Abi Elphinstone

Ember Spark and the Thunder of Dragons
Abi Elphinstone

About Author

Abi Elphinstone grew up in Scotland where she spent most of her childhood running wild across the moors, hiding in tree houses and building dens in the woods. After being coaxed out of her tree house, she studied English at Bristol University and then worked as an English teacher in Tanzania, Berkshire and London.

Abi has written numerous much-loved middle grade novels and picture books and has been shortlisted for multiple awards. When she's not writing, Abi can be found working for The Lamp Of Lothian Trust and scrambling up Scottish mountains with her husband and three little kids.

You can find Abi on Twitter @abielphinstone; Instagram @abi.elphinstone;  Website www.abielphinstone.com



Ember Spark and the Thunder of Dragons  (Simon & Schuster Children's Books)

May 2024

The sleepy seaside village of Yawn might seem to be the very last place you'd look for adventure, but one day an adventure arrives, and Ember Spark is ready to embark!  On her journey, she discovers a world of magical creatures, is hunted by ruthless villains and makes incredible new friendships.

Read a Chapter from Ember Spark and the Thunder of Dragons

Author Abi Elphinstone tells ReadingZone about the secret caves that helped inspire Ember Spark and the Thunder of Dragons; how she creates her settings and names her characters; and the adventures she hopes her stories will inspire in their readers.

Q&A with Abi Elphinstone: Ember Spark and the Thunder of Dragons

"I hope these adventures unlock their sense of curiosity, bolster their bravery, lead them towards
unexpected friendships and knock them sideways with wonder."

1.   Can you tell us about the kinds of stories you love to write, and how you started writing for children?

As a child, I loved books by Eva Ibbotson, Roald Dahl and Jilly Murphy. Adventures with a hint of magic and a good dose of humour. And I think that's what I enjoy writing now: stories that sit in the real world but are sprinkled with magic and mischief.

I wrote three children's books in my twenties, alongside teaching English in a secondary school, and I sent each one out to various literary agents, racking up 96 rejections in total. I kept writing, I attended workshops at literary festivals, I read more and more children's books, and most importantly, I re-worked my ideas and style until my writing was the best that it could be at that stage.

At 30 years old, I signed my first book deal with Simon & Schuster, for a story called The Dreamsnatcher. It features a Romany girl called Moll Pecksniff (I named her after a shower gel in TK Maxx) and a wildcat called Gryff, who embark on a quest to find The Amulets of Truth to beat a witchdoctor's dark magic.

2.   What are your favourite things about being a children's author? And the challenges?

I love meeting children at school visits, literary festivals, bookshop signings and library events; I love the feeling I get when I'm on the cusp of a new idea; I love when a story grows legs of its own and I have to type super-fast to keep up with it; I love holding a finished copy of my book when it comes back from the printers. I'm not so keen on the promotional side of things: the social media especially, as it's hard to keep a level head online…

3.    What is your new book, Ember Spark and the Thunder of Dragons, about?

It's about a 10-year-old girl called Ember Spark who lives in the sleepy seaside village of Yawn, on the east coast of Scotland. All her life, Ember has been waiting for an adventure. Only the adventure seems to be running late. Very late. In fact, Ember's beginning to worry it's not going to bother turning up at all.

Then, one perfectly ordinary Sunday afternoon, strange things start happening. Ember discovers a mysterious creature trapped on a rock out at sea; an odd smell descends over the village; and Ember's teacher, Mrs Rickety-Knees, gives Ember a very peculiar assignment in class - one that contains instructions rather than times-tables: go to Stonechatter Castle and help Rusty Fizzbang.

Ember and a boy called Arno Whisper set off for the castle ruins and discover a secret cave cut into the cliffs there. One filled to the brim with magical beasts. Rusty Fizzbang is in charge - he's a Vet To Magical Beasts - and he's looking for two new apprentices. Not just to mend hippogriff wings and help baby dragons hatch but also to keep the magical beasts safe from evil Jasper Hornswoggle. But, as Ember discovers, keeping dragons, griffins and unicorns a secret isn't an easy task…

"These adventures hauled me out of my misery, made me feel loved and planted in me
an indestructible sense of wonder at wild places."

4. What gave you the idea for this story about hidden magical beasts, separated families and true friendship?

The idea of a secret cave filled with magical beasts came from moving back to Scotland after 15 years in London. I now live on the wild east coast where ancient castles perch on cliff tops, islands rise vertically out of the sea, seals slip silently into harbours and wild ponies roam the mountains. It is impossible not to find yourself on an adventure. And I knew, almost immediately, that I wanted to borrow one of the secret caves I came across in the first few months of moving back to Scotland.

