royalty

The Real Defenders of the Realm: A Guestpost by Nick Ostler

For the first in my summer series of literary connections in London, Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler visited The Tower of London at night to attend the Ceremony of the Keys. I’m delighted they chose to share their account with us on my site, and explain the links to their fantastic middle grade series ‘Defender of the Realm‘. 

The Tower of London has been getting urgent phone calls all day. Journalists from major newspapers are enquiring after the health of its most famous residents: the ravens. Are they all alive? Are they still there? Have they flown off never to be seen again? Ever since King Charles II decided to move the Royal Observatory from the Tower to Greenwich, rather than displace the ravens that had been disturbing its work, legend has it that should the ravens ever leave, then the White Tower will fall and calamity for the entire kingdom will surely follow. The reason for the press’s sudden concern today is news of an emergency meeting of the entire royal household. Speculation is rife that something terrible has happened – perhaps even a death among the most senior members of the Royal Family. Later they will learn the reason for the hurried get together is in fact the decision that Prince Philip will cease engagements from the autumn, which will be greeted by an overwhelming chorus of “Fair enough, he is ninety-five.”

“Wait though, they literally called you up to ask if the ravens were still at the Tower?”

“Oh yes, I get lots of calls every time anything like this happens. They take it all very seriously.”

We are sitting in the bar of the Hung, Drawn & Quartered Pub, a few hundred yards as the raven flies from the high walls of the Tower of London. The man answering our questions is Chris Skaife, the Yeoman Warder Ravenmaster, who has for the last twelve years had the kingdom-saving responsibility of looking after the Tower’s ravens. Tonight he is off-duty and in civvies rather than his scarlet tunic and Yeoman’s bonnet (though his tweed jacket and bow-tie are almost as dapper) and in light of what we’ve just been told I am relieved to find that no ravens have vacated the Tower to accompany him. Although, as we are to learn later, they could if they wanted to.

We are to be the Ravenmaster’s guests at the Ceremony of the Keys, the nightly ritual that takes place after the tourists depart, in which the Tower is ceremonially locked up for the night – one of the many ancient traditions we recreate in our British fantasy book series, Defender of the Realm – and something not to be missed. But first there will be an informal tour, encounters with ghosts and gangsters and another rather pleasant pint of bitter. So we decide we’d better get a move on. On the way out of the pub, Chris points out that it should more correctly be called the Drawn, Hung & Quartered, because that is the order in which the gruesome disemboweling process is actually performed. I don’t think he is talking from personal experience, but a beefeater is the sort of person who should know these things, so I don’t argue.

As we cross the drawbridge and pass beneath the Byward Tower, it is easy to see why this place continues to cast a spell over otherwise rational thinking people. Myths and ghost stories that we might have dismissed as nonsense back in the cozy pub, suddenly seem all too plausible as we follow the Ravenmaster through the eerie, wide cobbled lanes of the fortress. This is a different place at night. Gone are the gaggles of tourists with their flapping maps and the unruly herds of schoolchildren demolishing packed lunches. What we are left with now is the arrow marks dug into the wall by a bored guard centuries before, the names – Traitor’s Gate, Bloody Tower – that hint at the gruesome fate of those who came here but never left, and the tales of apparitions that still have the capacity to send grown adults running in tears from the Beauchamp Tower. If Horrible Histories did a theme park, this would be it.

But there is much more to the Tower of London than torture and horror and death, fun as all that is. Because there is life here too and rather a surprising amount of it. The Ravenmaster is just regaling us with another tale of doom and imprisonment when he pauses to wave hello to a young woman wearing headphones as she ambles passed. “My daughter,” he explains. It seems odd to think that to some people this isn’t merely one of the world’s most famous historic places, it is also simply ‘home’. But around one hundred and fifty people, the Yeomen and their families, live within the confines of the Tower’s walls. It has always been a workplace and home as much as it has a fortress and prison. And no-one here works harder than the Ravenmaster. From replying to the queries he gets from all round the world about the ravens (which can take up to three hours a day), to conducting tours for visitors and VIPs (Game of Thrones author, George R. R. Martin particularly enjoyed meeting the ravens, no surprise there) – this is one busy beefeater. And that’s before the none-too-small matter of tending to the Tower’s seven ravens (six and a spare).

