Thursday 26 October 2023

The Grim Reaper - a history by Jenni Spangler


I was always one of the spooky kids – my bedtime reading was filled with ghost stories and my teenage fashion choices leaned towards goth. My mum took me exploring in graveyards and my uncles gave me books on poltergeists and real life ghost hunters. Maybe it was inevitable that I’d write a book with death front and centre.

Valentine Crow and Mr Death is about a foundling boy who, due to a clerical error, is apprenticed to the Grim Reaper. The challenge was finding a narrative about death that was the right sort of spooky for middle grade readers.

It was daunting. I was writing during a pandemic, watching my own children learn about death in a scary and sudden way. I didn’t want to sugar coat things – kids can see right through that – but I also didn’t want to terrify anyone.

We’re not very good at talking about Death in our culture – we distance ourselves from it, and it’s taboo to talk about in many circles. But for as long as we’ve been telling stories, we’ve been telling stories about death. We need stories to get our heads round the stark truth: one day, we won’t be here any more. As simple and as incomprehensible as that.

I read a lot of traditional folk tales in my research and found that stories about death tend to have two key messages – firstly that death is inevitable and necessary, and secondly that everyone is equal in death.

The Three Dead, from the Taymouth Hours, 14th century

One of my favourites – which I borrowed to create a character in Valentine Crow – is ‘Mother Misery’. An old woman tricks Death into climbing an enchanted fruit tree which traps him in its branches. Initially her neighbours are pleased but over time they begin to suffer, as the very sick and old can no longer pass on to the afterlife. She lets him down only once he promises never to come for her, which is why we will always have misery in the world.

Another story tells of a young man who imprisons death to save his mother. But when he tries to cook their supper, he can neither pick vegetables nor kill a chicken, as animals and plants can no longer die. There’s a strange sort of comfort in these tales, because however dark they get (and some of them get VERY dark) they offer us a ‘why’ for death.

Illustration by John B Gruelle, of the story
‘Godfather Death’, Grimms Fairy Tales 1914

Turning death into a character scales it down to something easier to understand – once it has a face and a voice, it’s something we can interact with, bargain with, rail against.

The earliest depiction of death as a cloaked skeleton carrying a scythe was in the 14th century, as the black death swept through Europe and cut down victims swiftly and indiscriminately, as a farmer cuts down a field of wheat at harvest time. The name ‘The Grim Reaper’ came much later, in 1847, and both name and image have stuck with us as the instantly recognisable figure of death.

Illustration by Noel le Mire of Death as a skeleton
with a scythe, from “la mort et le mourant”

At around the same time a motif called the ‘danse macabre’ became popular in medieval art. Grinning skeletons dance hand in hand with living people – kings, bishops and beggars alike - leading them merrily towards their demise. It works as a comfort to the poor and a warning to rich: whatever your status in life, we’re all going to the same place in the end.

 These are often surprisingly playful and comical images, and I love them for that. They’re not (only) an expression of the terror of death, but also evidence of dark humour in the face of unpleasant reality. The urge to take something ugly and scary and turn it into art and laughter.

Illustration of the Danse Macabre from the Nuremberg
Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514)

It’s still with us, in our zombie movies and haunted house rides and on Halloween, when we dress our precious children up as ghosts and skeletons and ply them with sugary treats. An acknowledgment of death, and a defiance of it: we see you there, reaper, but we’re going to celebrate anyway.

Writing challenge – The Grim Reaper is a personification of death. Create a personification of a different abstract idea or concept (hope, truth, power etc). Think about how they might look, speak and move and how they might interact with other characters.

Jenni Spangler is the author of The Incredible Talking Machine, The Vanishing Trick and Valentine Crow and Mr Death.

Theatre school drop out, ex-999 operator and occasional forklift driver, Jenni writes children’s books with a magical twist. She loves to take real and familiar places and events and add a layer of mystery and hocus-pocus.

She was part of the first year of the ‘WriteMentor’ scheme, mentored by Lindsay Galvin, author of ‘The Secret Deep’. As well as her magical middle grade novels, Jenni writes short contemporary YA stories for reluctant and struggling readers, including Torn and Wanted for Badger Learning. Jenni has an Open University degree in English Language and Literature, a 500 metre swimming badge and a great recipe for chocolate brownies. She lives in Staffordshire with her husband and two children. She loves old photographs, picture books and tea, but is wary of manhole covers following an unfortunate incident. 

You can find out more about Jenni and her books at and follow her on twitter and instagram

