Sunday, 1 October 2023

'THE SHEPHERD'S CROWN' - and what I learned from it. By Penny Dolan

It’s October, when the publishing world ups its publicity game, enthusiastically sweeping everything and everyone into the Big Bookselling Season. Or that’s what all the media/social media/shop-displays/party-pix/awardings and more suggest. This is all brilliant for all the authors & illustrators whose titles are appearing on the shelves around now, so a big cheer for everyone involved! 

However, a wistful autum mist has gathered around all the spring and summer titles. They slip, slowly, beyond publicity’s bright beam. As do the titles from the year before, or the year before that and so on. With so many books are published annually, that’s how the process has to work although if you are an author, it’s hard when you feel the moment is moving on. 

 As for everyone with work-in-progress, or with work in an agent’s custody? Seems to me that the arrival of the shiny-bright season can feel discouraging indeed. But why so, when we are all sensible, rational grown-ups? 

Why, no matter how glad I was for those ‘new’ people or that I had bought and read some of their books, did I still felt an irrationally angry reaction to all the publishing razzamatazz. So you’re off to a party? Bully for you! So you have a giant cake decorated with you own book cover? Fantastic! Hey ho . .

Why, I wondered, feeling despicable, does Big Bookselling in its en-masse form feel so diminishing? Even if only to me? It did not make sense, though I could not get hold of what “it” was. 

Then, one insomniac night or three ago, I came across something that felt like an explanation, something to grasp on to tightly whenever any Big Book Season is upon us, one single word that makes sense. Illogically so, but still sense - and here’s where I found it: in Terry Pratchetts’ last Discworld novel, The Shepherd’s Crown.

                            The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett - Penguin Books Australia

The book opens with Granny Weatherwax, an admirably strong-minded witch, cleaning every corner of her home ready for Death to come visiting, as happens before long. Then, among other story-threads, the book develops into the story of the young witch, Tiffany Aching, as she grows into her own role as one of the Discworlds respected ‘hags’. 

 Part of the way through The Shepherds Crown, Tiffany takes in Nightshade, the Elf Queen and cares for her and her injuries. Although elves are nasty, mischievous, amoral creatures – as other characters point out - Tiffany decides to teach Nightshade about kindness and better ways. Meanwhile, the usurping Elf King - Lord Lankin - is preparing the elves to attack and invade the ‘human’ world. 

 Tiffany realises that she needs to teach all the other witches about the elves most dangerous power: the trick of “glamour” or as it is sometimes known, “glamourie”. She gathers them all together – old and young, skilled or newly chosen – and here’s how the scene is written:  

“Ladies, are you all ready?” There were some nods and yeses, so Tiffany said “Nightshade, please show us your glamour.” And she grasped the shepherd’s crown* in her pocket – this was a moment when she would need to keep a strong hold on her sense of herself. Yan tan tethera, she chanted softly. Yan tan tethera. 

Nightshade began slowly, her foxy little dairymaid’s face filling with a shining light, with beauty, with style, and then suddenly she was the most wonderful thing in the hall. 





The air was thick with glamour and Tiffany could almost hear the other witches fighting it. The inexperienced ones – Annagramma, Petulia and Leticia, Dimmity and Harietta - suddenly seemed flaccid, their faces like dolls. 

Petulia - like many of the other witches - felt a beguiling feeling that the world was all hers, all of it and everything that was in it. And then, her dream – as did theirs – unravelled. Who did she think she was? No one liked her, no one wanted her. She wasn’t worthy of anything. No one wanted her. Everyone knew she didn’t have any skills. It would be so much better if she was dead. Maybe it would be better if she simply let the pigs stamp her down into the mire, and even that wouldn’t be bad enough. She screamed. 

Tiffany moved towards Nightshade, and almost like a bubble bursting, the elf let go, and her glamour was all gone. 

But everyone in the hall looked shaken. . .

"And that, Ladies, was just one elf. Imagine what it will be like when we are facing a whole horde of them,” said Tiffany. 

Point made, lesson striking home - and nor, in the end, do the Elves triumph. 

Having read many folk and fairy tales, I found Pratchett’s depiction of ‘glamour’ sharply perceptive. In this scene, he shows the reader both the glimpse of beauty, success and inclusion, and then that heart-breaking sense of rejection as the bright light fades or moves on and away. 

Suddenly I thought that is it! That’s the word that helps, the concept I was after. 


A word for an unreal, conjured-up illusion, a phenomenon that feels real but not one to truly believe in. A time when you need to keep a watch over how you and your heart and your hopes respond. 

Keep away from all the ‘Elves’! Beware their Glamourie!

 And so, next time, when I feel inclined to grumble or feel too much dispirited by the Big Bookselling, I’ll shrug and say to myself “It’s those Elves again.”

 And, like Tiffany or Granny Weatherwax, keep a strong hold on my sense of myself and simply carry on with my ordinary, everyday work. That’s what I’ll be telling myself. Beware the Glamourie! 

