Happy Book Birthday to The Ravens’ Call!

It’s the first of two book birthdays this year for me. My book The Ravens’ Call is published today, and I’m really happy to see it out in the world. Click the link below to find out a bit more about it, and to purchase a copy if the mood takes you:

The Ravens’ Call is a banded reader, designed for use in a classroom setting, and it comes complete with brilliant resources at the back to aid pupils’ understanding of the story and their enjoyment of the themes around it. But you don’t have to be a pupil or a teacher to read or enjoy the short tale – it’s a great story about a brave girl named Alys, her clever raven friend Cuthbert (and all his raven friends), and their quest to find the King in time to deliver a very important message.

Will they reach him in time – and will the King heed the ravens’ call?

Cover of The Ravens’ Call, written by Sinéad O’Hart, illustrated by Maria Brzozowska, published by Harper Collins Children’s Books 2021.

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve found a copy of The Ravens’ Call on your travels, and particularly if you’ve used it with your class or read it with your own kids. I’m working on a selection of activities to complement the book, too, so keep an eye on my Resources page.

Happy book birthday to me!

Fan Mail!

I recently received a really lovely piece of fan mail from a reader named Ava. Here’s her letter, with some identifying bits covered with stickers:

I was very happy indeed to receive this gorgeous letter, which arrived via email – the picture was taken by Ava, or one of her adults – and I would love to respond, but Ava didn’t leave me her full postal address. If she happens to see this, and if she’d like to ask a grownup to send me a message with her full postal address so I can write back to her, that would be great.

It’s now my policy (which I’ve fully outlined on my ‘Contact Me’ page) not to respond privately to anyone who is under the age of 18, in order to be compliant with the best Child Protection guidelines.

So – in the hope that Ava will see this! – I wanted to reply to her here.

For those who might not be able to make out my scrawl, here’s what I wrote:

Dear Ava,

Thank you so much for your very kind letter! It was wonderful to receive. I’m very pleased you found my book in your school library – libraries are the best! – and that you enjoyed reading it.

I enjoyed writing ‘The Eye of the North’ very much, and the scene where Emmeline falls off the ladder is one of my favourites, too. I worked hard to make sure every chapter had an interesting bit in it and that there were plenty of moments where a reader might have guess what would happen next. It’s brilliant to know you enjoyed guessing, and that you thought the plot was interesting.

I have written another book called ‘The Star-Spun Web’, about Tess and her friends who must save the world – and lots of other worlds! – from a terrible war. In June 2021 I have another book being published which you might enjoy if you liked ‘The Eye of the North’ – I hope you’ll check it out!

Until then, thank you so much.

Yours in stories,

SJ O’Hart

Ava also said she liked books set in the North, so I’d like to recommend some books to her. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has a Northern setting for some of the story (and the books are amazing); you could also try Cathryn Constable’s The Pearl in the Ice, H.S. Norup’s The Missing Barbegazi and Claire Fayers’ The Accidental Pirates: Voyage to Magical North.

So, thanks to Ava – and thanks to all the children (and their grownups) who have ever been in touch with me regarding my books, my work, or anything else. It’s a great privilege to hear from readers, and one I never take for granted. Happy reading to Ava, and to everyone – stories rule!

WonderFest!

In case you hadn’t heard…

There’s a brand-new Festival in town!

Well. Technically, it’s in every town, everywhere, because – yes! – it’s Ireland’s First Digital Children’s Literature Festival. It’s called WonderFest. It’s happening very soon – like, next week, November 20th to November 22nd! It’s a celebration of Irish children’s literature, particularly of all the amazing books that have been published in 2020 so far. And it’s full of brilliant things like Go Animal Crackers – Animal Tales and Draw Along with Alan Nolan, Margaret Ann Suggs and Jennifer Farley! There’s also Eggcorns and Bumbumbees: Word and Art Play with Chris Judge! There’s Lunchtime Tales of Wonder with PJ Lynch, Kieran Fanning, Marianne McShane and Lindsay Sedgwick! There’s a Live Q&A with DEREK LANDY! There’s a Dead Zoo Draw-Along with Peter Donnelly! There’s another Lunchtime Tales of Wonder with Celine Kiernan, Eve McDonnell and Catherine Doyle!

I mean… I need to sit down after all that excitement. While I’m recovering, here’s a photo of the fab Alan Nolan, on the hunt for stories (as is his wont).

