Ally arrives from England with her brothers to stay for a month in Africa – weeks of running wild on an unspoiled, untamed coast amid mangrove creeks, vast white sandy beaches, coral reefs and warm seas.
But on their first walk through the forest, Ally is swamped by a sense of an unseen presence..
Then local teenager, Leli enthusiastically sweeps her into the world of his village and their offshore island, Kisiri – the place of secrets. Swiftly, he becomes the centre of her life; but Kisiri is a place of legend, protected and feared: and when the island is threatened, everything and everyone, conspires to drive a wedge between them.
‘The best books for teens this Easter’ in The Scotsman, by Hannah Sycamore
‘Those in search of a more unusual thriller should try Song Beneath the Tides … a rich and gripping novel that explores the lasting impact of colonialism, the horrors of animal poaching and the effects of tourism on local communities in East Africa. Past and present stories collide as Ally experiences glimpses into the past. Her visions are deeply rooted in the legends and stories of Kisiri, a sacred island at risk from poachers and threatened by tourist development. Told in parallel timelines, this novel is a unique and fresh story for YA readers. It presents challenging themes in an accessible, engaging and thought-provoking way and at its heart it is a story about hope and the importance of working together.’
For the full review, click ⇓
WRD About Books
‘A complex and lyrical adventure that’s part ghost story, part thriller, part love story. Compelling, atmospheric and beautifully written.’
Scottish Books Trust
‘Gripping. … explores themes including colonialism, international tourism and animal poaching, change and resilience. At its core, it’s a book about hope and working together. Click post-it for video review:
‘This is a story that’s rich with history, folklore and mysticism. As a reader you are swept away by the evocative language. … a stunning and sophisticated combination of romance and mystery and is sure to be devoured by teenagers and adults alike.’
Clare Wilkins, school librarian.
Ally is on the holiday of a lifetime with her brothers in Africa. With her Aunt distracted by her workload as a doctor, Ally and her brothers can run free along the wild and stunning coastline. They quickly make friends with some local children and soon find themselves drawn in by the local folklore and customs and the modern world that clashes with them.
Ally, in particular, is drawn to local boy, Leli, and an intense bond develops between them. Fearing for the future of Kisiri, a local island swathed in legend and revered by locals, Ally and Leli set out on a dangerous mission to protect the island and its heritage. However, Ally’s status as a foreigner and outsider hinder her attempts o help and, as the locals become increasingly alarmed by a new tourist development, matters rush to a terrifying conclusion.
This is a story that’s rich with history, folklore and mysticism. As a reader you are swept away by the evocative language and the brutal descriptions of threats to an established and sacred way of life. Ally and Leli’s story alternates with a historical narrative of Portuguese invaders and the comparisons between the stories and links to local legends are cleverly entwined.
This is a stunning and sophisticated combination of romance and mystery and is sure to be devoured by teenagers and adults alike.
To see the review and read an extract in ReadingZone, click ⇓
Ipswich Children’s Book Group
‘Lyrical, layered and dealing with relevant themes of animal poaching and the effects of uncontrolled tourism, this is a powerful novel, transporting the reader to a richly observed setting. It stays with you long after closing the last page.’
Ipswich Children’s Book Group ⇒
Review and interview in Just Imagine
‘Song Beneath the Tides is a thrilling adventure with important things to say, and it is superbly written. I strongly recommend it.’ Read the full review ⇒
Nikki Gamble interviewed me for Just Imagine, talking about my early life in East Africa, and the inspirations behind Song Beneath the Tides.
‘Beautifully written, compelling, magical and with powerful historical and political information elegantly woven into the mix. ‘
Judy Allen, Whitbread-Award winning and critically-acclaimed author of over 50 books
‘Ah, I was trying not to read Song Beneath The Tides too fast, trying to savour every moment. Instead I found myself caught up and carried along by the tide of your story. Congratulations! Perfectly woven together, I lived it, heard it smelt it, touched it as I was transported to the forest and beach to Shanza and … Kisiri.
And underneath it all a deep, knowing current anchored in factual history and oral traditional tales giving it depth and resonance.
Margaret Bateson-Hill much-loved story-teller and award-winning author of multiple books including The Dragon Racer trilogy and Masha and the Firebird
‘A magical layered story weaving past and present that stole my heart.’
