I’m delighted to share the news that the fourth and final Taylor & Rose Secret Agents book has now been announced! NIGHTFALL IN NEW YORK illustrated by Karl James Mountford will be published on 8th July 2021.
This will be the eighth full length book about Sophie and Lil and it’s strange to think that it’s almost time to bring their adventures to an end. But I feel like this is the right time to bid them a fond farewell – and what better place to end the series than New York City?
I think I say this every single time but I really think this absolutely stunning cover is my favourite yet. Considering I was still writing the first draft of the book when Karl was working on it, I’m amazed by how brilliantly he’s managed to create a perfect cover for Sophie and Lil’s last adventure together…
I know lots of readers are eagerly waiting for this final book, and you can pre-order your copy now from Waterstones. Stay tuned to find out more about Nightfall in New York soon!
After being published last month, it’s been so lovely to see A Dancer’s Dream being read and enjoyed. Today I thought I’d share some of the story behind this book, which actually began its life as a short story with a different title — Casse-Noisette, or otherwise, ‘The Nutcracker’.
This story, which first appeared in the anthology Winter Magic, took inspiration from Tchaikovsky’s much-loved ballet ‘The Nutcracker’ which itself has a complex backstory. The ballet which we all know today was originally inspired by a story called ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’ written by the German writer ETA Hoffman in 1816, which had subsequently been adapted by the French writer Alexandre Dumas in 1844 as ‘Histoire d’un casse-noisette’. A Russian doll-within-Russian-doll of inspirations, if you will!
The idea of writing about ‘The Nutcracker’ first came to me when I was asked to write a story for Abi Elphinstone’s anthology Winter Magic which was being published by Simon & Schuster. This new collection would bring together a host of wintery, festive stories, glittering with snowy and frosty magic. I knew at once that I wanted my story to be historical, and my first idea was that I might write about the frost-fairs that used to take place on the River Thames, back when winters were so cold that the whole river would freeze completely solid, and fairs would take place out on the ice. But when I mentioned this to the team at Simon & Schuster, they told me that another writer (the brilliant Emma Carroll) was already working on a frost-fair story! So it was back to the drawing board…
I began thinking about my favourite things about winter and Christmastime. There were lots of possibilities, but one tradition that I immediately thought of was going to the pantomime, the ballet, or the theatre, which we always did at Christmas when I was growing up. I especially loved ballet, so seeing ‘The Nutcracker’ was a particular festive treat – for me, the spellbinding story of Clara’s adventure on Christmas Eve, complete with its ballets of snowflakes and dancing sweets, really did seem to capture all the magic of this time of year.
I decided to find out a little more about the history of the ballet, and its origins. In particular, I began reading about the very first performance of ‘The Nutcracker’ which took place just before Christmas in 1892, in the famous Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, Russia. Immediately, I became very interested – because there were some surprising things to discover. Considering it’s now one of the most famous and beloved ballets in the world, ‘The Nutcracker’ didn’t actually get off to a very promising start.
For one thing, Tchaikovsky wasn’t initially very keen on writing a ballet based on the Nutcracker story. It was the choreographer, Petipa, who was set on the choice of the subject matter, and who devised a synopsis. Reluctantly, Tchiakovksy set to work, but then tragedy struck when he heard the news of the death of his beloved sister, Sasha. ‘Today… I feel the absolute impossibility of depicting in music the “Sugarplum Fairy,”‘ Tchiakovsky wrote. In spite of his grief and sadness, he continued to work, perhaps even putting something of his lost sister into the character of Clara, and weaving in his own memories of childhood family Christmases.
Meanwhile, as rehearsals for the new ballet began, choreographer Petipa also experienced a tragedy when his 15-year-old daughter Evgenia died of cancer. Shortly afterwards he fell ill himself, forcing him to take leave for the rest of the season. His assistant Lev Ivanov had to step in and take charge of ‘The Nutcracker’ in his place.
Finally, when the ballet was at last performed for an audience including the Tsar of Russia, the reviews were mixed. ‘The Nutcracker’ was not immediately popular, and even got some negative responses from critics. Some of the dancers were criticised, others felt it was merely a ‘spectacle’ rather than a true ballet. It wasn’t until some years later that it grew in popularity, before eventually becoming the favourite Christmas ballet we know today.
One of the other things that caught my attention about this first staging of ‘The Nutcracker’ is that lots of the parts in the ballet were played by child dancers – including the lead roles of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, which were played by pupils from the Imperial Ballet School. Children performing in ballet productions was not new – Petipa had included children’s dances in almost all of his ballets. However, it was very unusual to cast young dancers in leading roles. Clara, the girl at the centre of the story was played by a young dancer called Stanislava Belinskaya, who was just 12 years old at the time.