(Photo Credit: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland)

Loads of the events have already sold out, but never fear. There’s so much more still to explore. If you (or your grown-ups) have access to Zoom, then you’re all invited to take part in WonderFest. It’s going to be WonderFul, and so much fun. Get your tickets through the website, tune in at the right time, and a world of Wonder awaits…

#SignForOurBookshops

As Ireland and the UK re-enter Coronavirus/Covid-19 lockdown, many retail outlets not deemed ‘essential’ have had to close their doors again, or resume doing business online or via click-and-collect. One of these non-essential businesses, unfortunately, is my absolute favourite: Bookshops.

I’m not going to get into the philosophical ins-and-outs of how essential books are (to my mind, they’re next to air and food and water), because – of course – the primary consideration here is keeping bookshop staff and customers safe during this time of crisis. Having said that, though, there are a lot of people who do need books, and there are a lot of bookshops who desperately need customers, and so in order to do a small bit to help, the author Holly Bourne got several of us writery-types together in a campaign to help bookshops and customers survive Lockdown II. I’m proud to be doing a small bit to help.

The campaign involves authors committing to send signed bookplates to customers who buy their books from an independent bookshop during the period of lockdown, and/or sending signed bookplates to bookshops who’d like some (while stocks last!) So, in order to play my part, I’m offering to send a signed bookplate to the first ten customers in the UK or Ireland who:

  • Buy one (or both) of my books from an independent bookshop (ideally) during the period of lockdown in their country;
  • Send me a photo of their proof of purchase, along with their postal address and the name/s they’d like me to put on the bookplate/s;
  • Are willing to wait a week or two to receive their post from me (soz).

I’ll also be reaching out to some of my favourite bookshops to see if they’d like a bookplate or two, but if you’re reading this and you’re running an indie bookshop anywhere in Ireland or the UK and you’d like a couple of signed bookplates from me, drop me a line.

This CONTACT ME page is the best way to get in touch. https://sjohart.wordpress.com/contact-me/

Some other things to consider:

For the purposes of this campaign, books bought on Amazon or Book Depository won’t count (though I thank you very much for your purchase). The campaign aims to support bricks-and-mortar bookshops.

I’m happy to send a bookplate in whichever design you prefer – I have a snazzy blue-and-tentacle one for The Eye of the North and a super-dooper gold-purple-starry-webby one for The Star-Spun Web, but neither plate has the name of the book on it so feel free to take your pick.

Stocks of bookplates are, sadly, limited so, if you’d like one, the sooner the better you get in touch.

Follow along on Twitter – the hashtag is #SignForOurBookshops – and if you fancy shouting about the campaign and throwing us a bit of support, that would be fab.

Meanwhile: Keep on reading!

Some Recent Reads

I’m lucky enough to be on the radars of several Very Important Publicists (and fellow authors), so occasionally I’m contacted and asked to read proofs, and/or early copies, of forthcoming books. I can’t always say ‘yes’ to these generous offers, but I do my best to accommodate requests as often as I can. It’s a huge privilege, for which I’m very grateful.

The cover of the proof of GLASSHEART, by Katharine Orton, art by Sandra Dieckmann, to be published by Walker Books UK in November 2020

Glassheart

One of the brilliant books I’ve read in the past few weeks was Glassheart, by Katharine Orton, which is coming from Walker Books UK in November this year. I loved Katharine’s debut, Nevertell, and her second novel is even better – a heartfelt, poignant and powerful story about grief, and war, and the power of sadness to both build up and to destroy. It tells the story of Nona, niece to a master glazier, who helps him work to try to repair the damaged windows in buildings torn by war. On a new job in Dartmoor, they encounter strange and inexplicable magic, which seems to have taken over Nona’s uncle. It’s up to Nona to get to the bottom of the mystery of the wild power, and to unravel its connection to the windows her uncle is labouring to complete. This book is a solid 5/5 for me – I loved it, and I can’t wait until it’s out for everyone to enjoy.

Return to Roar

Anyone who (like me) loved Jenny McLachlan’s The Land of Roar last year will absolutely devour the sequel, Return to Roar. Crowky, one of the best and scariest villains around, makes a welcome – or unwelcome – return, and the story is stuffed with the same spills, thrills, and wildly imaginative adventures as the first book. Arthur and Rose are on a week’s holidays in Grandad’s house, and so what better way to fill their days than to make a return visit to the land of imagination they cooked up as younger children, and which somehow exists for real through the special portal in Grandad’s attic. They think Crowky is gone, but then they realise he may not be – and that the key to him finding his way back through the portal and into the Real might be dangerously close… Another 5-star read for me, Return to Roar is currently available.