We could hear the gentle, throaty ‘gronking’ of Erin, Harris, Gripp, Rocky, Jubilee and Munin (Merlina, the only truly ‘tame’ raven, has her own digs elsewhere), long before we reach them. “They know I’m coming,” says Chris. Had they heard and recognized his voice in the distance? Or do they have some sort of primal sixth sense? As you might expect after years in their company, Chris has developed a deep understanding of the raven’s ways and crucially of how much there is still to learn about them. Ravens are said to have the same intelligence as a 3-4 year old child and the current Ravenmaster has dedicated himself to making their lives more natural and enjoyable, despite their celebrity status. For starters there are their plush new quarters, a row of large enclosures in the shadow of the central White Tower, where they can sit outside on their perches all night long, safe from foxes. Then there are their wings – Chris does not clip them nearly as much was the case in the past, so they can fly reasonably well. Well enough to reach the spire on top of the White Tower, as he found to his cost one day when a particularly adventurous bird refused to come down and he had to climb up to get her. But with intelligence comes a sense of humour, and the raven flew just before he reached her. He has even had to retrieve the occasional wanderer from outside the Tower walls, but the kingdom remains very much intact. Chris’ love for his birds is infectious as he recalls, with a glint in his eye, how one raven put an entire school party off their lunch by plucking a leg clean off an unfortunate pigeon right in front of them!

Before the main event, there is just time for a refreshing pint of ‘Beefeater Bitter’ in The Keys. Yes, the Tower even has its very own pub, for the sole use of the Yeoman Warders, their families and lucky guests like us. Tonight, as on many nights, the bar has been given over to a charity fundraiser, and we enjoy our drinks to the sound of announcements about the upcoming raffle results. It’s another example of how these days the Tower of London uses its unique position to quietly educate and inspire rather than to intimidate. And talking of intimidating, the Yeoman Warder who will be guiding us the short distance down the lane to watch the Ceremony of the Keys has an important announcement:

“If you have a camera, kindly place it carefully on the ground… and then stamp on it.”

Some rituals are too solemn, too important and well, too plain cool, to be interrupted by the flashes of camera phones. The Ceremony of the Keys has taken place every single night for the last seven hundred and forty years. The one night it was a few minutes late, the Officer of the Guard wrote a formal letter of apology to the king. The reason for the delay? The Luftwaffe had just dropped a bomb on the old Victorian guardroom. Tonight, as the Chief Yeoman Warder locks the mains gates and returns down Water Lane with his escort of four guards, we are treated to an ancient piece of military theatre. A young sentry steps out, points his rifle at them and barks out “Halt! Who comes there?” “The keys!” replies the Chief Warder. “Whose keys?” demands the sentry, who is clearly no pushover. “Queen Elizabeth’s keys,” the Chief Warder patiently replies, and that seems to do the trick. “Pass, Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. And all’s well,” concludes the sentry, and with that the escort makes its way to the Broadwalk Steps by Tower Green where the Tower Guard presents arms and the Chief Warder declares “God preserve Queen Elizabeth!” to which we all respond with a resounding “Amen!”. Precisely seven minutes after it began, the ceremony is brought to a close as the clock tower strikes ten and we listen to a rather chilly bugler squeak his way through the Last Post.

If you’ve read our first book in the ‘Defender of the Realm’ series, you’ll know that it is at this point that all hell breaks loose. The monstrous Black Lizard attacks in an attempt to steal the Crown Jewels and is fought off by the brave beefeaters and mysterious white knight superhero, the Defender. We are suitably relieved as this fails to happen in real life and instead return to The Keys for a farewell drink. Like all great British traditions, the Ceremony of the Keys is short, simple and rather moving. It has been a privilege to witness.