Thank you, Terry Pratchett

Penny Dolan


* Tiffany’s ‘shepherd’s crown” is a fossilised sea urchin. which grounds her in the chalk of her homeland and in the practical work of being a shepherdess. 

ps. Terry Pratchett had always intended The Shepherd’s Crown, with its theme of the old order giving way to new, to be his last Discworld novel. He had planned much of it in advance, writing the beginning, the middle, the end and other pivotal scenes during the years when he was well enough to do so. Poignantly, the novel was completed by Rob Wilkins, who had worked alongside Terry for much of the time during his long illness. RIP Terry Pratchett.

Saturday, 30 September 2023

Moniack Mhor: Sue Purkiss

 Earlier this month, I went on a course on Historical Fiction at Moniack Mhor, near Inverness. Many of you will have heard of Moniack; for those who haven't, it's a creative writing centre in the Highlands - sort of a Scottish version of the Arvon places in England, and Ty Newydd in North Wales. 

I went partly because I'm interested in switching focus from writing for children, to writing for adults; and partly just because I find these kinds of courses stimulating and fun: you meet people who are also interested in writing, but who you probably wouldn't otherwise meet; you hear lots of different stories, you learn new things - it sort of wakes you up.

Our tutors were Andrew Miller, who wrote Pure, and more recently, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, and Shona MacLean, whose most recent book is The Bookseller of Inverness. I read several of their books before going on the course, and was struck by how varied in subject matter and setting Andrew's are: Shona's are engrossing historical thrillers, often set in Scotland. They were both incredibly generous with their time and advice, and very encouraging.

Moniack Mhor itself is a rambling white house set in the countryside, a few miles from Loch Ness. The setting is beautiful, with mountains in the distance and huge skies. The staff are incredibly friendly and welcoming; you feel at home within minutes. There are copious supplies of cake, and you each help to cook and serve one meal during the five days. Each morning there are workshops, the afternoons are your own, apart from a one to one with each of the tutors, and the evenings are generally given over to readings.

These readings take place in what is generally known as the Hobbit House, an eco building made of straw bales with a roof planted with heather - which is absolutely charming.

But above and beyond these separate components, there's some magical alchemy that takes place, and makes the whole experience really special. I think it's much to do with the place itself, and much also to do with the sense that you're with your tribe - and that you're treading in the footsteps of all those others who have gone before you. Whatever it is, it's wonderful. here are a few pictures.

The Hobbit House

Shona and Andrew in the Hobbit House.

The view from my window.

Of course, there had to be Highland cattle...

...and harebells, the bluebells of Scotland.

Friday, 29 September 2023

The Business of Writing

I saw a post the other day from a children’s book writer who said she loved making (doing?) school visits. I don’t. Or rather, if you arranged the visit and got me there and plonked me down in front of the kids and they started to ask questions, I’d be more than happy to answer. I’ve done that once and it was fun. But organising it myself, making arrangements: no. I don’t enjoy that at all.

Just as I don’t enjoy the whole business side of ‘being a writer’. Selling myself is not a talent I possess, and I don't think that after all these years, it's one I'm ever going to learn. What I like, and what pulled me into writing, is the writing itself. When it’s going well, there’s no feeling like it. But the ‘business’ side of it.

 Sorry, no.

I can’t tell whether this is a comfort or a confession of failure.

Wednesday, 27 September 2023

Ask An Author's Cat, by Claire Fayers

 September has been taken up with launch events and publicity for my new book and so I have asked my long term writing companion to step in and answer your questions this month.

Dear Tallis, My author is always staring at pieces of paper. How can I encourage her to get more exercise?

Dear reader, You should be sitting on those pieces of paper already. If you haven't tried that, I suggest instituting an immediate programme of paper-sitting. This will help distract your author. Regular play times are a great form of exercise. If your author is sitting at her desk, trying knocking things off a shelf in another room and watch her run.

Dear Tallis, What's the best food to give an author?

Dear reader, You can never go wrong with crunchy treats of any flavour. Or cheese. Authors will do anything for cheese.

Dear Tallis, I want to help my author with ideas for her next book but I have no idea what to do. Any suggestions?

Dear reader, Research has show that if humans wake suddenly from dreams they are more likely to remember what they were dreaming about, and those dreams could well be the start of a new book. So wake your author up suddenly. Jumping on them works, or dropping something soggy on their face.

Dear Tallis, My author appears sad. What can I do?

Dear reader, This is a common occurrence in authors. Your author may be having problems writing her book, in which case see my suggestions for food and helping with ideas. Sometimes it is because of things entirely outside of the author's control. Things like book sales, reviews and other bewildering nonsense. In this case, give your author lots of extra cuddles to remind her that she has things in her life far greater than any of that. 

Dear Tallis, My author has just published a book. How can I help her celebrate?

Dear reader, Everything must be about the book. Pose for photographs with the book. Listen while your author reads from her book. Purr while she talks about her book. There may be edible book treats so make sure you pounce on those. She will also need lots of reassurance at this time and she may come home tired from talking to humans about her book. When she comes in, give her plenty of time to take her shoes off, put her props away and fetch a snack before you ask her how her day went. About thirty seconds should be enough.