The Hungry Ghost

H.S. Norup’s The Hungry Ghost is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time – certainly, it’s one of my favourites from this year. Telling the tale of Danish girl Freja, who arrives in Singapore during Hungry Ghost month, it’s an incredibly well-crafted story of family, loss, grief, and love – as well as having a healthy dollop of adventure, mystery, and intrigue, too. Freja meets an enigmatic, mysterious, and not a little spooky girl in a white dress during her time in Singapore, and alongside her new friend discovers hidden secrets in this new city, as well as an entirely forgotten chapter to her family history. You may need tissues by the end… The Hungry Ghost is genuinely stunning, with evocatively-written settings and extraordinary character building. An absolute 5-star read.

The House at the Edge of Magic

Amy Sparkes’ The House at the Edge of Magic is a delight. Coming next January from Walker Books UK, it’s a genuinely funny story, but not one lacking in stakes, excitement, or pathos. We follow Nine, a pickpocket who lives in the Nest, a run-down ‘shelter’ for pickpockets like her, where their bed and board must be paid for with trinkets and treasures. Nine only has one treasure, which she’s had since she was a baby, and she hasn’t been lucky, lately, with the pockets she’s tried to pick. Then, she sees a young lady in the streets and tries to steal from her, only to discover a tiny house in her pocket – which very rapidly grows into a huge house, home to Flabberghast the magician and his motley crew of raggle-taggle beasties. This story had me glued to the pages, with a grin on my face throughout. If you’re a fan of Diana Wynne Jones, particularly Howl’s Moving Castle, this book should definitely appeal.

Elsetime

Eve McDonnell’s debut novel Elsetime is nearly among us! In fact, I think my pre-ordered copy is already on its way to me… *excited face* I was lucky enough to be asked to read the proof of Eve’s book several months ago, and it has stayed with me ever since. Her characters – particularly her gorgeous-hearted, brave, stalwart Needle, and feisty apprentice jewellery-maker Glory Bobbin – are wonderfully crafted, and this twisty, fast-paced story will keep you guessing right to the end. A time-slip adventure, utilising a very clever mechanism for travelling from one era to the other, Elsetime is the tale of Needle, a mudlark, who discovers a very unusual treasure in the muck one day – a treasure that brings him somewhere he could never have imagined, tasked with saving people from a flood only he knows is going to happen. Based on real events around the Great Flood of London in 1928, this is a unique and memorable book – which should be available very soon!

These are only a flavour of the excellent books I’ve been treated to over the past few months, but I hope they’ll give you some inspiration to go out (or stay home) and support your local independent bookshops; they need the help, and your brain needs these stories. Happy reading!

Skin

Last week, my family suffered a bereavement so profound, I don’t know if any of us will ever fully recover. This person was actually the second member of our family to pass away since the start of 2020, both of them young people, both of them parents, both of them loved and missed and cherished. It’s been a hard year, so far. A few nights ago, I found my mind wandering back to my childhood, and I remembered this story – one which I’d had published in a now-defunct online zine called wordlegs back in 2013. It’s one I feel a deep attachment to, because it came directly from my memories of being a little girl. Somehow, despite the story’s subject, it brought me comfort; it brought me back to a time when my lost family members lived and breathed and shone with the beauty of their youth. I’m proud of it. The story’s no longer available anywhere online, so I’m republishing it here, with thanks to Elizabeth Reapy, wordlegs‘ editor, who was the first person to see potential in it. Thanks, Elizabeth. (Coincidentally, Elizabeth’s second novel shares a name with this story, though they’re not similar in any other way! I recommend you check it out, along with her first novel, Red Dirt.)

A rabbit on a background of grass

Photo by Christopher Paul High on Unsplash.com

Skin

When I was a child, I had an uncle who hunted. He lived next door in what had been my grandmother’s house, which meant I saw him a lot; somehow, though, we never talked much. He had hounds who followed his every move like acolytes worshipping at the feet of a god, despite the fact that all he did was kick them and call them filthy names. Whenever he walked by their cage, they’d eat each other for the chance to get near him, and they’d howl like nothing on earth. Hearing it made my chest tighten up, like I’d suddenly taken a breath of cotton wool. My mother was always asking him to come in and have dinner, just to come next door for a little while and sit with his family, but he never did. He liked to eat with his memories instead, which didn’t bother me.

I thought my uncle was cruel, though people laughed at me for being ‘soft’.

‘Go on, you old eejit,’ my mother would say. ‘There’s many a dinner we owe to that uncle of yours.’