Afterwards, on the way back to Tower Hill tube station, we pass the Merchant Navy Memorial – the place that in ‘Defender of the Realm: Dark Age’, Hayley discovers a secret entrance to a ‘sally port’ tunnel leading under the road into the Keep beneath the Tower. It is a reminder that although our Defender stories put an affectionate, fantastical spin on British history and traditions, the people who live and work within the Tower of London’s walls are the real, living embodiments of the selfless duty that has served our nation for generations. It is a story they retell every night for seven minutes, starting at 9:53pm sharp.

Tickets to the Ceremony of the Keys are free of charge, but there is a long waiting list (unless you’re lucky enough to know a beefeater!).

Once again, thanks to Nick Ostler for this brilliant blog. ‘Defender of the Realm’ and ‘Defender of the Realm: Dark Age’ by Mark Huckerby & Nick Ostler are published by Scholastic and you can buy them by clicking on the titles. I heartily recommend that you do. For more information, go to www.ostlerandhuckerby.com

 

 

The Cat and the King by Nick Sharratt

cat and king

Probably best known for his imaginative picture books and for illustrating Jacqueline Wilson’s books, Nick Sharratt has just published his first novel, aimed at newly independent readers. This age group can be particularly hard to supply with good quality books. In the past the range has remained rooted in the Horrid Henry canon – but luckily for this new generation, there are now a whole host of beautifully illustrated great stories being produced so that the magic of reading continues from picture books into longer length novels (Mango and Bambang, Isadora Moon, Rabbit and Bear). One of the tricks with competent readers is to replenish the supply, whetting and sustaining their appetite for reading – and quickly; these enthusiastic readers can fly through books at the rate of one a day (although often coming back and re-reading to soak up the content and pore over the illustrations).

Nick Sharratt’s offering ticks all the boxes needed for this age. A well-paced enthralling story, plays-on-words, plentiful humour, great vocabulary, and of course overflowing with brilliant illustrations that enhance the story and add extra dimensions to it. The story is so well laid out that there are not only illustrations on each page, but on some pages illustrations to accentuate each phrase.

The king’s castle has burned down in an Unfortunate Incident with a dragon. Together with his cat, he must find a new home and a new way of life, seeing as all his servants took the opportunity to flee during the Unfortunate Incident. What follows is an account of a king transported from his comfort zone, and the unfailing loyalty and friendship of his most clever cat, without whom it seems, he would be truly lost.

There are so many praise-worthy elements to this book – from the easily absorbed and readable opening:

“Once upon a time there was a king who lived in a rather grand castle, with his best friend, the cat.”

to Sharratt’s constant references to the new experiences the king is having, as well as the cat attempting to provide a semblance of familiarity to their routine:

“As the bus set off, they heard a clock somewhere striking eleven. They might not have a marching band, but at least they were in a good place for the king to do some waving, which he now did most graciously to the passers-by on the pavement below.”

Sharratt is great at providing reader-impetus in his books. You cannot read the book without becoming fully involved. Drawing on previous ideas from books such as You Choose, Sharratt has provided illustrations of all the houses the king and the cat look at before they settle on the perfect fit, as well as illustrations of their possessions, and what they buy on their shopping trips.

He also plays with the idea of the king’s servants doing extra jobs, both whilst they were servants, and the jobs they do afterwards – so that the reader can spot the same person dressed differently. It’s rather good fun.

Despite having a royal person – although doubts are cast on his actual royalty – the picture book is modern and up to date – our friendly cat is often spotted with his laptop. Moreover, Sharratt plays with the idea of royalty and words – at first the king and the cat only buy items at the supermarket that seem related to them:

“frozen KING prawns, Jersey ROYAL potatoes, CORONATION chicken sandwiches…”

And added to all this interactivity and play with stories, text and illustrations, are the wonderful personalities of the cat and the king, each with their own foibles and senses of humour, and yet a great partnership – they do truly care for each other – providing a shining example of friendship.