Jasbinder Bilan, Costa Award-winning children’s author of Asha and the Firebird
‘Set on the idyllic Kenyan coast, in luminously beautiful writing, it combines a poignant ghost story, modern day love and a serious political message.’
Patricia Elliott award-winning and critically acclaimed author of many novels including the Connie Carew mysteries and the Pimpernelles books
‘The writing is beautiful, summoning the East African landscape with such clarity and precision that I feel I’ve walked on this light-drenched coast. A tender love story that turns eerie, fierce and political, with a strong message about community and resistance.’
Liz Flanagan, Carnegie Medal nominated and critically-acclaimed author of Eden Summer, Dragon Daughter and Rise of the Shadow Dragons
‘a fascinating richly-layered novel asking big questions about how we explore and understand the past as well as deftly building to a thrilling climax. Highly recommended!
Cath Howe award-winning and critically-acclaimed author of Ella on the Outside and Not My Fault
‘It brings Africa so close, so beautifully drawn, haunting and so heartbreaking … yet so life affirming’
Sarah Mussi, award-winning and critically-acclaimed author of multiple novels including Siege
‘Beautiful, intense and atmospheric book. Intricately drawn characters in a rich, vibrant setting, and is packed with mystery and action.
Mo O’Hara best-selling and acclaimed author of many books including My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish series and Agent Moose
‘It is a fine book, vibrant and powerful, infused with a deep love for a land and its history. She cleverly interleaves the greed and violence of the colonial past into a gripping story of modern day smuggling, poaching and exploitation and shows how such threats can be defeated and overcome by love, friendship, loyalty and a people’s respect for the land, its culture and each other.’
Celia Rees, award-winning and critically-acclaimed author of Witch Child, Pirates! and Glass Town Wars
‘a wonderfully told story that crosses history with modern political issues, and diverse cultures seen through different perspectives. Evocative landscapes are woven together with engaging characters to create a rich tapestry of mystery, suspense, and teenage romance. Raising environmental issues that really make the reader think, this is an essential book for secondary school libraries to spark discussions on themes such as community, ownership, cultural differences and values, and the power of beautifully descriptive writing.’
Victoria Williamson, critically-acclaimed author of The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle and The Boy with the Butterfly Mind
Two traditional tales about the wild animals of Africa, beautifully illustrated.
‘The Water Thief’ is about the mischievous antics of Hyena and how all the animals fail to stop him – except one. Who is clever enough to outwit him?
‘Lumbwi and the Gazelle’ tells of a moving friendship between a man and a beautiful gazelle. But when Lumbwi embarks on a new life he no longer has time for his old friend …
Illustrated by Daniele Fabbri
Some pages from the book
[published by HarperCollins: Collins Big Cat]
Retelling folk tales …
I’ve really loved writing this. I thought about all the folk tales I heard as a child in Africa, and discovered so many new ones. In the end, I chose these two. They’re both about friendship, but very different.
One’s about teamwork, helping each other, about succeeding even when you’re very small. The other’s about betrayal, and rather sad.
Both tales havevibrant illustrations by artistDaniele Fabbri.
Sessions are specifically designed for different age groups.
I also do the following themed sessions:
Shakespeare, his life, inspirations and his plays
Particularly for Shakespeare Week.
These sessions are inspired by my research for retelling his plays for a young audience. They focus around his life and inspirations, theatre in Tudor times, his plays – with readings from the retellings. The sessions are interactive, and I bring artefacts for children to handle.
For years 5-7
Focused around Mary Shelley’s original vision as a teenager, and how she came to start writing the story: on Lake Geneva, 200 years ago this June, in company with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, after reading ghost stories. With readings from my retelling.
For years 3-7
Drawn from wonderfully rich mine of animal tales across the world, and stories told to me during my own childhood in Africa. How these stories often travel from continent to continent and how their themes and variations can be found the world over.
With readings from some of my retellings.
For years 1-3.
Can be adapted for years 5-6 as a creative writing session – producing their own retelling and picture book, on their own, or partnering a friend.
Editing and Publishing
Drawing on my experience as a commissioning editor in children’s publishing. Talks about being an editor and about the process of publishing – how it works, publishing as a career, putting books together.
Can be designed for year 6 up to year 13.
Can be focused as a career talk for students contemplating internships and career choices.
This is my pony, Jessica. I spent hours riding her around, exploring, often joined by curious giraffe or zebra.