I wrote about separated families and true friendship because when I was little, my parents' marriage broke down. I remember, vividly, the panic I felt in the wake of their divorce. My worry that our family would fall apart because my parents wouldn't be living together. My fear that they would start other families and I'd be left behind.

I withdrew from my friends and spent a lot of time shut up in my bedroom feeling miserable. But my friends rallied round me and they took me on all sorts of adventures out in the wilds of Scotland - camping up the glen, biking through forests, jumping into icy lochs. These adventures hauled me out of my misery, made me feel loved and planted in me an indestructible sense of wonder at wild places.

In Ember Spark And The Thunder Of Dragons, Ember's parents have just split up and she, too, has pulled away from her friends. But then along comes Arno Whisper. He's an unlikely candidate for an adventure (he'd rather be inside making meringues) but as Ember's teacher, Mrs Rickety-Knees, remarks: 'adventures are a bit like hiccups; they can happen to anyone at any time.'

I wanted to write a story about the magic that happens when two children find themselves unexpectedly on an adventure together. It's a magic that says to each child: it's worth being curious, it's worth taking risks and it's worth going the extra mile for your friends. Because as Ember discovers, when life moves in a difficult direction, it's curiosity, courage and friendship that draw you out of the darkness and fling you back into the light.

5.   Is the setting of the (not-so-boring!) town of Yawn in Scotland based on somewhere you know?

Yes! It's a cross between two villages in East Lothian that I adore: East Linton and North Berwick.

6.    The main characters Ember and Arno develop strong bonds with the animals they help rescue. Do you feel this reflects the bonds children have with their pets, and that children learn a lot from them?

As a child, I was obsessed with wanting a pet. First came a goldfish - beautiful to watch, less ideal to cuddle - then came a rabbit. A golden, floppy-eared wonder of a Dwarf rabbit called Doodle, who had free roam of the house - right up until the moment my father found him weeing into his briefcase.

I remember, vividly, the sense of importance I felt when I was given a pet to look after. Something smaller than me that needed my help and attention. And I remember the boundless love I felt, too. All of which I hope I've channelled into Ember Spark: her delight at finding a little hamster-like creature called Forty Winks on the beach and her excitement at becoming an Apprentice Vet To Magical Beasts.

"Naming characters is one my favourite parts of the writing process. I named a pet dog, Babaganoush,
after passing the dip section in a supermarket."

7.    There are some wonderfully evil villains in this story - did you have fun creating - and naming - them?! Any favourite moments with them?

I love writing villains - and naming them is great fun, too. In fact, I named Jasper Hornswoggle during a game of Scrabble with my husband! I was losing, badly, so I started fiddling about with my letters until I got ‘swoggle'. Then I added ‘horn' a few hours later.

Naming characters is one my favourite parts of the writing process. I named a pet dog, Babaganoush, after passing the dip section in a supermarket. I named an elderly teacher, Mrs Rickety-Knees, after listening to an old lady in the doctor's surgery complain about her dodgy knees. And I named the Vet to Magical Beasts, Rusty Fizzbang, after trying ice-cream from a company called Fizzbang. For me, humour, onomatopoeia and connotations are often the key to creating memorable character names.

8.    Apart from a great adventure, what would you like your readers to take from Ember and Arno's journeys through the story?

I hope that children who read Ember Spark & The Thunder Of Dragons will accidentally find themselves on more adventures. And I hope these adventures unlock their sense of curiosity, bolster their bravery, lead them towards unexpected friendships and knock them sideways with wonder.

9.    What do you have planned next for Ember and Arno, and how many stories about them do you plan to write?

The second book in the series, Ember Spark & The Frost Phoenix, comes out in October and it opens with a magical beast hurtling through the window of Ember's kitchen. It's a frost phoenix, one of the rarest and wildest of magical beasts and it's come to fetch Ember and Arno for their biggest adventure yet. One that involves neverwhales, krakens and a secret door in the Arctic… There's a third book coming in May 2025 (I'm half-way through it) and beyond that, who knows?!

10.    What does a favourite day away from your desk look like? And does the magical creatures' love of snacks come from you? Any favourites?

If I've got the kids then I love mucking about with them outside: climbing trees, paddling in the river, climbing (little) mountains (the kids are 2, 4 and 6…). We also love browsing the books in our local bookshop, Night Owl Books, in East Linton.

If I've got childcare, I'll either nip out for a run along the beach or I'll head to a loch nearby which has a sauna on the shore. I go with two friends and we attempt to have conversations whilst plunging into the loch and warming up in the sauna.

As for snacks, I adore them. While typing these answers, I have eaten an indecent amount of Mars Bar Malteser cake…

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