‘But he hurts his dogs,’ I protested.

‘Arragh, now. Dogs are used to that sort of thing. And anyway, they’re working dogs, duck. They’re not pets.’

I knew that. I knew they didn’t sit in front of his fire at night, snoring gently in the heat, like our dog did. And still, I worried about them.

I worried about everything.

 

About five weeks after my father’s accident, I came home from school to find Mam crying quietly in the sitting room. I stood in the doorway watching her for a while, feeling dizzy and far away. Eventually, she looked up, and she jumped a bit when she saw me.

‘Jesus! Pet, don’t stand there like that. You frightened the life out of me.’ She laughed, a short and hard sound, like a pebble in a shoe; then she hurried to wipe her eyes, rubbing them roughly with the tea-towel she still had in her hands.

‘What’s wrong, Mammy?’ I asked, afraid of what she might tell me.

‘Ah, now. Nothing at all. I just got a bit sad.’ She slapped her hands against her thighs, shoving herself upright in a businesslike, everything-is-great manner. ‘Will we get the dinner on? Are you hungry?’ She messed my hair as she strode past me towards the kitchen. ‘Did you have a good day in school?’

‘Mam, is Daddy all right?’

‘Grand, love! He’s grand!’ she said. But she didn’t turn around and tell me to my face, and that’s how I knew she was lying. She had a thing about looking people in the eyes when she was telling them the truth.

 

My father worked in a factory that handled heavy chemicals. I didn’t know then, and I still don’t really know now, exactly how his accident happened, but it had something to do with a pressure gauge and an over-filled tank, and probably his own negligence in not wearing his safety gear. He’d often told me he and the other men didn’t bother with things like eyeguards and ear-protectors.

‘Sure, I have to be able to hear if the machines are labouring,’ he explained to me once. ‘How can I do that, if I’m all muffled up? If I can’t hear the motor, it could go, and it could kill the man standing beside it. My ears’ll be nice and warm, but someone else’ll be going home on a shovel.’

But it had been my dad who’d been rushed out of the plant in a screaming ambulance, one which had hit the road in spots as it flung itself around the bends on its way to Dublin. It had been him who’d been burned, him whose flesh had melted. Him who was driven out of his mind with the pain.

Him.

Mam hadn’t let me see him for ages, and when I was allowed to visit all I could think about was mummies in ancient Egypt. We’d been doing them in school. Dad’s bandages looked cleaner and whiter, I thought. Other than that, he’d do in a museum.

‘I love you, Daddy.’ I remember telling the tiny square of scarlet I could see peeping out between the swathes of material. ‘I love you.’ I wanted to kiss him, but Mam told me ‘no’. Dad told me nothing, because he couldn’t talk. Anyway, I don’t think he was even awake.

‘Good girl,’ said Mam as we left the hospital, ready for the long journey home. ‘You did very well.’

I wondered all the way home what I could have done better.

 

I was at the kitchen table one evening trying to think about my maths homework when I heard the keening of my uncle’s hounds. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Mam, who was sitting at the far end of the table over a cold cup of tea said, ‘He’s home early. He must’ve had a good hunt.Why don’t you go and have a look, and say hello?’

I swallowed as she spoke, my spit tasting sharp and sour. ‘But Mam – I’m doing my homework, I have loads.’

‘It’s Friday, hon. You’ve plenty of time to do your homework. And your uncle’s been so good. Go and say hello, he’d love it. He’s very fond of you, you know.’

‘No, he isn’t,’ I said. ‘He hates me.’

‘Now, that’s just silly.’ She got up, grabbing her cup of tea, and crossed to the sink to throw it away. ‘Go on outside now, just for a few minutes, and I’ll have a treat for you when you come back in.’

‘What sort of a treat?’ I didn’t move from my perch in front of my copy book. I drew a line under my sums, carefully, and kept working. I still couldn’t add up properly without drawing dots beside the numbers like a baby out of Senior Infants, but at least I’d learned to draw them lightly so I could rub them out afterwards. I hated maths, but it was my dad’s favourite thing in the world besides rock and roll. I wanted to show him how good I was at adding and multiplying when he came home from the hospital.

‘God, Claire, I don’t know,’ snapped Mam. ‘A bit of apple tart. I’ll make you some custard. All right? Just go on outside, just for a few minutes, and talk to your uncle. I’ll call you when you can come back in.’

I slapped my copy book shut and shoved myself out from the table, making the legs of my chair stutter and skip along the lino. The sound of it normally drove Mam crazy. Today, she said nothing. She just stood and watched me as I stamped over to the back door and wrenched it open.