My home was once part of Karen Blixen’s farm: she wrote a book about her life in Kenya, called OUT OF AFRICA. It was made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. the film
Her book begins, ‘I had a farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills’ – and that’s where our house was. You could see the knuckle shapes of the hills through acacia trees at the bottom of our garden. It was near vast tracts of open land and forest with only a few scattered villages, and it stretched to the edge of the great Rift Valley.
My parents got hold of two ponies from a wild herd, and somehow my sister and I persuaded them to let us get on their backs. After falling off a lot, we learned to ride.
We spent all our time outside – making dens, climbing trees and wandering about on those ponies. And I daydreamed a lot, making up stories in my head.
Nowadays I still spend a lot of time outside, walking, exploring, reading, and learning to sail. I also like films and theatre. And I’m still daydreaming, making up stories in my head, but also writing them down in my books.
How I write – and some writing tips
Scroll through the slideshow to find different tips …
How I write ...
I see the story as I’m writing, like watching a film. I play around with who's telling it, what they see, getting inside the heads of my characters.
I scribble notes, ideas, connections, odd sentences that frame an idea for a scene or conversation. I make sketches and maps, collect pictures to pin up near my desk.
When the story starts to take shape ...
... and ideas pile up, I start writing on to my laptop. Great splurges of it come out very fast. Then I work over it, shaping, developing or cutting back until it feels right, before I move on.
When I get stuck ...
I do something else that's got nothing to do with the story. Then a clue on how to move on will jump into my head when I'm on a bus, a walk, in a shop, or just doing the washing up. Really, I'm trusting my subconscious to fix it for me ...
Where I write ...
Anywhere - buses, trains, in the bath, on a park bench, café, the library, even waiting in a queue. Whenever an idea grabs me.
I get my ideas from ...
... everything and anything. Might be something that’s happened to me, or someone's told me, or I’ve read, or a place I've seen. Or a memory, or a dream. Quite a few scenes in my books come from a half-remembered dream …
Writing tip #1 How to start …
Just have a go. Don’t worry about where to start or what’s going to happen. Let the writing be part of disovering what you want to happen. Just imagine yourself in the place you want to write about, or the situation you want to write about, and think about what you see, hear, feel, think … the story will start to form …
Writing tip #2 Writing is playing …
Ignore the rules. Just scribble and try things out and experiment. One of my books started with a scene that happens right at the end of the story (The Night of the Fire Lilies). Once your story has started to take shape, you can go back and think about the grammar and punctuation and all the other things that help to make your story clear for a reader.
Writing tip #3 When you get stuck …
Try closing your eyes. Let what’s happening in your story when you got stuck fill your head. Think 'what can I see, hear, smell, touch …?' often you will find that the story starts to move again … and even if you never include that little bit of writing in your story, it gives you a kind of bridge to cross to what happens next.
Writing tip #4 When you feel rubbish and think what you’re doing is awful
Trust yourself. Don’t let anyone put you off. If you want to write – or write and draw – or just draw, just do it. The more you do it, the better you’ll become, and you can always look back at something and think about how to make it better. Or think ‘that was a really good idea, but maybe if I write it like this …’ and you’re off on another piece of writing inspired by the one that disappointed you.
But get something on paper!
Writing tip #5 Some ideas to help you find a new story …
Here are some things to explore. Try writing a pretend diary, imagining yourself as an explorer or traveller or scientist or whatever you want to pretend to be. It can help you find a new story.
Writing tip #6 Making a picture book
If you have younger brothers or sisters (or cousins) try writing and drawing a picture book for them. Or if you have a friend who likes to draw and you don’t, team up with them to make a picture book together. One of my picture books (Suzi, Sam, George and Alice) began because my children started writing stories about our cats – and it got me thinking about one too!
On writing picture books and creative partnerships
A picture book is greater than the sum of text and pictures. It may seem self-evident, but isn’t always true, and is a crucial ingredient in a picture book that really works.
Growth to something new through bonding of separate creative elements words, pictures and design – makes picture books, for me, particularly invigorating to write. In a novel you manipulate imagination and skills on your own.
In picture books there is the artist, bringing unknown dimensions and possibilities. The open-endedness of that is marvellous. Words and pictures result in two visions merged and reborn as a single entity through the mediating vision of the editor selecting the text in the first place, creating the partnership, and guiding all with an eye for the hidden rocks.
