … And I wasn’t disappointed!
The galloping horse gives it a really dynamic feel, the surreal blue Will o’the Wisp flames add plenty of mystery, while the beautifully engraved Celtic sword gives that sense of drama and legend I was hoping for. Great job, Nathan!
For me, the minimal colour palette of silver, black, blue and red that Nathan has used adds real impact to the design. I love the way the blue flames glimmer, ghost-like, along the hilt of the sword. The silver foil stands out strikingly against the black background, as do the intriguing words in red: THE INVADERS ARE COMING. THE BATTLE IS ABOUT TO BEGIN. Love it!
Those of you who read The Warrior in the Mist will see the double-edged meaning of those particular phrases! Two thousand years ago it was Roman invaders the locals had to contend with. Now it’s a fracking company set to take over the land, and a modern-day fight of a very different kind. Main character, Aidan, risks losing everything: his family home, his friends, and the horse he loves.
“A thrilling page turner.” As a wonderful finishing touch, I was really honoured that multi-award-winning author, Gill Lewis, wrote a quote for the cover of The Warrior in the Mist. As one of the UK’s foremost writer of children’s books with animals at their heart, I’m thrilled she enjoyed it.
And so, what’s next? You may know that Shrine Bell are producing specially re-issued editions of all my books, which is very exciting. Next on the list is my Norse thriller Arrowhead, followed by The Messenger Bird and then The Jaguar Trails. Can’t wait to see them in print and for Nathan to work his artistic magic yet again!
To book Ruth for an author visit, visit her website: www.rutheastham.com.
Follow Ruth on Twitter: @rutheastham1.
In the second of two free extracts posted on our blog this week, children's author Ruth Eastham shares a sneak peak from her brand-new children's book, The Warrior in the Mist, which is set for release on 7 September. Enjoy!
‘Come on, Centurion!’ Aidan tugged at the rope, leading the horse across the meadow. ‘You need to get to your paddock!’
Aidan looked towards Carrus Woods, at the drilling tower beyond the trees. He felt the morning sun on his face. He should have been at the big anti-fracking demonstration ages ago. His mates Emmi and Jon would already be there, Dad too.
Fracking. Aidan remembered what he’d felt when he’d first read about it. Drilling long shafts deep underground. Blasting water into the shale rock to get the gas out.
He pulled the halter, harder than he’d meant to, and Centurion let out a rumbling snort. ‘Sorry, boy.’ Aidan gave him a hurried pat. ‘Easy.’
Horses whinnied loudly to them from the fence at the far side of the wide meadow. Firefly and Fenland Queen, two of the other horses on the Berryman estate where Aidan’s dad worked.
He felt a pang in his chest. Mum was gone, and soon the horses would be too.
Aidan’s eyes travelled over the brownish grass of the meadow. Light sparked off the water of its shrunken lake. A couple of magpies pecked the drought-cracked ground between gorse bushes. A hare ran across the space.
His mobile phone blared out from his pocket.
‘Where are you, Aidan?’ There were loud noises in the background, as if she was in the middle of a battlefield or something. ‘You need to get here fast. The trucks will be arriving any minute!’
‘You’re missing the action, Aide!’ Jon must have grabbed the phone off her. ‘It’s all turning nasty!’ he said enthusiastically.
‘Some important guy from Enershale is trying to talk to the crowds, but they keep shouting him down. And the press have just rolled up. You’re gonna lose your chance to be on the telly!’
Enershale. That was the big company with plans to do the fracking; what the protest was all about.
And the reason Dad was about to lose his job looking after the horses.
‘Just got to get Centurion in his paddock,’ Aidan told him.
‘He knocked over his food bucket and I had to spend ages … ’
Aidan’s low-battery warning gave a beep.
‘We need you!’ Emmi was back on the line. ‘We’ve got your protest placard here ready and … ’ A harsh honking drowned out her voice, one of those hooter things. The same sound, fainter, came at Aidan from across the woods. He thought about the slogan on his placard as he clicked off his phone:
DON’T TAKE OUR LAND!
‘Let’s go, Centurion!’ It was going to take forever to get all the way across the meadow at this rate. Centurion stamped a front hoof on the ground, looking across at the other horses, impatient to be with them.
Aidan fidgeted with the rope.
There was a faster way.
His heart beat hard. The last time Dad caught him riding Centurion, he’d not been happy. Given him a massive lecture about the horse being too big and headstrong and powerful for him. He’d been so overprotective and stuff since Mum … Aidan swallowed. Since Mum died.
And his dad’s boss, the landowner, Lord James Berryman, wouldn’t take kindly to anyone breaking the rules about riding.
