On Friday 20th May the announcement of the winner of a rather special children’s book award will be made.
The Tir na n-Og Awards were established by the Books Council Of Wales in 1976, and are given annually to honour original works of fiction or non-fiction by authors and illustrators of children’s books in Welsh and English published during the previous year. They aim to recognise, celebrate and promote high quality books for children and young people. The awards are named for Tír na nÓg, the “Land of the Young”, an otherworldly realm in Irish mythology.
Sponsored by CILIP Cymru Wales, the English-language shortlist celebrates books with an authentic Welsh background for children and young people. There are also two other prizes for Welsh language books for primary and secondary ages. The aim is to celebrate reading for pleasure and to inspire reading choices for young readers. Through the awards, children and young people can enjoy and be inspired by stories and writing from or about Wales.
This year’s shortlist for the English Language Award is made up of four, rather than the customary three, books and features a thoughtful story of the healing power of nature, a wartime drama of family and community, a retelling of ancient legends and a colourful cast of characters from Welsh history. Although quite different in content I do think that as a group they provide a fascinating overview of Welsh history, life and culture. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading, and in a couple of cases re-reading, these books recently all of which would be a valuable addition to primary school libraries and classrooms.
Swan Song by Gill Lewis
Swan Song is a thoughtful and sensitively written story about teenage mental health which highlights the power of nature to restore and heal troubled minds.
We first meet Dylan as he is excluded from school after hitting another pupil. He was formerly a happy boy, but found the transition to his grammar school difficult and his unhappiness and anxiety has manifested itself in increasingly disruptive behaviour culminating in this act with its dramatic repercussions. Dylan’s mother makes the decision to leave her job and return to her childhood home in Wales with Dylan to live with her father.
Gradually through his Grandfather’s non-judgemental attitude and kindness things begin to change for Dylan. However it is the link to nature that most profoundly affects him. Grandad takes Dylan out in his boat and it is the wide open seas and skies, the freedom and lack of pressure that calms him and enables him to learn how to relax and be himself. Grandad’s love of and interest in the whooper swans who return to the bay each winter is infectious and soon Dylan finds that he is concerned for their welfare and habitat in a similar way to his grandfather.
The two important threads of this story, the love and support of Dylan’s grandad and the beauty and importance of wildlife and its protection weave together in a manner that links them to Dylan’s depression and anxiety skilfully and sensitively. I also enjoyed the inclusion of the sense of community and belonging that Dylan found in the local choir, another aspect of life that I, perhaps stereotypically, associate with Wales. This is a lovely story told with great care and Gill Lewis manages to convey difficult themes including grief and loss in a gently accessible manner.
The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr
The Valley of Lost Secrets is an evacuee story with a difference. This beautifully told, tender story of two young brothers, a mystery, and a community that holds secrets of its own captivated me from the opening scenes to its satisfying conclusion.
It is September 1939 and twelve year old Jimmy and his little brother Ronnie are evacuated from London to a small Welsh mining village of Llanbryn. It could not be more different to the life the two boys know. They have become outsiders and despite the care he receives from the couple who take them in for Jimmy in particular this is difficult. Then he discovers a skull hidden in a tree and frightened by what this means Jimmy needs a friend to share his secret with and to solve the mystery. Help comes from an unlikely source and gradually Jimmy uncovers secrets from the past that will change his attitude and his understanding of what home, family and belonging truly mean.
The knowledge and love of communities such as the village of Llanbryn is evident in the writing. There is beauty in the landscape of looming mountains and the valley in which the village rests. This is a community where everyone knows each other with all the advantages and disadvantages that this brings. The adult characters are not mere stereotypes or pushed to the background, these are well rounded, intriguing flesh and blood people. Gwen and Alun, the couple with whom the boys are living stayed with me just as much as the boys after I finished reading.
There are moments of heartbreak but these are balanced with the feelings of love, hope and the importance of brotherhood throughout the story. There is much to think about in this kind and perceptive book.
Welsh Fairy Tales Myths & Legends by Claire Fayers
Welsh Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends is written in a modern accessible style appropriate for young readers and Claire Fayers has given each tale her own twist. There are stories of dragons, love, rivalry, monsters and fairy folk that would be good to read aloud and this collection is an excellent introduction to Welsh folklore.
Many of these stories were new to me and I liked the personal introduction to each one that provided a taste of what to expect and gave a little background which would be helpful for children too. There is a true storytelling style to this which gives even the newer stories a traditional feel. However there is also a modern air to some of the dialogue and touches of humour that made me smile and would add to the enjoyment for young readers. Many of the stories included references to Welsh landscape and history and this provides an opening into further reading of linked stories or information books.
Among the selection are tales from the Mabinogion, Arthurian legend, fairy tales, Welsh Romani and modern stories. Many are set in real places and this encourages the reader to browse a map alongside the collection learning about the country as you travel around through folklore, magic and mysteries. Clare Fayers has also provided a guide to Welsh pronunciation and Welsh names which I found myself referring back to often so a welcome and useful addition. This collection is fresh and appealing to young readers but retains a sense of the traditional storytelling and history of Welsh culture that gives it a wide appeal.
10 Stories From Welsh History that everyone should know by Ifan Morgan Jones illustrated by Telor Gwyn
This appealing exploration of Welsh history includes stories of adventure and rebellion, tyranny and freedom, tragedy and joy all presented in an immensely readable style and accompanied by engaging illustrations. This is history brought to life in a entertaining mix of narrative non-fiction, timelines, fact boxes, maps and illustration; a wonderful package! I learned a great deal from this book and have no doubt that it would be useful in schools.
The ten stories range from Gwenllian’s battle against the Normans up to devolution and the birth of the Welsh Parliament. Each section begins with a story told by the person and is followed by a double page spread of information. The events and people include not only warriors and campaigners but ordinary people also, including Eileen Beasley who campaigned for her rates bill to be written in Welsh. The collection is diverse and there is mention of Wales’ involvement in the slave trade and the Cardiff race riots in 1919. The Aberfan tragedy is included and its aftermath plus mention of other mining disasters. This is a comprehensive book, attractively presented and with an accessibility that ensures a wide readership.
The section at the end of the book includes a glossary, a timeline and a fascinating selection of maps of the country of Wales through the ages. 10 Stories From Welsh History is one of those children’s factual books that encourages curiosity and further learning.
Four very different books but all of them highlighting aspects of Welsh history, geography and culture plus an insight into the sense of community and belonging that is so important. I don’t envy the judges their task and am looking forward to finding out which book is selected on Friday. Good luck to everyone involved!