I was immediately interested in Stanislava. She was the first to play this incredibly famous and important role – and yet we know little about her. After this moment in the spotlight, she seems to fade away from dance history. Interestingly, one of her friends and classmates who wasn’t chosen to dance in the first production of ‘The Nutcracker’ went on to become one of the most famous dancers of all the time – the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova.
Thinking about Stanislava (or ‘Stana’ as I decided to call her, which is the shortened form of her name) – and her classmate Anna – and what life might have been like for them at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg at the end of the 19th century – soon sparked my imagination. I wanted to explore some of my favourite things about The Nutcracker ballet – the magical dream sequences, the cosy scenes of a family celebrating together at Christmas-time – and weave them together with some of the real history, including Tchiakovsky’s story. I imagined a home and a family for Stana – including her own beloved sister who was unwell – as well as trying to conjur up how it might have felt for her as a young dancer to step out onto the grand stage and perform in such an important role.
The finished story was first published in Winter Magic and a little while later, the team at Simon & Schuster said they’d like to turn it into an illustrated book (following on from Abi Elphinstone’s story ‘The Snow Dragon’ which had already been transformed into a gorgeous illustrated story with artwork by Fiona Woodcock. I was especially thrilled to hear they’d asked one of my very favourite illustrators, Lizzy Stewart, to illustrate it.
It was amazing to see the story turned into the beautiful A Dancer’s Dream. Lizzy’s artwork perfectly brings to life snowy St Petersburg and the glittering Mariinsky Theatre. What a joy!
Check out my Pinterest board if you’d like to see some more images that helped to inspire this story
Or if you like ballet stories, check out my list of ballet-inspired children’s books over on Bookshop.org
In snow- covered St. Petersberg, young dancer Stana’s dreams have finally come true – she has been chosen to play the lead role in Tchaikovsky’s new ballet, The Nutcracker. But with all eyes on her, can Stana overcome her nerves and dance like she’s never danced before…?
Illustrated by Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize winner, Lizzy Stewart, this sumptuous and magical retelling of The Nutcracker will transport you on a journey far beyond the page.
Buy it now from Waterstones | The Hive | Amazon
Here in England we’ve just entered a second lockdown, with all non-essential shops (including bookshops) closed. But in the approach to Christmas, it’s more important than ever that we keep supporting our wonderful bookshops, if we want to keep them on our high streets!
If you’re in need of lockdown reading material – or if you have Christmas presents to buy – then make sure you check out Waterstones.com (with local shops offering a click and collect service, as well as delivery by post) or your local independent bookshops, most of which will offer books for delivery or collection. (Not sure if you have any independent bookshops locally? Check this list to find your nearest).
You can also now buy books via the brand new uk.bookshop.org which is a socially-conscious alternative to Amazon. It’s a good way to buy books online while helping to support independent bookshops – there are discounts, and books are sent directly to your door, but 10% from every sale goes to independent bookshops.
Even better if you buy directly from an indie’s page they’ll get 30% from the sale – and with bookshops closed for browsing, it’s a wonderful way to find book recommendations. Check out Storytellers Inc, Roundtable Books, Sevenoaks Bookshop or Tales on Moon Lane for some lovely examples. You can also visit my page, where you can find links to all my books.
If you’d like to do more to support independent bookshops (and pick up some very special Christmas treats!) you should also check out #SignForOurBookshops, a new campaign to help bookshops during November.
Instigated by the brilliant Holly Bourne, lots of authors and illustrators are offering signed and personalised bookplates if you buy from a local bookshop. Lizzy Stewart and I are pleased to be offering signed bookplates for copies of our new book A Dancer’s Dream – get yours if you order the book from any of these bookshops (first come, first served!)
(If any other bookshops would like some signed bookplates please do contact me and let me know!)
My latest book is out today! A Dancer’s Dream began life as a short story I wrote for the anthology Winter Magic which tells the story of the first performance of the classic Christmas ballet, ‘The Nutcracker’.
I loved writing the story and was delighted when the wonderful team at Simon & Schuster Children’s Books said they’d like to turn it into an illustrated book, with artwork by one of my favourite illustrators, the brilliant Lizzy Stewart.
The resulting book is a real treasure — exactly the right kind of thing to find under the tree on Christmas morning, or read together by the fire on Christmas Eve. As well as Lizzy’s stunning artwork, there’s glittering gold foil, and all kinds of beautiful detail. Here’s a little more about the story:
In snow -covered St. Petersberg, young dancer Stana’s dreams have finally come true – she has been chosen to play the lead role in Tchaikovsky’s new ballet, ‘The Nutcracker’.