Children can absorb the message behind the story easily – that it is best not to be so pampered that a person can’t do anything for themselves – in fact they will delight in being able to accomplish tasks that the king himself can’t.

Illustrated in two colours, this is a sweet, warm and wryly funny story. For reading together and discussing, or reading alone. You can buy it here.

 

King Flashypants and the Evil Emperor by Andy Riley

King Flashypants

That old adage: it’s not what you say but the manner in which you say it, is hugely applicable to this hilarious book for emerging readers. The story of King Flashypants and the Evil Emperor Nurbison in the kingdom next door, borrows a general plot from almost every story in the world – will good triumph over evil? But the freshness, pizzazz, and hilarity of its execution is what makes this title a top read for the age group (and their parents).

Andy Riley excels in his easy-to-read text that speaks directly to the reader, setting the tone from the contents page, which is called ‘The Names of all the thrilling chapters you’re about to read’. His tongue-in-cheek style is consistent throughout, from observations about how much children need chocolate (like air), to his explanations of what makes a castle good as opposed to evil.

King Flashypants, or Edwin, as our nine year old protagonist is called, is depicted nonchalantly reclining on his throne, important crown on head, drink with straw in his hand. He’s completely loveable, and understandably for a nine-year-old, has slightly let his power go to his head. So, when he runs out of money, having spent it all on chocolate that he generously gives out to his subjects, his kingdom faces enormous trouble. Resonating slightly with today’s economic deficit, this is a hilarious take on the perils of governing unwisely.

Illustrations punctuate each page, and add to the story rather than just annotate it. Things to particularly note are the map at the beginning, the gallery of portraits, the wonderful hand expressions – Riley’s characters express from their head to their toes – the eclectic collection of peasants (the description of them is hysterical), and the drawing of Edwin’s chocolate-dispensing contraption.

From creating a new evil laugh to bottomless pits, the excellent variety of villainous friends, and a particularly vocal peasant girl called Natasha, there is lots to admire here. The plot is brilliantly stupid, which simply serves to further highlight the comedy, and the ending, where the characters discuss what they have learned ‘a la primary school practice circle time’, borders on comedy genius. The funniest and most enjoyable book for this age group for quite some time. I even sang the song at the end. And apparently more to come in the series. I can’t wait. Age 6+ years, you can buy a little piece of King Flashypants’ kingdom here.

No Angry Birds Here

It’s walk to school week this week. I’m one of those smug people who walk to school every day, but although the walk is the same, what we see and hear changes from day to day, season to season. There’s traffic of course, but a field to stroll across too, and that’s where we see wildlife. We skip over the slugs, avoid squashing the snails, dart away from dogs, and flap at flies. But we see some beautiful birds, so here are five fiction books – one for each school day this week – about birds!

dave pigeon

Monday: Dave Pigeon by Swapna Haddow, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey

Not unlike The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp, Haddow has written a riotously funny book from the point of view of a pigeon – in fact the strapline betrays the fact that the book is almost a manual for pigeons – ‘How to Deal with Bad Cats and Keep (most of) Your Feathers.’ Dempsey’s hilarious pigeon on the front, wrapped in bandages, declares in a speech bubble that this is the best book you’ll ever read. It is certainly one of the funniest.

Pigeons Dave and Skipper are friends. But their common enemy is Mean Cat, and through the book they relay (in narrative and conversational speech bubbles) their attempt to defeat the cat and oust it from its comfortable home with Human Lady – taking the cat’s place, especially because the Human Lady has the nice biscuits with jam in the middle. The text reads in part through speech bubbles, but even when there is traditional narrative, it’s interspersed by the two pigeons bantering as they attempt to tell the story.

Their plans to outwit Mean Cat grow more and more absurd, but are always extremely funny. The pigeon’s point of view and language is exceptionally rendered with silly humour and observation:

“I lay back on the lawn. The grass dazzled greener, the sky shone bluer and the washing line looked lineier. Life was cat-free and felt birdrilliant!”

