Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas in Wales

And now for something completely different, to quote the famous line from the Monty Python TV show. 

The land of my birth is Wales, which has its own language and traditions, different from those of the rest of the United Kingdom. The Welsh language, a Celtic language, is still spoken, though by a minority, and a few of the ancient traditions are kept alive or have a enjoyed a revival in recent years. Poetry and music is the essence of Welsh culture and very evident in Welsh Christmas and New Year’s traditions.

The main ancient Welsh Christmas customs include plygain. This was a carol singing event that took place very early on Christmas morning. Traditionally, the carols were sung unaccompanied in three or four-part harmony by groups of men. Often they were composed for the occasion and took the name of the singers’ family or family farm. The singing could go on for two or three hours in rural churches ablaze with the lights of highly decorated candles. The women stayed at home, decorating their houses with mistletoe and holly, cooking and making toffee for the feast and festivities that would follow the plygain. In the nineteenth century there are accounts of women joining their men folk in the plygain. And plygains held today of course include women.
Boys from Trawsfynydd collecting holly and mistletoe to sell
by Geoff Charles (1959; National Library of Wales collection)

Plygain Carol Singing on Christmas Morning

Plygain Carols—Videos

Plygain Carol Carol y Swper

Plygain Carol played on Welsh Bagpipes

Toffee Making

Calennig by Bill Rogers
Another ancient custom is the calennig, meaning “first day of the month.” This custom mainly took place on New Year’s Eve, when groups of boys visited their neighbors, sang songs, and offered a decorated good-luck apple in exchange for coins or little cakes. The custom is said to date back to Roman Britain in the fourth century AD when neighbors offered each other olive branches as peace offerings at the beginning of a new year.

For more information on the calennig and other customs see:
Two maris by Paul Seligman
The custome of the mari lwyd (grey mare) was once widely practiced and has been revived in a few places today. A group of men carrying a horse’s skull covered in a sheet, decked out in ribbons, would go from house to house calling on members of the household to answer a challenge in verse. If they couldn’t come up with a witty answer, the mari lwyd blessed the household and went away or entered the house, where they entertained the family in exchange for food and drink. Some say the reason the custom died out is because having a group of rambunctious drinkers cavorting around the house late at night was probably not a welcome experience for many families.

Welsh Christmas and New Year’s Traditions

BBC’s Wales Christmas page

No account of a Welsh Christmas would be complete without Dylan Thomas’s immortal A Child’s Christmas in Wales, the Welsh poet’s lyrical and nostalgic remembrances of his own childhood Christmases.

Dylan Thomas reads A Child’s Christmas in Wales

Tom Jones Reads A Child’s Christmas in Wales with the Treorchy Male Choir

Text of A Child’s Christmas in Wales

Cad Valley across Tal y Llyn by Jez B

And another lyrical view of a rural 
Welsh Christmas, this time in Corris, 
near Snowdonia and Lake Tal y Llyn: A Welsh Christmas Fairy Story on YouTube at

Monday, December 16, 2013

Interview with J. Scott Savage

This week I'm delighted to share with you an Interview with J. Scott Savage, author of several books for middle-grade readers including Case File #13: Zombie Kid, which I reviewed in the last blog (see below).

ML: Why do you write middle-grade fiction?

Scott: There are great things about writing for readers of different age groups. Adult fiction is fun, because you are writing for your peers. YA gives you more gray area to work with—not just good and bad. I like writing middle grade for two reasons. First, it is a time of discovery. Kids at that age are still exploring so many things, so anything is possible. Magic is still real in their lives. Second, if you write it well, middle grade can appeal to all readers. I love books that an entire family can read together and enjoy.

ML: Name three of your favorite middle-grade fiction characters and tell us why they’re favorites.

Scott: Hmm, fun question! I’ll start with James Henry Trotter from James and the Giant Peach, because he epitomizes the belief in magic at that age. Parents eaten by an escaped rhinoceros? Man, that stinks. Crazy aunts, a little guy with green crystals, a giant fruit, talking human-size insects? It’s all part of the story and he never once thinks, “Obviously I have gone insane with grief.”

Next, I’ll go with another Roald Dahl character, Matilda Wormwood from Matilda. I would sum her up in one word, resiliency. She has one of the worst families ever, a crazy headmistress, and a pretty messed up life. But she finds the library, teaches herself to read, gets revenge on her parents, and takes on the headmistress. And all the while, she is still so nice that everyone likes her. Who wouldn’t want to be Matilda?

Third, I’ll go with a kind of trick answer and pick all the great sidekicks. Sidekicks are awesome characters. They’re loyal, funny, they keep the story interesting and save the protagonist on many occasions. They almost always have their quirks, but in the best books they figure out how to use those quirks to their advantage.    

ML: What makes a great middle-grade story?

Scott: Most important to me is characters I care about. I want to root for them, believe in them, see them learn and grow. Second is magic. Not just magic like wands and spells, although that is fun too. But discovering magic in the world where we live now is just as amazing. I want to be shocked and surprised. I want to see a flower spring up where I only saw concrete, a caterpillar turn into a butterfly before my eyes. And finally, like I said above, I love a book that can entertain an eight-year-old and an octogenarian and the same time. 

Me: What are the most important pieces of advice you would give to children’s writers?

Scott: Don’t try to be the next . . . The best middle grade authors aren’t trying to copy someone else’s style. They are taking what’s inside of them and finding a way to get that down on paper. Give yourself permission to be different, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and you will also be giving yourself permission to make something wonderful.

ML: Name some middle-grade children’s authors you consider to be great writers (or middle-grade books you consider to be among the best) and tell us why you think they are great.

Scott: Oh, gosh there are so many it’s hard to know where to start and even harder to know where to stop. Holly Black, Neil Gaiman, Rick Riordan, Lynne Reid Banks, Roald Dahl, J. K. Rowling. All of these are authors that I’ve loved and loved to watch my kids love. Middle grade has some of the most amazing enduring stories ever.

ML: What do you do to market your books?

Scott: Whatever I can. J So much of how well a book does once it’s out in the world is out of the author’s hands. One thing I was told early on, and have passed on to other authors, is do what you love. If you like blogging, blog. If you like visiting schools, visit schools. But if you don’t enjoy standing up in front of 300 kids and trying to teach and entertain them for 40 minutes, don’t do it. It’s a waste of your time, and more importantly theirs. Almost nothing you do will have near the sales impact you expect, so do the things you would do whether it resulted in a single sale or not.

ML: Name three personalities, living or dead, you’d like to have dinner with. Tell us why you chose them and what food you’d serve them.

Scott: Well, I’ll limit it to literature related people. I think I’d choose Neil Gaiman, Roald Dahl, and Jane Austen. Then I would have a menu of foods that just makes your mouth water to think read about it. You know those books that have feasts, and everything on the menu sounds amazing and magical? That kind of meal. And I would just sit back and listen to the masters talk about reading and writing, and soak it all in.

ML: Is writing your full-time job? What do you like doing in your spare time?

Scott: It has been in the past, and it probably will be again. But right now I have a day job to keep the bills paid. I love doing anything with my wife and kids. Reading, games, camping, hiking, movies. An ideal evening for me is a great dinner, book shopping, and a movie I’ve been waiting for. All with my family. 

ML: Do you have any advice for parents whose children don’t like to read?

Scott: If a child doesn’t like to read, it’s almost always because they view it as work. They need to find a book that turns on the idea light of, “Wait, this is actually fun!” Once they discover that, nothing will stop them. Until they hit the age of dating, cars, jobs, and then it’s just about reminding them of amazing new books.

The most important thing is to find them something they love to read. It doesn’t matter if it is a comic book at first, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or something that looks too young for them. That’s fine. Just let them flip the reading switch from work to fun.  

*   *   *   *   *   

J. Scott Savage
 is the author of the Farworld series and the Case File #13 middle-grade series. He grew up in Northern California and now lives in Utah with his wife and four children.

Scott has held too many jobs to count, including: a mall Santa, French chef, CEO of a dot com, plumber, radio station talk show host, and the guy who sits in the little photo developing booth. He has completed one marathon and hopes to complete another when the memories finally fade away. He loves reading, writing, camping, playing games with his family, and especially hearing from and meeting his readers. To e-mail him or schedule a visit, come to his website

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Case File #13: Zombie Kid - Review

This week I review Zombie Kid, recently published middle-grade fiction by J. Scott Savage. This is a book that should appeal to readers in the eight to twelve age range. 

