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Middle Grade, Reviews, Young Adult

The Three Hares – Interview with the authors

Part two of The Three Hares Trilogy by Scott Lauder and David Ross was released in May 2021. Set in the modern day USA, this quest fantasy series plunges us back in time, first to ancient China in book one, and then to travel along the Silk Road in book two, mixing worlds together with magic and a mysterious quest. I spoke to authors Scott Lauder and David Ross about the series.

Hi Scott and David, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me about the Three Hares Trilogy. Could you tell us a bit about the books? What is the inspiration behind the story and had you always planned to publish it as a three-part series?

Scott: The books are historical fantasy adventures, which is quite a mouthful, I know. Once we had a firm grasp of the general trajectory of the books – the Three Hares completing their individual tasks, the Three Hares meeting, the Three Hares defeating an evil shaman and a gang boss – it was clear that one book would not be enough and that a trilogy best fitted the scope and theme.

David: Scott invited me onto this project after a discussion he had with Archna Sharma [publisher at Neem Tree Press]. The initial spark for the series was a question they raised: What would happen if a person could enter a work of art? Archna already had a painting in mind – the Qingming Scroll, a beautiful 12th century silk painting depicting a Spring festival in China. It’s a dramatic narrative unto itself! Once we began working on it, we saw possibilities connecting the story inside the artwork with the lives of the characters outside. I’ve been to China a number of times and am familiar with Chinese culture and mythology, but our research turned up so many interesting concepts and details to integrate. We got excited as the adventure began to take shape, so much so that our vision for the book expanded. What if other teens entered other artworks? What if they were being guided to help them stop a plot that endangered them in the real world? What if …? 

Scott: When I met Archna Sharma ages ago in Dubai at the very start of the project, I was immediately enthused by what she proposed. It was an intriguing puzzle: how to create an exciting, fictional series of books that would attract and entertain younger readers but also encourage them delve into different cultures and historical periods. I found the three hares symbol, the oldest known one is in the Mogao cave complex in China, while searching for a unifying theme for the books. Hopefully, the stories and the symbol will inspire younger readers to find out more about other cultures, periods in history, countries. If it does, I’ll be delighted: there is so much in the books that could be explored further: China, the Silk Road, Constantinople, the terracotta warriors, and the history of silk to name a few.

Claire: I’ve read from your online biographies that you have both travelled extensively. Could you tell us a little about your experiences and how much of an impact your travels have had on your writing?

Scott: David is more familiar than me with China having worked there, but we both have experience of living and working in Asia. In fact, it was as English teachers working in Japan that we first met. One of the great joys I have as a traveller is reading up on the history of a country or city before I visit it. Istanbul is a classic example. It was amazing to read about the history of this great city and then walk its streets, see its walls, stand beside its ancient monuments, enter its palaces. And it was a delight when I figured out how I could incorporate Constantinople, as it was then, into Sanjeev’s story.

David: I’ve been fascinated by Asia for a long time. Scott and I actually met in Japan about 30 years ago, where we both teaching English. We lost track of one another for a while after that, and it was a real delight getting back in touch. I stayed in Japan for 10 years, traveled through Asia, Africa, and Europe and eventually began teaching in the US, doing summers in China and Indonesia. I’m sure readers will find Asian cultures as fascinating as I do if they get a chance to read about them! 

Claire: In your books, the protagonist Sara lives in the USA and has dual Chinese and Scottish heritage while Sanjeev is Indian-American. How important was it to have protagonists of colour and as two white writers, how do you ensure your portrayal of those characters is authentic?

David: Scott and I consider authenticity very important and take great care in how we represent others and make every effort to take into account their cultural heritages, gender, age. Not only do we draw upon our own experiences in these cultures, but we do extensive research as well. 

Scott: I wouldn’t pretend that our portrayals are anything other than fictional accounts, and that Sanjeev, Sara, and Salma are fictional characters drawn from groups of people whose lives and experiences may be very different to our own. As such, it is quite possible that we have made errors – omissions, assumptions, generalisations. I think we should hold up our hands and acknowledge that. But – and it’s an important but – I also feel a work of fiction should not be constrained by the fear that mistakes will be made. Our characters are (fictional) human beings. We may not get everything right about their lives, but I hope a generous reader will forgive our trespasses and acknowledge the great, even inspirational, qualities Sara, Sanjeev, and Salma have. Finally, I should also add that it was very useful having someone like Archna, our publisher, and Shabnam, my wife, there to guide us.

Claire The Three Hares Trilogy takes us back in time and draws on Chinese mythology and the Silk Road. Have you always been interested in history? Did you have to do a lot of research to ensure that the factual elements of the story were accurate?