With a surprising ending, and equally comical illustrations from Dempsey, this is a title for younger readers to grab and adore. Look in particular for the full page illustrations in which the pigeons wait for rain. For ages 6+. Fly to your copy here.

tufty

Tuesday: Tufty by Michael Foreman
A gentle picture book about losing one’s family but finding a mate in Michael Foreman’s new book. As with many of his illustrations, they feel traditional – rendered first as sketches and then painted.

Tufty is placed firmly in London – he’s a duck that lives in the middle of the lake near the royal palace – in a nice touch the human royalty are drawn as being rather birdlike, and are addressed by the Mother Duck as ‘The Royal Duck and Duckess.’ But the story isn’t really about royalty – it tells the tale of Tufty flying south for winter, but losing his family in the process.

Perhaps an environmental comment lies within, as Tufty flies beautifully over Hyde Park – the Albert Memorial depicted lovingly from a bird’s eye view, but then the small duck gets lost among the cranes and towering buildings of London. The orange cranes and glass buildings are distinctive by their lack of distinction from each other.

Tufty is rescued by a homeless man, and then eventually finds his own duck mate back near the palace. The scenes of nature feel homely and gentle, with a wash of colours across the sky that reflect in the lake. All in all, an uplifting story – young readers will like the homeless man’s hollow in the tree, and the tenderness of finding a home, wherever it may be. Take one home with you here.

swan boy

Wednesday: Swan Boy by Nikki Sheehan

Swans and metamorphosis have long gone together – from narrative roots in Leda and the Swan to Russian folk stories such as The White Duck, and the Grimm’s Six Swans, as well as the ballet Swan Lake, and the contemporary film Black Swan.

Nikki Sheehan infuses her latest book with magic realism. She tells of a boy grieving for his father and suffering the agonies of starting a new school, and yet weaves in subtle fantasy and magic by gradually layering swan attributes and feathers on his body at the same time as an inspirational teacher at school persuades him to dance in her production of Swan Lake.

The story works because the contemporary London setting, the character of Johnny and his mother and brother, as well as his peers around him, feel so real that long before the swan metamorphosis becomes an issue, the reader is sucked into the story. The writing is so solid and the characters so rounded that its even believable that bully Liam and his cronies, and Johnny become fully immersed in a Matthew Bourne type production of a ballet to be performed in front of the school.

If anything, Sheehan could have pushed the ‘darkness’ of Johnny’s discovery of feathers on his body a little further – but the novel wins hands down in its portrayal of his character – his rising to the responsibility of caring for his little brother Mojo (who himself is fully realised with his penchant for drawing and his own reaction to his father’s death), and also in Johnny’s realisation that friendship takes work and sacrifice. The slight shift to Liam’s point of view didn’t garner my sympathy, but the story as a whole was compelling and page-turning.

This is a good poignant study of the effects of bereavement on a family (for this audience) and a solid plot that moves quickly and effortlessly. Thoroughly enjoyable. For 10+ years. Buy a copy here.

seagull and cat

Thursday: The Story of the Seagull and the Cat who taught her to Fly by Luis Sepulveda, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura

Books in translation can be hard to get into – the rhythms and what’s suitable for children can vary country to country – but this quirky story of a seagull (and mainly a cat) is worth persevering with. A gull, stricken in an environmental oil spill, gives birth to an egg, and leaves a dying wish that the cat, Zorba (who is the last animal she sees) nurture her baby and teach it to fly.

As with all good literature, it’s the characters that forge through and make the book. And this cat, together with his gang, is no exception. Completely anthropomorphised, he shoulders the responsibility with pride and a little anxiety, using his friends the Colonel, the Secretario and Einstein – the last of which rapidly searches for answers to everything in an encyclopedia. The cats themselves are fairly eccentric, and owned by even more eccentric humans, and the book is flooded with humour because of this.