J. Scott Savage's Case File #13: Zombie Kid (published by HarperCollins, September 2013) is a fast-paced, action-packed adventure story of a boy called Nick and his two friends. They like to call themselves the Three Monsterteers because of their love of monsters and the amazing monster costumes they create for Halloween. The story will delight kids who enjoy a lighthearted approach to “ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night.” Nick’s visit to his aunt’s funeral in Louisiana has the outlandish outcome of turning him into a zombie, the victim of a voodoo curse. Unless Nick wants to end his days as a disintegrating zombie—parts of him literally start to drop off—he and his resourceful friends must figure out how to break the curse. And, of course, adding to their already huge challenge is the fact that time is running out for Nick. The story is clever, deliciously illogical, and funny, with a good helping of the gross that is sure to please boys. The book’s cliffhanger chapters, boy heroes, humor, and fast pace should appeal to reluctant readers. The readability level may put off readers with a limited vocabulary, but that just offers a great opportunity to older siblings and parents to read with, and to, younger kids. Reading with kids is always a good thing to do to encourage reluctant readers to expand their vocabulary and spend more time with well-written books. 

Next week I interview the author! 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Ten Secrets for Savvy SEO

Children's writers may find the following article on search engine optimization useful. It is reprinted from Penny Sansevieri's newsletter Book Marketing Expert that you can have e-mailed to you for free. Penny's website is Author Marketing Experts, Inc. (AME), where you can sign up for her newsletter.

Welcome to Tip #10 of our "52 Ways to Sell More Books!" I hope you're enjoying these tips and they are helping you sell more books. So, ready? Here we go!

Ten Secrets for Savvy Search Engine Optimization

If you want to get a solid/high ranking in search engines (and who doesn't?), there are a few key things you need to do to make sure your site is helping, and not hurting your ranking. Google tends to dominate searches online (gaining a whopping 63% of all searches) so a lot of what I'm recommending here is based on this search engine preferences.

1. Do: Have great content and keep the word count on your home page to somewhere in the 250 word range.

2. Do: Get high quality, high traffic incoming links from relevant sites

3. Do: Make sure your web site pages have titles, if you're not sure ask your web designer about this

4. Do: Use good keywords for your home page text. Don't talk about yourself, remember it's about the person landing on your site, not about you.

5. Do: Check out your competition: if you're trying to get incoming links, see how your website's linking to your competition. How do you search for incoming links? Pop the following into your Google search box:

6. Do: have a focused goal on your home page. While your site can do a good many things (and many sites do), your home page should have one goal. Once you get someone to your web site you don't want to confuse them. A confused mind doesn't make a choice and will likely click off to your competition.

7. Do: get a good URL, something that relates to your topic and is easy to remember. If you have a few different web site addresses (such as your name, maybe an old domain, etc) make sure they aren't all forwarding to the same page on your site. Have them forward to different pages, this will also help with your search rank.

8. Don't: And speaking of keywords...try avoid using slogans, catch phrases or industry jargon. Here's why: first off your reader might be a lay person and doesn't understand what you've written, if you confuse the reader you will lose them. Second, when you search for your site in Google, you'll see that some text comes up with your site URL, this text is pulled from your home page so use that space wisely.

9. Don't: Use flash, it's pretty and also pretty annoying. People don't have time to wait through flash and also search engines can't spider flash. If you have a flash page as an entrance to your site it's like putting up a brick wall no one can see through. Your site is behind there something but no one will ever find it. Not good.

10. Don't: Use link farms to get a lot of incoming links. What are link farms? They are services sold with the specific objective of getting incoming links to your site. The problem with these services is they don't care *what* kind of links they get you as long as it's a link. What this means to you is that you might get a thousand new links to your book on diet and health but they might all be links coming from plumbing sites (I'm not kidding, I've seen this happen).

Search Engine Optimization doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult, the thing to remember is that a static site, boring site doesn’t help your ranking. As a final tip you should also consider getting a blog. If you think blogs are passé think again. A blog, if updated frequently (a minimum of twice weekly) will help your site spider through the search engines and, along with the other tips mentioned above, help you gain ranking and customers.

Wishing you publishing success,

Penny & Everyone at AME
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