Scott: A fair bit of research was required, yes. Both David and I have doctorates, so we are used to doing some research. Having said that, we aren’t infallible (obviously) and we are both working full-time, so it’s not always easy to find the time or energy to delve as deeply or as frequently into the various historical periods as one would like. As for me, history has been an interest since I took first and second-year courses in British Medieval History and European History at university. Sadly, there were no World History courses taught at the university I attended in those days.

David: The history of the Silk Road is utterly captivating, and the more I’ve researched it, the more I want to know about it. The way it brought together diverse cultures, how religions, technologies, and languages were transmitted, how peoples had to make sense of other belief systems and values … truly fascinating. The mysterious image of the Three Hares themselves and its appearance along the Silk Road added to my curiosity. 

Claire: I was interested to read in one of your blog posts that you had created some teaching resources to accompany The Jade Dragonball. Could you explain a bit about those. Do you plan to create some resources for The Gold Monkey Key as well?

Scott: The teachers’ guide is also on the Neemtree Press website. Basically, what we’ve tried to do is create a compendium of useful sites and ally these with factual and opinion-based questions about each chapter so that teachers or homeschoolers have ready-made activities and ideas to access about the book. If there is demand for a teachers’ guide to the Gold Monkey Key, we’d certainly consider doing one for it too.

David: We created teaching resources to complement the book for use both in classrooms and for the interested reader. It expands upon the themes and historical contexts present in the text and makes it easy for teachers to integrate the book into their curricula. We are planning to make teacher resources available for the subsequent books in the trilogy if they are being used in classes. 

Claire: Speaking more generally, how did the partnership of writing a story together come together? I believe you’re also in different time zones, so how does the process work?

Scott: It’s difficult working across time zones, I have to say, but with Skype, email, and texting, it’s not impossible by any means.

David: Scott and I are fortunate to be writing at a time when information can be shared so readily. Our collaboration has been made possible by email and Skype meetings. Our frequent contact allowed us to generate ideas, hash out details, share resources, and send texts back and forth for revision – despite the fact that we are thousands of miles away from one another. This really never could have happened in the past.  

Claire: How long do we have to wait until the final part of the Three Hares and are you able to give us any hints about what is going to happen?

Scott: This month, June 2021, I’m putting the finishing touches to the draft that I will send to Archna. There are quite a few stages that the text will have to go through before it hits the marketplace, but I estimate the book should be available to buy around the beginning of 2022. Book Three is the resolution to the story that began with Sara and the Jade Dragonball. I can’t say too much, but basically the trio have to work together to defeat the one-thousand-year-old Shaman, Shan Wu. There are several great locations including the tomb of the First Emperor near Xi’an, the British Museum, and an ancient battlefield in England, and of course lots of surprising twists…

David: Book Three is nearly finished, and it is really exciting! As you might have guessed, yes, there is a third Hare! Once she has joined the other two, they are ready to gather up their strength,  take what they’ve learned from their adventures and the knowledge they’ve gained from the Eight Immortals, and tackle the powerful and evil forces threatening both worlds. It’s a racing adventure that ties together the trilogy and brings it to a close …

Claire: Are you working on anything else that you can tell us about?

Scott: I’ve just finished the first book in another, separate trilogy that is aimed at YA readers. It’s a little hard to categorise: a sci-fi adventure that has elements of satire is probably the best way I could describe it.

David: Scott and I have discussed where this might take us, and a few ideas have popped. We’ll see.  Both of us are busy writing other books as well, so you may hear about those, too! 

***

Thank you to Scott and David for answering my questions, and to Neem Tree Press for sending me review copies of the books. Find out more on the Neem Tree Press website

You can buy The Jade Dragonball and the Gold Monkey Key on bookshop.org or support my local bookshops Five Leaves in Nottingham or Bearded Badger in Belper.

In Translation, Reviews, Young Adult

Review: The End by Mats Strandberg

Today I’m reviewing The End, written by Mats Strandberg and translated from Swedish by Judith Kiros. This novel is the lead book from new Young Adult and Middle Grade publisher Arctis Books. Having read Lawrence Schimel’s interview with editor Alison Weiss and having heard a lot about The End, I was intrigued to see if it lived up to the hype. I was not disappointed.

Coming at a time when our lives have been turned upside down, the premise for the plot is that a massive comet named Foxworth is heading towards the planet Earth and everyone and everything on the planet will be destroyed. The date and time of the moment of impact have been widely shared and people are now facing the end. The book proceeds chronologically, jumping forward a few days at a time, really giving us a feeling of the days passing and counting down to the final moment.