The second part is most endearing as the gull hatches and the impetus is on the cats to teach it to fly – they try to study da Vinci’s flying machine for clues. It’s for a mature reader – one who can handle the vocabulary, but underneath that is a beautiful tale of friendship, perseverance and identity, as well as age-old themes of life and death.

Kitamura’s illustrations bring the story to life, adding humour, expression and unique characteristics to each personality – and should be savoured. A classic from Chile. For age 8+ years. Buy it here.

dawn chorus

Friday: The Dawn Chorus by Suzanne Barton

From the complex to the unassuming – this picture book is beautiful by way of its simplicity. Peep hears a beautiful song upon waking and wishes to know what it is. On discovering it’s the Dawn Chorus, he is invited to join in if he can audition. Unfortunately for him, he’s just not an early bird kind of a bird, and fails to turn up on time, then fails to stay awake during the audition the following morning.

Of course it’s not his fault, it turns out he’s a nightingale – and dawn is the wrong time of day for him to sing.

Suzanne Barton has managed to express the beauty of bird song through her renderings of colour in this picture book – from the leaves on the front cover to the luscious harmony of reds, oranges and yellows of the gathered birds of the dawn chorus. Each bird is drawn to be plump with patterned wings and tails – almost collage-like in their depiction. It gives them a cuteness, and yet doesn’t completely sentimentalise them.

Young children will delight in the hanging musical notes in the air, the bird conductor with baton in hand, and the delightfully tender ending. It’s uplifting, a lovely introduction to birds and nocturnal animals, and about persevering for what you want and who you are. Take home your own dawn chorus here.

Out of Africa

Recently the journalist Ainehi Edoro wrote an interesting article in The Guardian about the bias of the book industry in terms of African novels, comparing the Western agenda when we publish, read and review African novels to the agenda applied when reviewing novels from the Western canon. We tend to attribute an imagined anthropological value to African fiction, assuming a cultural viewpoint about their issues and themes first, rather than seeing them as we would American or British books – in which we are simply guided in our reviews by characterisation, plot. Ie. Writing first and themes secondary.

bobo road

So it was with great interest that two picture books set in Africa arrived on my desk in the same week. One, published by an award-winning children’s publisher, is All Aboard for the Bobo Road, written by Stephen Davies and illustrated by Christopher Corr.

What’s extraordinary about this picture book is the colour. It is as if the African sun is shining directly out of the pages – the amount of brightness and colour detail is completely captivating – the children testers I used for this book positively beamed back at the lustre and glow.

Fatima and Galo board the bus bound for Bobo. Their father Big Ali drives the bus, and on the journey the children keep track of all the livestock, people and goods that are boarded onto the bus, as well as watching the landscape go past.

Readers can help to count cargo on and off the bus, including three bicycles, seven watermelons, five sacks of rice, nine goats and much much more. Along the way, the children see a hippo lake, a waterfall, the forest, rock domes, market stalls, and the Grand Mosque. Each page brims with detail and above all, colour.

At the waterfall for example, the water is like big slaps of blue paint against a brown rock background with a multitude of colourful patterned rugs in the foreground, plants at the summit, and people everywhere, with colourful clothes, bags and hats. The goods are stark and bold – blue and orange bicycles, colourful bundles on heads, an assortment of vehicles ferried on top of the bus. The ground itself isn’t brown or beige – but a bright purple. Each spread is differentiated in its colour, from the vibrant oranges of the rock domes to the lush green of the forest, the blue of the town.

Even the endpapers blaze with light and interest – tracking the different sites of Burkina Faso, which is where the author based his story, after his experiences there over several years. The text too shines, with the unloading and loading of cargo, the counting within, and the descriptions: the children are ‘tired and hungry’, Galo unloads watermelons ‘huffing and puffing’ and Fatima unloads rice ‘craning and straining’.

The last pages are particularly effective, subtly showing the difference between what children see and what adults see.