‘Good girl. I’ll only need a minute.’

 

I crept out of our back yard and into the lane, watching my uncle beat his dogs into his garden. It wasn’t a bit like ours, full of greenery and flowers; my uncle had covered his over with roughly-finished concrete after my granny had died, the shed that had been her pride and joy now a falling-down monstrosity beside the pristine dog pen. I hung close to our back door until he’d corralled the last hound, thwacking and slapping at them with a thick stick, shouting until they listened to his voice over the red-misted pounding of their own hearts.

They all had names, these dogs, despite the fact that all my uncle ever did was abuse and hurt them. But he gave them all names.

Over his garden wall, a clutch of freshly-caught rabbits lay. I didn’t touch them, but I felt sure they’d be still warm and supple, their eyes still bright. Perhaps their last breath hadn’t been fully exhaled. I felt a sour taste in my mouth again, and I swallowed hard against the rush of sudden liquid up my throat.

‘Howya,’ said my uncle as he slid home the lock on his garden gate, nodding vaguely in my direction. I returned the greeting, and perched on our back step to watch him. I tried to think about things I could say to him, but he made me scared, so I didn’t say anything.

He started to sing under his breath, huffing out through his nose, as he grabbed his huge knife from its holder on his belt. He wiped the blade once or twice on his trouser leg before severing the twine that bound the rabbits together. They plopped wetly onto the stone slabs he’d untidily cemented on the top of the wall.

Despite myself, I watched.

‘Time to drop your drawers,’ my uncle muttered, taking one of the rabbits in his hand. He held it up, the rabbit swinging gently as he turned it this way and that, appraising it. Then, he laid it flat on the wall and swiftly, as easily as if he was tying his shoelaces, he ran the knife around the rabbit’s legs, one at a time. He worked at the carcass with his fingers for a few minutes, the movement looking almost gentle.

When he pulled at the rabbit’s pelt, ripping it away from the body like he was removing a sock, I screamed so loudly that I gave him a fright. He dropped the knife and turned to stare at me. Perhaps he’d forgotten I was there.

It was the redness. The rawness of the flesh. The muscles, clearly visible; the sinews and tendons. The colour, so private and painful. Something I should not be able to see. White bandages flashed into my mind, white bandages and scarlet skin. Scarlet skin and pain, and pain equalling death.

I ran for the door to my house, slamming it, not caring about the noise.

My mother was on the phone in the hall, clutching the tea-towel to her eyes. I ignored her and ran for my room.

 

‘Claire,’ I heard her say, much later. ‘Come out here, please.’ My closed door muffled her voice.

I was buried in my duvet, my face swollen and sore. I’d cried all evening. My mother’s phone call had been brought to a swift end after I’d burst back into the house, but she’d mentioned ‘doctor’ and ‘treatment,’ and she’d wept, before she’d been able to hang up. I’d stuffed my head under my pillow, trying not to hear, but I had anyway.

‘Claire,’ she said again, knocking gently. ‘Come on, please. I want to speak to you, young lady.’

Every muscle ached. I felt like a piece of paper, crumpled up so badly it could never sit flat again. I stumbled to the door and pulled it open. My Mam’s eyes were full of tears, and that set me going again. I let her wrap me up in a hug, her belly warm and soft. I tried not to wet her jumper, but I didn’t really manage it. My face was soaking, and covered in snot.

‘Your uncle is downstairs, love. He wants to talk to you.’

My heart jolted, and I shook my head, grinding my eyes shut. My mother soothed my sobbing shoulders, stroking me gently. She kissed the top of my head. ‘Shush, now. He wants to say sorry.’

She evicted me from the embrace and stood me back from her, arm’s-length away. She rubbed my clammy cheeks with her rough thumbs.

‘Try and smile, pet. Try and be nice.’

I nodded, two more hot, fat tears spilling out. Mam wiped them away.

 

My uncle stood in the kitchen, looking out of place. It was like seeing a clown saying Mass. He had his flat cap scrunched in his hands, and something else too. I couldn’t see it properly.

‘Claire, Uncle Paddy has something he wants to give you,’ Mam said.

I glanced up at my uncle’s sun-darkened face. I noticed, for the first time in my life, that he had bright blue eyes. Brighter even than Dad’s.

‘I’m awful sorry, duck,’ said my uncle. His spoke quiet and low and liquidy, like he had a cold. ‘I should’ve thought.’

I felt Mam shove me from behind, her fingers sharp in my back.