Tallis will be here all week to answer your questions. Pop them in the comments.

Tapper Watson and the Quest for the Nemo Machine by Claire Fayers is the Independent Bookshops September Book of the Month. It contains no cats.

Friday, 22 September 2023

Two Ants Puzzled, written by Elizabeth Laird, illustrated by Jenny Duke, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart


    This is a simple picture book story, but a fresh and pleasing one that opens the way for children's imaginations to take it further. It's the two ants' viewpoints that we get here as they explore up onto a table where a child is drawing.

 They puzzle over the fingers and crayons, then notice what she has been drawing ...

... and wonder if they might try their skills at 'ant art'. The book stops there, so its us to up to draw their ant art in our imaginations, or may try inventing it onto paper. 

    An everyday moment of ants appearing, then going away again, but given from the non-human viewpoint. Once we grow our abilities to see the world from others' points of view, our worlds become so much richer and more empathetic. 

Thursday, 21 September 2023

Sorry I am late but I have been having fun! by Anne Booth

 Hello everyone!

I am so sorry I am late posting. I have had a very exciting week and the days ran away with me.

Yesterday I had my first session of my p/t MA in Children's Book Illustration at Anglia Ruskin University and it was so hard, but also so exciting and cheering and fun. We had to draw moving figures whilst on location, so first we had a brilliant lecture, and then a talk from a second year student, and then we all went off and sat and stood in a nearby shopping centre with our sketchbooks for hours and it was quite daunting, but we all got confidence from each other. The weather was so awful it helped as it distracted us - it kept pouring with rain and the wind blew my hair into my face so I couldn't see, and then it blew my fellow student's pencil case over and all her pens rolled around everywhere and then it blew my tea over and whipped the pages of my sketch book around - but we all kept going for literally hours and hours and our tutors came and give us on the spot tutorials. I learnt that in trying to draw people quickly  I keep drawing legs as parallel lines, and my adult heads often have the same proportion to the body as children's, so effectively everyone I draw is a child,  and also, the reason why I keep not being able to draw a whole person before they walk out of my sight is that my figures are too big! I honestly thought I was looking very carefully, but I was making mistakes I just didn't notice. However, I found it totally absorbing and challenging and it already feels very good for me emotionally and mentally, never mind staying for hours is better than being crouched over a computer.

So - it will be two and half years before I finish, and I have so much work to go, and so much improvement to make, but also, I feel now, so much fun to look forward to! I am so glad and excited and lucky to be doing this!

I hope everyone has something fun to do every week, something challenging and distracting, as it really is so cheering!

Wednesday, 20 September 2023

'What's Philosophy For?' by Joan Lennon

 Great Minds - 2500 Years of Thinkers and Philosophy 
written by Joan Haig and Joan Lennon 
illustrated by Andre Ducci 
published by Templar Books
out 14 September 2023
for 8-12 year olds

If you've ever asked yourself questions like

What is a good way to act?

How should we treat animals?

What is time?

Who am I?

How do I know something is true?

How do I know something is beautiful?

BUT you've also said to yourself, 'Yes, well, philosophy - it's all very good but it's not for me', it's too late. You're already a philosopher.

It's a cliché to say 'I hope you enjoy reading this book as much as we enjoyed writing it' but delving into the lives and thoughts of these 19 philosophers and then collaborating with the illustrator Andre Ducci to present what we found on the page in fabulously bold colour and layout was fun! And challenging. And eye-opening.

And full of surprises - finding out the stories behind these great thinkers has shed light on their ideas in unexpected ways. (And it was interesting to discover just how many of them were not very good at school and had terrible handwriting!) What's philosophy for? Asking questions and thinking about the answers. What questions? What answers? Join us in Great Minds and find out how this selection of thinkers looked at what everyone thought was a given - the only possible way of seeing the world - and said,
'Hang on a minute ...'

A bit of blurb:

Great Minds - 2500 Years of Thinkers and Philosophy

Aristotle's ideas shaped our understanding of the natural world for hundreds of years. Yacob's Hatäta laid the grounds for equality long before our time. Gandhi's philosophy inspired non-violent protest movements all over the world, and Langer shook up our understanding of what art is and can be. The brilliant ideas from each of these amazing thinkers have stayed with humans for centuries, teaching us new ways of uncovering our world and understanding each other.

Covering ideas from the last 2500 years, explore the time periods that shaped each thinker's ideas, unpack the theories in accessible, easy to digest text and discover the impact they had for the years to come. Presented in graphic novel style, this is a book to inspire a new generation of thinkers and philosophers.

Joan Lennon website

Joan Lennon Instagram

Joan Haig Instagram

Andre Ducci Instagram

Talking History - 150 Years of Speakers and Speeches - another book by Joan Haig, Joan Lennon and Andre Ducci, for 8-12 year olds, from Templar Books