A difficult task. Books have foundered on an author’s unhappiness with an artist’s conception. But pictures that merely illustrate, however effectively, result in a disappointing book. Glorious pictures with a limp text don’t work either. In a good picture book, words and pictures reflect each other, but go further. True picture book artists bring a new insight, sometimes with a subtext and proliferating subplots never originally dreamed of by the writer.
Children respond in powerful ways to these visual worlds, succumbing to the magic of storytelling (and on to the magic of language) wanting to know more, to explore every corner of the picture, to get to the end of the story, hear it again ultimately to read it for themselves. Layers of meaning reside not only within words and pictures, but in that critical linking of the two.
In Suzi Sam George and Alice, I used a recurring phrase ‘time for George to rest’. It conveys the image of a tired cat. The artist Sally Gardner’s languid George draped around telephones, toy boxes, watering cans, even in the oven, gives instantly the intrusive of his centre stage, egocentric laziness and the unpredictable domestic chaos created by the two kids and their cats.
And there’s a critical aspect of the editor’s role here to ensure subplots don’t obliterate the central conception of the story, part of the partnership between all parties to a picture book’s birth: editor at the centre, but the designer too working to achieve a harmonious page that does justice to the enlarged whole.
Writing a picture book is in a very real sense, only the beginning. Structure, meaning, characters,setting will be reinvented by someone who deals in visual images, not words.
For the writer there is an enormous danger in assuming that what you write will be literally ‘illustrated’, and then feeling disappointed when the artist doesn’t. Start from here, and you’re heading for a bad picture book, intrinsically limited by a strait jacket imposed on visual skills by non-visual skills. Picture books are nerve wracking for some writers. Will the artist take over? Will the story be undermined? Will the book become something they no longer recognize or like? It is not an anxiety I share, but I recognize the problem.
Obviously the author must agree to the choice of artist. The artist needs to take on the author’s text with enthusiasm, feeling that it is right for them. Here, again, the vision of the editor is at work: who is right for this one? Adrian Reynolds illustrated Down the road to Jamie’s House. I knew and loved his artwork already, but I was unprepared for the instant meshing of his ideas with mine. Adrian’s Annie is someone I recognized at once in every aspect of her shape, looks, gestures.
When I start to write I do have pictures in my head. But I also know that I need to stay open to variation and experiment, be prepared to rework areas of the text if the artist’s insight suggests something not originally envisaged. This ‘reworking’ may mean breaking the text between pages differently. Or teasing out a section of text to allow room for another picture: as in The Village in the Forest by the Sea,where I made room for Angela Chidgey’s enthusiasm for the beauty of the Kenyan coast.
Or I may need to change something. In Down the road to Jamie’s House, Annie is suddenly terrified in an unfamiliar park. My original text talked of
‘Tall trees, dark trees, whispering trees, sighing.
Split! Splat! Raindrops plopping, splashing Annie’s face.
Bushes crouching, hissing in the rain.’
Adrian’s picture showed no bushes. Dark trees leaning across a tiny girl. But no bushes. The scene is profoundly menacing. I had no hesitation in jettisoning the crouching bushes (much as I liked them) and reworking the last three lines. Now there are ‘shadows hissing in the rain’.
The recognition of the rightness of an artist’s conception, like finding a picture book idea in the first place, remains an infinitely mysterious thing for me. Children ask, Where do ideas come from? I don’t know. Once, as I woke, there was an idea that took firmer and firmer shape and then shot out of my head on to paper as a new picture book text, all in the space of an hour or two. But in what corner of my head it had been nestling, and what triggered it, I have no idea.
In my most recent picture books – Turtle’s Party in the Clouds (truly vibrant pictures by Christine Jenny), and Greedy Anansi and his Three Cunning Plans, (equally richly illustrated by Alexander Jansson), I had that same instant sense of recognition in seeing the artists’ conceptions, and of the ‘bigger’ story their vision made of the originals.
What I do know is that possessiveness, an author’s sense of the picture book as ‘mine’, impedes fruitful development. An artist always brings something of self. As writer, you need to be open and welcome that. Together we have to create something that is read and reread (awful as a parent to have to return to a limp text!). Our picture book may offer reassurance, take off on wings of imagination, new ideas, words, sounds, a good laugh … or if it is rich enough, all of these things. We have such a wonderful heritage in picture books, constantly joined by new books which take my breath away. Using them with children, seeing how they respond, always reawakens my effort to try in partnership with the artists to reach for that quality in our books.