‘That’s all right, Uncle Paddy,’ I said. I ran my fingers over my hot and sticky cheeks, wiping away the last traces of tears, suddenly feeling shy.

‘Here you are. Your Da was always saying how much you loved reading. I haven’t a lot of time for it myself any more.’ He cleared his throat with a sound like someone taking their foot out of a cowpat and held out a roughly-wrapped brown paper parcel.

‘What do you say, Claire?’ Mam asked.

I looked up at my uncle again. He had grey in his hair, all around his ears just like dad had, and soft wrinkles around his eyes that were so familiar.

I ran my hands along the jagged edges of the tape he’d used to wrap up my gift. ‘Thank you,’ I whispered.

‘Now,’ he said. ‘I’ll be gettin’ on, so.’

‘Will you not stay for your dinner, Paddy? I’ve plenty in the pot.’

‘Not at all, not at all. Sure I’ve my own bit made, inside. I’m grand altogether.’

‘All right so, Paddy. If you’re sure,’ said Mam, eventually.

My uncle nodded and started twisting his cap again, looking down at his muck-encrusted boots. ‘I’m after draggin’ half the field in here,’ he said.

‘Never you mind. It’s only a bit of muck. It’ll all be grand. Won’t it, Claire?’

I smiled up at my uncle, and he nodded at Mam before throwing me a wink. I clutched my book to my chest as my uncle turned towards the door.

‘Yes, Mam,’ I said, as my uncle slipped out the back door into the evening.

 

 

Winner, Winner, Monster Dinner!

Hello, all. I hope everyone’s coping with whatever version of the Covid-19 Lockdown is happening in your country; things here in Ireland are locked down pretty tightly, but so long as more people are staying healthy and well, it’s worth it.

Thanks to everyone who entered my recent Creativity Competition – I hope it gave you all a little joy, and something to while away an hour or two. I hope it showed you, too, that books are a wonderful spark for creativity of all sorts. Reading them and letting your imagination fly while you soar through the adventure in their pages is (of course) the absolute best, but when you’re finished reading there are always questions you can ask yourself about what you’ve read, pictures you can draw, projects you can undertake, and models you can make. The possibilities are endless.

And so, the announcement you’ve all been waiting for *mild fanfare*…

The winners of the competition are the creators of this amazing pair of monsters, who go by the names of ‘Bob’ and ‘Bob’. They’re Abominable Vampzooloos, which is simply the best name I’ve ever heard for any monster anywhere, and the entry came with a heartwarming story about how Bob met a little girl in a forest, who was the only person who saw him for the brilliant creature that he was – and ‘to this day, Bob and the girl are friends.’ Well, of course they are.

Winning Entry No 1 (Loftus)

Image: S Loftus

This wondrous entry was made on behalf of a young lady by her mum, Sarah, and she wins a hardback copy of The Starspun Web – along with my everlasting admiration.

The other winning entry is this marvel:

Winning Entry No 2 (James)

Image: L James

This fearsome Cloud Spider came with his very own OSCAR Case File, which added a certain je ne sais quoi to the entry (as Madame Blancheflour would probably have said). The Cloud Spider’s creator is named Liam, and he will win a hardback copy of The Eye of the North, as well as my fondest wishes.

Thanks once again to everyone, particularly Bob, Bob, and the Cloud Spider, for giving me such joy over the past few weeks. I’m sending everyone positivity, creativity, solidarity, and peace of mind as the next few months roll by – we’ll all get there, together. And always remember: keep reading. Stories will get you through.

Competition Time!

So – it’s a strange world we’re living in right now. I’m mostly at home these days, as my child’s school has been closed due to the current Coronavirus/Covid-19 outbreak, and I’m privileged (and very glad) to be in the position to take up full-time care. However, life does and must go on; I still have a book deadline to make (I hope I’ll be able to tell you more about my upcoming projects soon), and the world has to keep turning.

All schools in the Republic of Ireland are currently closed, in the hope that it will help to slow the spread of the virus, and it’s possible that schools in the United Kingdom will follow suit in the coming days. As a result of this, authors and artists and performers and other creatives all over the internet have decided to offer free content to help keep children amused, entertained, and (most importantly) creating during the time they’re at home. I have a Resources page – click this link here to pay it a visit – which might help with that, and I also wanted to run a competition…

So. In the interests of fostering creativity, and of celebrating the fact that I was recently shortlisted for a fantastic competition (the KPMG Children’s Books Ireland Award) here’s what I’m proposing.