We witness the response of various characters to the news that they only have a month left to live. Simon wants to spend his last few days with his girlfriend, Tilda, but having lived her whole life dedicating herself to swimming and strict routines, Tilda has different ideas. She finishes with Simon and embarks on a frenzy of drugs and alcohol. Her former best friend, Lucinda decides to stop her cancer treatment and begins chronicling her thoughts on an app that beams her entries out to satellites in space that may or may not survive the comet hit. Simon’s moms, who had recently divorced, come back together to live under the same roof again, while Simon’s sister Emma who is heavily pregnant, talks incessantly about life after the baby’s birth. We’re also told of the comet deniers, those people who refuse to accept what is about to happen.

Against this backdrop, Strandberg paints in a murder: Tilda’s body is found. With proper policing and justice having fallen by the wayside due the wider situation, people make up their own minds about who is guilty with the spotlight falling on Simon. Knowing that true justice will not be served, Simon decides to clear his name and find the real killer. In doing so, he joins forces with Lucinda who, having cut herself off from her friends when she got her cancer diagnosis, now realises the importance of friendship.

Referred to by Publishers Weekly as “Scandinavian noir meets YA in a jam-packed novel that’s part whodunit, part romance, part end-of-the-world narrative”, this book really does pack it in. At times, I did wonder if there was almost too much going on, but I love the way that Sandberg has created this murder mystery plotline over the top of the end-of-world backdrop. I really wanted to find out what had happened and the plotline certainly kept me hooked. The focus on the people involved and their reactions and emotions also made me reflect on how I might react in a similar position.

On Goodreads, one reviewer states that they really love “how diversity was so normalized in this book” and this is worth a mention. Simon’s biological mum, Judette, is Black from Dominica and she and her female partner chose a white sperm donor “so Simon would look like a combination” of Judette and his white mom, Stina. The book isn’t centred around the struggles of having dual heritage, or about having gay parents, one of whom is a Christian minister. It’s a “Scandinavian noir meets YA in a jam-packed novel that’s part whodunit, part romance, part end-of-the-world narrative” and these are simply characters within that.

While not necessarily criticising religion, Strandberg discusses beliefs, religious groups and sects, and their power over others, particularly at times when people are so vulnerable. There is reproach of the way we live, with Simon saying: “Our planet is doing better than it has in a long time. We’re no longer shipping food and other resources back and forth across the globe … We’ve stopped flying and rarely drive … If we’d lived like this before we might even have saved the environment. All it took was a comet.” With the coronavirus pandemic having (temporarily, at least) had a similar effect, this feels like a very pertinent message.

Find out more:

  • Interview with the author Mats Strandberg by Laura Simeon over on Kirkus.
  • Interview with the author on the Arctis blog.
  • Lawrence Schimel talks to editor editor Alison Weiss on World Kid Lit

For more book reviews, interviews and articles, head over to World Kid Lit.

In Translation, Reviews, Young Adult

Welsh YA in translation

This week I’d like to focus on a series of YA books by Welsh author Myrddin ap Dafydd, translated by Susan Walton and published by Carreg Gwalch. These historical novels focus on different periods of Welsh history and are all standalone works.

The Iron Dam

As with all of these books, The Iron Dam is based around real-life events. In this book, we are transported to 1963 when the village of Llangyndeyrn in the Gwendraeth Fach valley was threatened with being flooded to create a new reservoir to provide water for the big cities. The villagers have already seen the Tryweryn valley in North Wales suffer that same fate and refuse to allow the same thing to happen to their valley. They stand firm together and form a plan to see off the threat.

Living next close to the Peak District, I have grown up hearing about the village of Derwent which was flooded to create the Ladybower Reservoir. When the water levels are low, the top of the church spire can be seen sticking out of the water. The Iron Dam really made me reflect on that story and think about the people that lost their homes and livelihoods to create the reservoir. The historical notes at the back show photographs and images from the time and help to expand the context around the narrative story of Gareth and his family.

Under the Welsh Not looks at a different aspect of Welsh history and one that is really crucial to highlight. This book takes us to the times where the English have imposed that all education should be carried out through the medium of English. Those children caught speaking Welsh in school have a wooden sign hung around their necks: The Welsh Not. This is a symbol of shame and if you are the child wearing the Welsh Not at the end of the day, you suffer the cane. If, however, you can catch one of your classmates speaking Welsh and inform the teacher, you can exchange your fate with theirs.