But with all eyes on her, can Stana overcome her nerves and dance like she’s never danced before…?
A Dancer’s Dream is out now, and you can buy it now from Waterstones. There’s also a very special exclusive edition available only from independent bookshops, which contains a beautiful print signed by both me and Lizzy. Please do support a bricks-and-mortar bookshop if you can — it’s more important than ever to support our bookshops to keep them going on our high streets!
Alternativelty, order via Bookshop.org.uk – a fantastic new website which allows you to order books online, and have them sent to you at home, but which also helps to support independent bookshops. You can find my page here with links to buy all my books, as well as lots more books I recommend.
To celebrate the publication of Villains in Venice, I thought I’d share some recommendations of other children’s books set in the city. Reading other works of fiction set in a particular place is one of my favourite ways to research the settings for my books – so whether you’re planning a trip to Venice and want the perfect reading material to take along, or simply plan to travel there in your imagination, here are a few suggestions:
The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke
In modern-day Venice, brothers Prosper and Boniface are on the run. There’s a detective on their tail, and they’re hiding among the canals and alleyways of the city. Soon they are taken in by a gang of street children and their leader, the mysterious Thief Lord, and find shelter in an old, abandoned cinema.But that’s just the beginning of an extrordinary adventure involving a beautiful merry-go-round with magical powers… This enchanting Venetian fantasy is perfect for readers looking for a story of mystery and magic.
Unveiling Venus by Sophia Bennett
In the sequel to Following Ophelia, a historical YA novel inspired by the Pre-Raphealite painters, we rejoin heroine Mary, formerly a maid, now reinvented as glamorous artist’s model Persephone Lavelle. Setting out from Victorian London to Venice with her friend Kitty, she hopes to escape scandal and gossip. But when she encounters a mysterious masked young man on the Grand Canal, there’s trouble in store… Complete with bohemian artists, Venetian masked balls, and of course, plenty of romance, this is a delightful young adult novel, which will transport you back in time to 19th century Venice.
The Undrowned Child by Michelle Lovric
Author Michelle Lovric has written several books set in Venice, but I’d especially recommend this unusual critically-acclaimed fantasy, which takes place in the same period as Villains in Venice. This is the story of Teo, a young girl who has always longed to visit Venice. But when she finally gets her wish, all kinds of strange things begin to happen to her. Teo is quickly subsumed into a remarkable secret world of ghosts, talking statues, librarians that turn into cats, mermaids that run underground printing presses… and terrible danger. With the help of a Venetian boy, Renzo, and a mysterious book entitled The Key to the Secret City, she soon discovers that she alone has the power to save the floating city from the sinister ‘Traitor’.
Stravagaza: City of Masks by Mary Hoffman
The first book in Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza series introduces us to Lucien – a teenage boy who is dealing with a serious illness. Lucien’s life takes an unexpected turn when an old Italian notebook transports him from his sick-bed to Belezza – a city rather like the Venice of the 16th Century. There he meets Arianna, a girl dressed as a boy who is risking everything in the hope of being chosen as one of the Duchessa’s ‘mandoliers’ and learns that he has become a stravagante – a kind of time traveller. He is soon immersed in the intriguing world of Belezza, becoming a mandolier himself and even saving the Duchessa from an assassination attempt. But what will be the consequences of his remarkable adventures for his life back home? Whilst it isn’t set in Venice itself but an ‘alternate’ version, this engaging fantasy story is full of fascinating detail inspired by the city’s real history.
The Mask of Aribella by Anna Hoghton
In this charming magical adventure for young readers, Aribella is the daughter of a lace-maker, growing up on the island of Burano in the Venice lagoon. But Aribella has a deadly and dangerous secret – when she gets angry, sparks shoot from her fingertips! She knows she mustn’t let anyone know about her strange magical powers, yet when dark spectres rise from the lagoon, her abilities save her life. Soon, she has been discovered by the Cannovaci – a society of masked, magical warriors, who have sworn to protect Venice against the dark spirits that menace the city.
Finally, of course, I have to mention Villains in Venice itself!
Set in 1912, the third book in the Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series follows intrepid young secret agents Sophie Taylor and Lil Rose to Venice on a new mission for the British Secret Service Bureau. But there are villains lurking amongst the city’s piazzas, canals and crumbling palaces, and in the shadows an old enemy lies in wait…
What are your favourite children’s books set in Venice? I’d love to hear any other suggestions in the comments!
If you enjoyed this list then do also check out my other Taylor & Rose inspired booklists: