Gawain in the Treetops

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Last year I was asked if I would contribute a short retelling of a classic story to the new ‘Great Stories’ series, part of Oxford University Press’s Treetops range of books for schools. I was allowed to choose which story I wanted to tackle, so I opted for Gawain and the Green Knight, which gave me a chance to return to my Arthurian roots again.

I’ve had a quick go at this tale before – it’s one of the stories that Myrddin tells to Arthur’s war band in Here Lies Arthur. But that was a very short version, and I don’t think he even finished it – also, Here Lies Arthur was a very muddy, un-romantic, 5th Century version of the legends. My Gawain and the Green Knight is much a more traditional, magical approach. Based on the long poem by an unknown northern poet, it kicks off at Camelot one Christmastime, when a jolly green giant arrives to issue Arthur’s knights with a challenge – one of them can chop his head off, on the condition that he then gets to return the blow. Only Sir Gawain has the nerve to take up the Green Knight’s offer, and so begins a strange quest…

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It’s an odd story, with roots deep in Celtic mythology, and it features a lot of classic Arthurian elements – a long quest through a harsh landscape, castles, magic, courtly love. It’s a real winter’s tale, too, all about the contrast between cosy interiors and the harsh landscape outside. It was a good story to write last winter, snug by the stove in my office on Dartmoor.

I’ve also done some illustrations to go with the text. I don’t really think of myself as an illustrator any more, but when I was at art college I used to dream of illustrating Arthurian tales, so I couldn’t really turn down the opportunity! Hopefully my version will encourage a few readers to seek out the original, or one of the modern English versions (there’s a good one by JRR Tolkien, and a very lively recent one by Simon Armitage).

Since Gawain is an educational title, you won’t find it on the shelves of your local bookshop (although I assume you’ll be able to order it, and online sellers should have it). If you run a school or a school library, OUP has packages which include Gawain along with some of the other books in the series.

There are 35 ‘Great Stories’ altogether, by an impressive range of authors and illustrators, and the series is edited by Michael Morpurgo. It includes books aimed at all levels of reading ability – Gawain is in one of the higher ones, Oxford Level 19. It will be published on 12th May, and I’ll show off more of the illustrations then.

Pugs Roadshow

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Just home from a week on tour with Sarah McIntyre in our Refrigerated PugBus. (I can’t believe we forgot to take a picture of the refrigerated PugBus – it’s almost as if it was just a shared delusion caused by wrangling our massive luggage on and off of loads of different trains…)

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We visited schools in Manchester, Birmingham, Buckinghamshire and Essex, and finished up at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival and the Cheltenham Literary Festival. Good times were had, at least by us, and hopefully by the audiences, too. We’re so grateful to all the schools and bookshops who hosted us, and to our relay team of publicists from OUP, Liz Scott, Sarah Howells, Hattie Bayley and Alesha Bonser, who looked after us all week. Here’s a selection of photos, and you can find more if you want to by looking at #PugsRoadshow on Twitter .

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As we were waiting for our taxi to the station at Cheltenham yesterday we found out that Sarah has won a Hospital Club 100 award for her work on the Pictures Mean Business campaign. You can read more about it on her blog. Congratulations, McIntyre! I’m very proud to be working with such a brilliant illustrator and co-author.

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As well as the three books we’ve made together, McIntyre has been a huge help with Railhead, which I don’t think I would have written without her encouragement. While we were at Bath and Cheltenham I was able to talk about that, too. I did an event at Bath with top fantasy author Joe Abercrombie (excellently chaired by the wonderful Sarah Pinborough) and at Cheltenham I was on a panel about Fantasy Worlds, chaired by the equally wonderful Nicholas Tucker.

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My fellow panellists were Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, who will need no introduction if you like fantasy books (they created the Edge Chronicles, among many others) and relative newcomer Lucy Saxon. Lucy’s books should also appeal to fantasy/SF fans (they’ve been compared to Mortal Engines,) and she should be an inspiration to aspiring young writers as she published her first novel when she was only sixteen. Sometimes when you hear about very young authors you have a sense that they are a bit like Dr Johnson’s dog – we’re not meant to be impressed by what they’ve published, just that they are published  at all – but Lucy is the real deal, and I think she has a long and brilliant career ahead of her. And look – I got to sit next to Chris Riddell while he drew her portrait!

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Photo: Sarah McIntyre

Low Flying Illustrator Buzzes Book Fest!

Wait – what’s THAT? Up in the SKY! Is it a BIRD?


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Is it a PLANE?

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Oh, it’s just Sarah McIntyre, being lowered by crane into the Guardian Children’s Book Festival at London’s Granary Square.

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If you think it looks alarming for her, imagine how it felt for the anxious watchers on the ground…

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This was a new event – the children’s books element was part of a larger festival called ‘Curiosity’, and there was LOADS going on. I was so busy watching Sarah dangle from her crane that I missed Emer Stamp, who was on before us – her Diary of a Pig looks great. But I did get to meet author and illustrator Paul Stickland. His picture book Dinosaur Roar is a must for anyone with dinosaur-crazy toddlers, or anyone who’s dinosaur crazy themselves. (Paul also took the best of those dangling McIntyre pictures.)

And we caught a glimpse of award-winning poet Joseph Coelho, but he was in mid-poem, so we couldn’t stop to talk.

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Sarah and I were doing our new PUGS OF THE FROZEN NORTH show in an inflatable igloo. It was basically the same show we did at Edinburgh last week, but with slightly more technical problems to overcome. We had a giant piece of paper to draw our Race to the Pole game on, but no board to rest it on. Luckily the Guardian had provided a seemingly infinite number of helpers, who acted as a human easel.

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We also had OUP’s Sarah Howells to help out – she took some of these pictures, and was able to provide Anti-Yeti Spray when Sarah’s unfortunate Hairy Hands problem flared up again mid-show…

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The audience were a big help, too – particularly the lad who, when we asked what perils our racers might face on their way to the pole, suggested, ‘mistletoe’.  And what would we do without Sarah’s husband Stuart, who is always a tower of strength at these events, carrying things, blowing up inflatable dice, taking photos, etc?

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Actually, we’re going to have to find out what we’ll do without him, because we have a whole Pugs of the Frozen North tour starting at the end of September (details HERE) and I don’t suppose Stuart will be able to make it to all the venues. But we’re getting the hang of this show now, so fingers crossed. The big question is, how on Earth are we going to top Sarah’s crane stunt? Matthew Tobin on Twitter has a Helpful Suggestion…

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Thanks so much to Emily Drabble and her colleagues at the Guardian for asking us to be part of their festival! We hope it will be the first of many!

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