Aidan pulled at his bottom lip. But what did he care about following Berryman’s rules? He was kicking Aidan and his dad off the estate as soon as the fracking started.
My business interests with Enershale have to be my focus from now on. Lord Berryman’s voice spooled through Aidan’s head. And the horse paddocks will be needed for the next phase of operations.
Aidan tried to push away his worries about leaving. He reached up to stroke the horse’s silky nose and felt a rush of hot breath on his fingers. He could control Centurion. He had before, plenty of times, when Dad was off working round the estate. There was no saddle, only the halter, and rope looped into makeshift reins; but still.
He slowly rubbed Centurion’s mahogany neck, talking quietly. The horse’s nostrils flared; his huge dark brown eyes glittered.
Aidan gripped a handful of black mane and vaulted on to his back. He pressed the horse’s flanks lightly with his heels and the animal gave an approving snort and immediately broke into a trot.
The hooter sounded again. Faint shouts could be heard from across the woodland. The waiting horses neighed. Centurion’s ears were laid back flat against his head and Aidan felt the pace increase a touch. He smiled at the feeling of movement rippling under him. Centurion might be past his prime, but he was far from past it!
Seconds passed. Shapes darted overhead; some kind of hawk, hunting down a smaller bird. The other horses were ahead of them, pressed together and skittish.
‘Steady!’ They were cantering now. Aidan leant back on the rope to ease Centurion up a bit, but the horse gave a stubborn toss of the head.
The sun was hot on the back of Aidan’s neck as he crouched forward, gripping tight with his knees. He glanced at the other horses, side by side watching.
Aidan pulled on the rope, trying to regain control. There was the noise of a helicopter approaching – a news team, maybe, heading for the protest – and Centurion’s body tensed. Aidan wrapped the cord around his fist. He pulled harder, the fibres digging into his hands, burning them.
The chopper skimmed overhead; the whirling blades blasting through the air, and Centurion shuddered with a wild energy. The horse put on a surge of speed.
‘Stop!’ Aidan’s heart pounded. Clumps of dry grass were torn up from the ground. The magpies rose into the air, cawing raucously.
The muscles along the horse’s neck quivered. Their merged shadows stretched ahead of them as Centurion raced forward. ‘Stop!’
They approached the lake in the middle of the meadow, hooves slamming against the ground. A line of cloud moved over the sun. Aidan heard Centurion’s sharp breaths; manic whinnying from the horses up ahead.
And then, in mid-gallop, without warning, fire flared up from the surface of the lake.
What the … ?
Two pale blue flames.
Centurion reared with a cry. The rope was wrenched from Aidan’s hands. He clung to the mane as the animal stumbled and swayed. ‘Centurion!’
Aidan lost his grip and was thrown. He slammed on to a gorse bush and rolled, one arm twisting; blurred twigs and thorns scratched his skin. He heard the thud of Centurion hitting the ground; a high-pitched neigh.
Aidan lay face down, chest heaving. The dry grass spiked his face, and he smelt the earthy tang of baked soil. He dragged himself up into a sitting position, then stumbled over to where Centurion was lying and knelt by his head. The horse’s dark eyes were wide, his mouth gnashing hard.
Aidan was vaguely aware of a pain in his arm; the other horses’ alarmed neighs. He saw a front leg, bent awkwardly; a smear of blood.
Centurion was trying to get up.
‘Keep still.’ Aidan stroked the horse’s clammy neck. ‘Don’t move.’ He felt a queasy panic as he thought about what a bad leg injury could mean. If a bone was broken. If the owner, Berryman, found out … What if he had Centurion put down; like Velvet Dancer had been that time?
Aidan stared at the lake. Fire on water? How could that have happened? He scrutinised the surface, but saw nothing more than grey-green wind ripples.
Aidan fumbled to pull his phone from his jeans pocket. His hands were shaking so much it was hard to swipe the screen. It seemed to ring for an age before it was answered.
‘Dad! It’s Centurion!’ The words came out in a garbled rush. ‘He’s hurt!’
‘Didn’t catch that, son.’ Dad sounded distant and there was shouting in the background. ‘Where … you?’ His voice was breaking up and there was a splutter of static. ‘Say … again.’
‘You have to come!’
‘What? … say – ’
The battery cut out.
Aidan turned back to Centurion, smoothing tangles from his mane. For a moment he was torn between going for help and staying to look after the horse.
‘It’ll be OK,’ he whispered. ‘It’ll all be … ’ His voice trailed off.
Those were the same words.
The exact same words Dad had told him, when Mum had first got ill.
And then he was on his feet and running – across the meadow. Sprinting over the parched grass towards Carrus Woods.