As an English person, I found this quite an uncomfortable read at times, but so often the uncomfortable truths need to be confronted. The suppression of the Welsh language and culture by shaming and punishing young children really upset me. One of the little girls speaks Welsh at Sunday School (where Welsh is allowed) and yet when we meet her again later in the book, she has learnt to reject her heritage and will now only speak English. Only when the country’s leadership system is changed to include Welsh-speakers do the children see any formal recognition of the value of their native tongue.

When we think of our colonial past, we often think of far-flung countries abroad, perhaps forgetting the proximity of some of the atrocities carried out. This is a great depiction of that domination and suppression taking place so much closer to home and one I think young people should be aware of.

I particularly enjoyed one dialogue where one of the young boys asks what language Noah and his sons would speak at school, given that in the story they had just been told at Sunday School, they had just been speaking Welsh. I can imagine that conversation as a young child tries to get his head around two languages and understand why one is not allowed. As with the previous novel, some of the characters are taken from reality and the historical notes at the back are fascinating.

I also really enjoyed The Moon is Red, set between Wales and the Basque Country around the time of the Spanish Civil War. Part one tells of Megan, whose family has been forced to leave their farm in Porth Neigwl, North Wales, to make way for a bombing school. Her older brother Humphrey is a sailor on a ship that usually transports Welsh coal to the Basque Country and returns with Basque iron for Wales. These ships become the evacuation transport for thousands of Basque children.

In 1937, Pablo Picasso created Guernica, one of his most famous paintings, depicting the destruction of the city of Gernika in the Basque Country at the behest of Franco. In part two of this YA novel, we’re thrust into Gernika just as the bombs are about to fall. We witness the destruction of the city and the impact on the fleeing families. Merin and her little brother Anton are caught up in the bombing and it takes several days until the family reunite, only to be torn apart again. A ship, the Habana is evacuating children the to UK, where they will be relocated across the country, some 4000 in total. The historical notes at the back tell us that approximately 400 children were sent to Wales. And this is where, in part three, our Welsh protagonists meet the Basque ones.

Based on factual events and taking real-life people as the inspiration for some of the characters, what I find particularly interesting in this book is the combination of two languages and cultures which have both been persecuted by the dominant power in their respective countries. The sailors on board the ships speak a mixture of Welsh and Basque, as do the children towards the end of the story. In the English translation, flavours of both Welsh and Basque are kept, particularly in the terms of affection, and it seems particular care has been taken to maintain the Basque spellings for Bilbo and Gernika. Having lived for several years in North Wales, I also really enjoyed Susan Walton’s portrayal of the dialogue, really bringing the North Walian accent alive.

Many thanks to Myrddin ap Dafydd and Carreg Gwalch for the review copies.

Chapter Books, In Translation, Middle Grade, Picture Books, Reviews

Middle Grade Reading Recommendations

Following on from last week’s post about YA Poetry anthology INK KNOWS NO BORDERS, this week’s post concentrates on chapter books and middle grade novels that I’ve come across over the last few months.

Geronimo Stilton by Geronimo Stilton, translation from Italian credited to the Italian publisher (Sweet Cherry Publishing – UK)

Oh my goodness, how have we not discovered these books before? Full of cheese and rodent-based puns, these are just such good fun. My seven-year-old chuckles every time we come across exclamations like “Putrid cheese strings!” or “Rancid rat droppings!” and our absolute favourite, “HOLEY CHEESE!”  Each book follows the protagonist Geronimo Stilton and various members of his family on an adventure and can be read as standalone books. These are gentle adventures with a hint of danger but nothing more. There are far more giggles than gasps! Chapters do tend to leave you on a cliff-hanger which often leads to pleas for “just one more…” I also like that each book often has a repeating phrase, “Oh what a day!” for instance, so when reading aloud, I often get my daughter to fill that bit in. So far we’ve read the first two and a half books and there’s still plenty more to come. A spin-off series about Gerrykins’ sister Thea and a graphic novel series are still to be explored! It’s also worth pointing out that as well as being great fun, they really are a master-class in pun translation.

***

The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt, translated from Dutch by Laura Watkinson (Puskin Press)

I think I might be a little late on the uptake on this one, having now been made into a Netflix series, but better late than never! The Letter for the King is a great adventure novel with a new twist or turn around every corner. When an old stranger interrupts Tiuri’s night time vigil in the chapel on the eve of his knighthood, little does he realise the adventure that will follow. While disobeying the King by answering the old man’s pleas, Tiuri accepts the task given to him by the stranger and follows it through to completion. The book highlights friendship and loyalty as well as pursuing a course of action based on what you think is right.