There are familiar traits for a bus picture book, such as the wheels of the bus turning round, and the beep beep as the bus sets off, but in other ways this is a truly original picture book, and stands out from the crowd as being the brightest I have ever seen. You can buy a copy here.

princess arabella

The other picture book is published by Cassava Republic Press, whose very ambition is to change the narrative on African books, rooting African writing in all its different experiences, be it rural or urban, past or future.  Princess Arabella’s Birthday by Mylo Freeman aims to show that not all princesses are blonde and blue-eyed, whilst also containing a clear message that princesses should be careful what they wish for.

Princess Arabella has everything she could possibly want, so her parents are stuck as to what to buy her for her birthday. The princess decides that she wants a real live elephant, and her wish is granted. The only problem – this is not a compliant elephant. The twist at the end of the book is delightful – but it’s the small illustrations throughout that endear Princess Arabella to the reader, and serve to make this a series to watch.

From the elephant-shaped balloon on the cover, to the hilariously bad parenting of the King and Queen and the size of the net used to catch the elephant – there is plenty in each illustration to make the reader giggle. The colours are vibrant, the jauntiness of facial expressions well-executed. It’s a simple story – for young readers – but conveys a vibrancy of personality and landscape, and conveys the beauty of another country – from the sandals on her feet to the sunset in the background – with ease and simplicity.

You can buy the book here.

Defender of the Realm by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler

Defender of the Realm

A superb premise, well executed. It’s easy to tell that authors Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler are screenwriters – the book begins with an action scene of the heir to the British throne dashing through the streets to avoid both paparazzi and security guards. You can almost hear the director’s voice – zooming the camera in here, sweeping through the streets there.

Fourteen year old Alfie is a reluctant heir to the throne, particularly when his father dies suddenly and it is thrust upon him rather more prematurely than he had hoped. However, there’s more to the job than photo ops and ribbon cutting – and Alfie discovers that the lineage of royalty is also a lineage of superhero power – fighting a centuries old battle against monsters and supervillains (all in immense secrecy – the public is unaware of the King’s dual royal).

At the same time, the reader’s focus is drawn to a commoner – teenager Hayley Hicks – who happens to get caught up in one of the secret battles, and before long is more embroiled in royal shenanigans than she could imagine. She is the perfect antithesis to the privileges and snobbery of royalty, and a great sparring partner for Alfie.

What’s delightful about this novel, as well as the constant flux between ‘real’ life and ‘fantasy’, and the grounding of the teens who are as normal, acerbic, and witty as a reader could want – is the phenomenal ‘history-building’ that the authors have imagined to accompany their premise.

Alfie has a ‘mentor’ and guide in the shape of advisor, Lord Chamberlain, who is a great pontificating character. He teaches ‘real’ history to Alfie, including the magical powers of the crown jewels, how King Alfred the Great really fought the Vikings (and their dogs!), how Elizabeth I fought the Spanish king and his armada of vampire mermaids…plus a whole new way at looking at Beefeaters.

It’s lovely because it ties in British history, especially the places Alfie must go to fight the Black Dragon: Westbury, Stonehenge, Edinburgh Castle, as well as royal settings in his real life rather than superhero life – the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, even Harrow School. This makes the book very British in ‘feel’, which is exactly how a book about royalty should be.

The characters are all well drawn, the action is relentless, the plot tight. But most of all it’s pure fun. This book definitely gets my royal seal of approval. You can buy a copy here.

For age 8+

An Interview with Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, authors of Defender of the Realm

Defender of the Realm

Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler are an Emmy and Bafta-Nominated screenwriting partnership, and scriptwriters of the new and highly acclaimed Danger Mouse. Their first foray into the world of children’s publishing, Defender of the Realm, is published on World Book Day – it doesn’t get much better than that. It’s an action-packed, gripping novel, about fourteen year old Alfie, heir to the throne. What Alfie doesn’t realise is that as well as becoming King, he also assumes the inherited role of ‘Defender’ – superhero, who must battle to save the country from the Black Dragon. My review will be published Sunday, but I had the honour of interviewing the writing duo behind this fab new series. This is what they said.