Prize Picture

I have a couple of hardback US editions of The Eye of the North and some of The Starspun Web knocking about, and I’d very much like to send one copy of each to a pair of good homes. (Winners can choose which book they’d like, of course.) I’ll also throw in some signed bookplates and a poster, which I’ll gleefully make out in the name of the winner’s choice (as in, if you don’t want them for yourself, just tell me who to sign them to and I will). The catch?

Well. The catch, if you choose to see it that way, is you’ve got to get creative. On my Resources page you’ll see fact sheets, a word-search, a colouring page, and some suggestions for activities. Based on these suggested activities, I’d like entrants to take their pick from one of the following small projects, and get their thinking caps on.

The Eye of the North-based activities

1. Based on this Resources page, design your own mythical monster and write a story or a poem about it. I’d love to see you make a model of your monster, perhaps from modelling clay or paper or tinfoil or whatever you have to hand, and I’d really love to see you write your story, or poem, out by hand with your own drawings dotted through the text. And if you’re feeling extra-adventurous, recite your story or poem for your friends and family!

2. Based on this Resources page, draw your own dog-sled team and pick names for all your dogs. You can have as few as two or as many as twelve, and they can be called whatever you like! Have a read of the Resources page for more information about the things you need to think about when naming and positioning your dogs, and for a true story in which sled dogs and their humans saved the day, and then come up with an emergency situation, where you and your dog team are all that can save your people from certain doom… I’d love to see drawings as well as stories told in words. Give it a go!

3. Take a look at the activities on this Resources page. If you’d like to tackle the first one – thinking about ways, big and small, in which we can all help to tackle climate change – that would be fantastic. You can tell me about the climate change activists who inspire you, as well as the kind of things you and your family are doing every day to help things to get better, and the kind of things we can all do (citizens and government alike) to help the planet. Drawings, models, diagrams, charts, words – they’re all good. Show me what you’ve got.

4. You could also tackle the other activities on the Climate Change Resources page and imagine you’re a creature who has always lived in a cold, icy environment. You can choose to be a real creature, or you can create one from your imagination. Then, think about the ways climate change might affect or impact you and your way of life. Draw me pictures of your creature, make a model of it from whatever you’ve got, go wild.

The Starspun Web-based activities

1. Check out my Resources page about the North Strand Bombing, which happened in Dublin in 1941. This real-life tragedy is part of the plot of The Starspun Web. I’d love it if you could imagine yourself into the night of the bombing and write your own story – I’ve given a few ideas for starting points in the Resources, but you can imagine it any way you like. On the Resources page there are some links where you’ll find out more information about the bombing; they might help you to create your story. You don’t have to set it in Dublin; it can be set wherever you like. Don’t worry about getting it ‘right’; it’s your imagination, there’s no right and wrong. And, as always, if you fancy drawing me some pictures to illuminate your tale, I’d be thrilled with that.

2. Or, if you fancy getting stuck into thinking about alternate realities and other worlds, check out this Resources page – it talks about a famous scientist who spent several years in Dublin (and who is mentioned, tangentially, in the opening pages of my book), and his work in the many-worlds theory. For this exercise, I’d like you to open your imagination as wide as it can go, and design your own alternate universe. It can have anything you like – trees made of custard, creatures with woolen teeth, whatever you can dream up – and tell me how you’d get from our world to your alternate reality. Pictures would be great – draw me a graphic novel! – but whatever way you do it, I want to know about the other worlds inside your mind.

3. Next, there’s the Resources page that focuses on the Tunguska Event, which – as you might remember, if you’ve read The Star-spun Web – forms part of the plot to my own book. If you’d like to imagine that you were there on the ground in Tunguska on June 30th 1908, and write me a story (with pictures!) to describe what it was like and what you saw, that would be amazing. If you’d prefer to imagine you’re in your own house when a meteorite comes crashing through your front room, that’s amazing too. Tell me the story, draw me the picture, make a model meteorite. Whatever you like!

4. Last, but by no means least, there’s this fab Resources page all about tarantulas. (Be warned: there’s a photo of a spider on the page.) Have a read through the facts, and then take a look at the activities. If you want to tell me about the animal you’d choose to bring with you on your adventure, that’d be amazing. Tell me what the adventure is, what your animal is, what its name is, and why you chose it, and then write me the story of your adventure – with pictures, if you can. Or, you can design your own tarantula – either an animal, or a tarantula-shaped vehicle, or a tarantula-based character, or whatever you like – and tell me a story about it. Are you going to be the hero, or the villain? Pictures, models, diagrams are all welcome.