One section that struck me was where Tiuri has met a man in the woods with a strange aspect, who appears to be a fool. While initially impatient to continue on his journey, Tiuri stops and makes time to talk to the Fool. As he leaves, he promises to visit the Fool upon his return. Not forgetting the kindness the Fool has shown him, he does return to speak to the Fool again on his way back. I really liked the tenderness displayed by a would-be knight who is made out to be courageous and daring. Brave boys can be kind-hearted too!

***

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, newly translated from Japanese by Emily Balistieri (Random House Kids)

One for fans of the Worst Witch series, this is a lovely little chapter book about a young witch who, following the rules of being a witch, sets out on her own to find her own place to live and work, taking her talking cat with her. Every witch has a special skill but Kiki isn’t sure what hers is. With witches being a rarity, her neighbours are somewhat skeptical when she moves into town. She settles on providing a delivery service, which has its ups and down but she ends up winning over her neighbours with her kindness. My only slight bugbear was that everywhere Kiki went, she was greeted by someone telling her she was “cute”. I appreciate the original Japanese version of this story was written in 1985, but I do wish they wouldn’t comment on her looks every time! But that aside, it’s a very sweet adventure story of a girl going out into the world, learning her strengths and carving out a future for herself. At the end of the allotted year, she returns home and reflects on just how much she has grown.

***

Earlier in the year, I also reviewed Lampie by Annet Schaap, translated by Laura Watkinson (Pushkin Press, UK), which has just been released in the USA as Of Salt and Shore by Charlesbridge. That first masterful scene of the storm and the light house still remain with me today!

***

And not forgetting The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius, translated by Peter Graves, also published by Pushkin Press. And the great news is that the third Sally Jones title by Jakob Wegelius has recently been picked up by Pushkin. I can’t wait!

Reviews

INK KNOWS NO BORDERS: POEMS OF THE IMMIGRANT AND REFUGEE EXPERIENCE

Over the last few months, I’ve been reading some amazing middle grade and young adult books. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of my favourites. Some are in translation and some are written originally in English. I’ve also expanded my reading to include poetry, which isn’t an area I’m usually drawn to, and I’ve not been disappointed. So that’s where I’m going to begin.

INK KNOWS NO BORDERS: POEMS OF THE IMMIGRANT AND REFUGEE EXPERIENCE
Edited by Patrice Vecchione and Alyssa Raymond (Seven Stories Press)

Referred to by Kirkus Reviews as a “symphony of poetry” this collection of 65 poems has been written in English by poets from across the world, all of whom are first or second-generation immigrants and refugees. There is a real mix of heritages, including Hispanic, Asian, African, Middle Eastern, but also poets from the US territories of Puerto Rico and Guam who talk of feeling “foreign in a domestic sense” (Craig Santos Perez – Off-Island Chamorros).

The collection has a clear progression, opening with a poem by Joseph O. Legaspi entitled Departure: July 30, 1984. From there, the poems discuss childhood, schooling, family dynamics, pride and longing. A particular theme of identity emerges, grappling with acceptance and love for one’s own being. There is also defiance that grows out of shame, a call to be proud and unapologetic for who you are. Franny Choi’s Choi Jeong Min opens with:

“in the first grade I asked my mother permission
to go by frances at school, at seven years old,”

As mum to a seven-year-old, I find this especially moving, highlighting the effect discrimination has on children. Even at such a young age, Choi Jeong Min feels she needs to change her name and escape her identity because of the way she is treated by others.

The poems often speak of this reaction from other people, an assumption of who you are based on a name, an appearance or an accent. The line of white people in Bao Phi’s Frank’s Nursery and Crafts, tutting at Mom as she insists she’s been over-charged, irritation changing to sympathy as it turns out she’s right. Marianne Chan’s When the Man at the Party Said He Wanted to Own a Filipino makes you gasp with horror. Ethnic Studies by Terisa Siagatonu is another stand-out poem, a criticism of people who sit and talk about race but that forget “we’re sitting right behind you”.  

Many of these poems shine a light on behaviours that should not have to be tolerated and yet with these poems having been published in their original forms over a span of more than 20 years, we see that little appears to changing. I really liked Brian Bilston’s Refugees, the physical act of reading the poem top to bottom and then bottom to top, encouraging us to upturn our own thinking and see refugees and immigrants differently. In his afterword, Emtithal Mahmoud says: [to make a difference] “You just have to reach out and recognize people. Recognize our fellow humans around the world who are fighting for the right to live.”

Many thanks to Seven Stories Press for the review copy.