You’re an award-nominated screenwriting duo. What made you decide to write a children’s book?

Well, we both love books in the fantasy genre for this age and writing a novel was always something we wanted to try. But really, it was the content that dictated the form in this instance. Defender of the Realm takes place in a parallel reality version of Britain and we needed to figure out the big rules for that universe… a universe where monsters are real and Kings and Queens are secret super heroes. We felt only a book would allow us the freedom to explore all of that in depth and get it right!

www.sarahweal.com +07957284588

There are a lot of inventive ideas in the book such as the magic of the crown jewels and playful ideas with the magic of lineage. How did you come up with them?

It all flowed really from the “what if?” idea of Kings and Queens being secret superheroes. That was the big idea and from there, the supporting ideas of magical crown jewels, alternative secret history of Britain and inherited blue blood super powers seemed to come naturally. It was so much fun to work on because of that, you know you’re on to something when the ideas don’t stop. It felt like striking oil! The rules of it all were hard to figure out and pin down but that was part of the job of this book, set out the stall for our world and tell it in a fun and exciting way. We did a lot of research into the royal history of Britain as well. The more we looked into the idea of monarchy, the greater the similarities to superheroes were apparent.

Writing is usually quite a solitary act, how do you pen a novel together? What are your writing practises?

We’ve got immense respect for writers who write on their own. It’s a tough gig keeping a level head when dealing with the ups and downs of the business and keeping yourself fresh, happy and ready to write! So it helps to have someone to laugh with about things- so much of this business is out of your control it’s good to have someone alongside reminding you of that. Work wise,  we spend a lot of time talking before writing anything, a habit picked up in screenwriting where producers invariably want to see outlines before you can proceed to script. So we spend hours breaking the story, then we extensively outline to the end and only then do we start writing. We take alternative chapters, then switch over, give notes and plough on, fighting to get that first “dirty draft” done. Then we rewrite. It’s fun seeing each other’s chapters because even with all the detailed outlining, we surprise each other with how we’ve written it.

The book mixes fantasy and reality, with giant powerful lizards and also the paparazzi and a citizen’s viewpoint, in that of Hayley. Is one of you better at fantasy and one reality?

No, it’s part and parcel of the Defender world- those rules I mentioned above. Nailing the level of reality, how the fantasy and reality of the world intersect, was part of the development we did. We both brought ideas to the table, from big action sequence ideas to smaller (but no less important!) character details.

Do either of you plan to write solo at any point? What would you miss most about the other if you did?

I don’t think so. I hope not! Cue Nick announcing a new six part, solo graphic novel. Here’s the thing: the big concept of the King or Queen of Britain as a superhero was Nick’s idea way back when and he unthinkingly and unselfishly let me in on it purely because we’re a writing partnership. It wasn’t called Defender of the Realm then, it was only a germ of an idea and it’s now very much “our” idea now. But I thought it was a great pitch with massive potential. Hopefully people will think the same after reading the book. We always say the best thing about working in a partnership is that you only have to have half a good idea and then the fun is working it up together.

Have you already written the film script for Defender of the Realm, and who would you cast as the Lord Chamberlain (a somewhat staid and grumpy, though very knowledgeable and quite endearing, authoritative character)?

Good question. Before Defender was a book we were thinking it was a big TV show or film and we considered doing it that way. As I said, doing it as a book gave us the freedom and time to explore the world and get it right. Of course, we dream that one day the film rights might sell (!) but who knows, it would be an expensive film to make and make right. I always imagined LC as Ian McKellan myself. Charles Dance would also be perfect. We’re lucky in the UK that we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to actors with great gravitas who would fit the bill. Someone with bearing, hidden depths and possessed of a withering glare!

With thanks to Mark and Nick – you can pre-order your copy of Defender of the Realm here, or you can read my review on Sunday and then buy it!