So. Some ground rules for the competition:

You don’t have to complete an activity for the book you want to win. So, if you fancy winning The Eye of the North but one of the activities for The Starspun Web strikes your fancy more, or vice-versa, that’s absolutely fine. Go for whatever one you like the best.

Please ask your grown-ups to send photos of your work to sjohart @ sjohart . com (no spaces) or send it via Twitter, tagging me (my handle is @SJOHart), so that I can see it, if they don’t mind it being publicly visible. You can ask them to hashtag it #TheEyeOfTheNorth or #TheStarSpunWeb if they like.

I’d like to be able to share some photos of the entries I receive on my social media profiles. I won’t share anything personal (so, no faces or names), but if you don’t want me to share the stuff you send me, please do let me know when you enter. It’s not a problem at all.

On your entry, let me know which book you’d prefer. I’ll draw one winner for The Eye of the North and one for The Starspun Web.

I’m going to leave this competition open until May 1st, and I’ll draw a winner from the entries after that. Then, assuming no delays with the postal system, I’ll get the prizes sent out as soon as I possibly can.

Does all this sound good? Let me know if you have questions. Share the competition far and wide – it’s open to adults and children alike, or even adults and children working together. I really hope it helps you to spend some time creating something new, using your brilliant brains and stretching your imaginations, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what you come up with.

Ready – Set – Create!

 

World Book Day 2020!

One of the greatest joys about being a children’s author is getting to meet actual children – and when you get the chance to meet some actual children on World Book Day, it’s a hundred times more wonderful. Yesterday, which was World Book Day in Ireland and the UK, I was lucky enough to do just that!

My books – plus my travelling companion, Violet the Tarantula!

I’m lucky that the town I live in, while small, has a wonderful primary school. It’s large and airy, full of light and the sound of laughter and learning, and the walls are covered with art and projects and wonderful messages about self-belief, love, caring for others, and looking after our planet. It’s a fantastic place to spend a day, and when you get the chance to visit and talk about books, things just go super-nova cool.

I was asked to give three author assemblies, or author talks, yesterday, so bright and early I packed up my things – including Violet the tarantula – and off we went. We brought some slides with pictures of my childhood, the books I loved when I was little, and the stories which inspired me to write books of my own, and which helped me to be the person I am today. I got the chance to talk about my own stories, The Eye of the North and The Star-Spun Web, and I was delighted to answer brilliant questions like ‘what’s your favourite mythical beast?’ ‘Will you name a character in your next book after me?’ and ‘What age are you really?’ We talked about books, and stories, and creativity, and (because the school’s theme for World Book Week was ‘Curious Creatures and Wild Minds’) we had some brilliant chats about mythical monsters, amazing animals, and how to grow and nurture our wild, creative minds.

There’s nothing better than looking into an audience of young faces and seeing their bright eyes as they think about ways in which to find and encourage their own spark of unique brilliance, and it’s a privilege to be able to tell them all how they are all rocketships of potential, just waiting to do amazing things. ‘Each of you will change the world,’ I like to say, at the end of my author talk, ‘and I can’t wait to see what you’ll do with your wild and precious spark, the unique fire that’s in each of your hearts.’

So – what are you going to do today with your wild and precious spark? Go forth and be a Storyfinder, soaking up the world around you, and see how many stories you can create!

Thank you to the staff, teachers, and pupils of St Mary’s Primary School for making me so welcome yesterday, and for giving me a glimpse into the creative wonder that is their school. I hope to come back again very soon!

The Starspun Web hits North America

I’m a day late with this, but… well. Life. It gets in the way sometimes, right? Right. On with the show,

Yesterday, November 12th, those lovely lot at Knopf Books for Young Readers in New York City published my second book, The Starspun Web. (For reasons best known to themselves, my US editors removed the hyphen from the title, but I’m happy with that.) Here they are, my US book babies. Don’t they look pretty?

The Eye of the North had a cover designed by Jeff Nentrup, a US-based artist; its younger sibling The Starspun Web‘s cover echoes the UK edition, and in both cases the artist was Sara Mulvanny. I’m so pleased and proud with how they turned out, and I hope they’ll brighten up shelves in bookstores all across North America.

If you’d like to add my new book to your own shelves, here’s the link to buy it at Barnes and Noble, and here’s the link to buy it via Indiebound, and here’s the link to buy it at Powell’s, and here’s Amazon’s link, if that’s your preference. Thank you so much to everyone who has helped me to bring this book to publication – it’s a long hard journey, and every bit of support is invaluable.