Tuesday 17 October 2023

Guest Time Tunneller Lindsay Littleson on Travelling in 3rd Class on TITANIC

Hi I’m Lindsay Littleson and I’m the author of The Titanic Detective Agency. One of the main characters in the novel is Johan Cervin Svennson a 14 year old Swedish boy who was travelling alone in 3rd Class on the ship.
I had to do a lot of research for The Titanic Detective Agency and some of that research involved finding out what it was like to be a 3rd Class passenger on RMS Titanic. For example, what were the cabins like, did they have enough to eat, what was there to do on board ship and what were the disadvantages of being in third class when the ship started to sink? In most other ships at the time, third class passengers were known as ‘steerage’ and the passengers often slept in large dormitories in very basic, uncomfortable conditions. But on Titanic, the passengers in 3rd Class slept in proper cabins, some 2-berth, others 4 or more.
The cabins were located on the lower decks, at the ends of the ship where engine noise was an issue. The beds had White Star bed linen and some of the cabins even had washbasins. Unlike in 1st and 2nd Class, the 3rd Class toilets were self -flushing on Titanic. This was because the designers were concerned that the passengers wouldn’t know how to work a flushing toilet. There were only 2 baths for over 700 3rd Class passengers. There was a large dining room where passengers could eat together. While it was nowhere near as luxurious as the dining areas in first class, the tables had white linen cloths and the room was spotlessly clean and bright. The passengers could choose what they wanted to eat from menus. They could have porridge and bread and marmalade for breakfast, soup and roast beef with boiled potatoes for lunch and cold meats and cheese with bread for their tea. It wasn’t fancy, but the food available on Titanic was in stark contrast to conditions on other ships, where often steerage passengers had to bring enough food of their own to last the entire voyage.
The third class passengers had a common room with a piano where they could gather to chat and socialise. On the night of the sinking a party was held there, where passengers played instruments and danced together. The party ended about 10 o’clock. An hour later, Titanic hit an ice-berg and started to sink. 61 children aged 14 and under died in the Titanic disaster. 2 were young crew members. The rest were almost all 3rd Class passengers. 3rd Class passengers had several major disadvantages during the sinking. Many spoke languages other than English, and that night all instructions were being shouted in English. The lifeboats were located on the Boat Deck and there had been no lifeboat drills to show passengers how they should get there in the event of an emergency. To get to the Boat Deck the 3rd Class passengers had to access 1st and 2nd Class areas that they’d previously been told not to enter. Some were told by stewards to stay in the cabins and await further instructions, which never came. The high locked gates shown in the Titanic movie are there for dramatic effect -the gates between the Aft well deck where 3rd class passengers gathered and the stairs to the boat deck were only waist high and even if they were locked, could easily be clambered over. But many passengers didn’t realise the terrible danger they were in until it was too late and most of the lifeboats had already been lowered. Passengers like Frederick and Augusta Goodwin, who were travelling in 3rd Class on Titanic with their six children. Tragically, the whole family died in the sinking. The body of the Unknown Child, buried in Halifax Cemetery after the Titanic disaster, was finally identified as little Sidney Goodwin in 2007.
WRITING CHALLENGE Write a postcard from 3rd Class passenger Johan to his mother in Sweden on the first day of the voyage. Think about images and font style on the front of Titanic postcards from that time and use them for inspiration.
Describe • The 3rd class cabin. • Johan’s first meal on board Titanic • How he is feeling about leaving his mother and four little brothers in Sweden

Lindsay Littleson is a children’s author living in East Renfrewshire, Scotland.

She is the author of Guardians of the Wild Unicorns, a middle-grade novel starring the unicorns of mythology and legend.  Another of her novels is The Titanic Detective Agency, a fresh retelling of the tragedy with a Scottish twist.  Secrets of the Last Merfolk came out in 2021 with Floris Books and The Rewilders and Euro Spies have both been recently published by Cranachan Books.

Her first children’s book, The Mixed Up Summer of Lily McLean, won the 2014 Kelpies Prize and is published by Floris Books.
The sequel to The Mixed Up Summer, The Awkward Autumn of Lily McLean, was published in March 2017 and A Pattern of Secrets, a Victorian mystery set in Paisley, was published by the fabulous Cranachan Books in 2018.

Follow Lindsay on twitter @ljlittleson

Wednesday 11 October 2023

Pirates! by Susan Brownrigg

My book Kintana and the Captain's Curse is inspired by the 'Golden Age of Piracy' between the 1650s and the 1730s. Many people associate pirates with the Caribbean because of the famous theme park ride and film series - but did you know they also inhabited a small island off the coast of Madagascar!

Ile Sainte Marie - or Nosy Boraha in Malagasy - was home to 1500 pirates at the height of the golden age, and some may even have been buried on the island as the cemetery features headstones engraved with skulls and crossbones!

Pirate cemetery, Ile Sainte Marie, Madagascar

Pirates who stayed on the island include David Williams, Thomas White, John Every, Thomas Tew and best known William Kidd - who inspired the plot of my book.

William Kidd

William Kidd was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1655. He was employed as a pirate hunter but apparently wasn't very good at finding pirates so his crew grew mutinous and forced him to turn pirate! 
Kidd and his crew captured a ship called Quedah Merchant along with her cargo of silks, opium, iron and saltpeter (a vital ingredient in gunpowder) and renamed her The Adventure.

Unfortunately they soon learned that the ship was rotten and leaky so they stripped her of anything valuable then deliberately scuttled (sunk) her off the coast of Madagascar.

Later, Kidd asked the English authorities for a pardon, blaming his crew for his actions. This was granted and he sailed to Boston, America but on arrival he was arrested! Kidd was taken back to England to face trial. The evidence was heard really quickly and he was found guilty of several counts of piracy and of murdering one of his crew.
He was sentenced to hang. On the day of his execution the rope snapped on the first attempt - but the second try was successful. Kidd's body was placed in a gibbet and was placed at the entrance to the River Thames as a warning to others not to turn pirate.

Treasure hunters and divers continue to search around Ile Saint Marie for the wreck of Kidd's ship and any of his booty!

Captain Kidd with his buried treasure
from Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates

The second pirate who inspired by book is Blackbeard! Originally from Bristol, Blackbeard's real name is traditionally reported to be Edward Teach although some researchers think it may actually have been Edward Thatch!

His nickname came from his long black beard, which may have reached down to his waist! He used to tie tapers into his beard and hair and light them so smoke would billow around his head during attacks on other ships - making him look terrifying!

In 1718 Blackbeard had accrued a flotilla of ships and he used them to blockade the harbour near Charlestown and during one week he attacked nine ships as they left, and plundered them.

The local governor sent Lieutenant Maynard to capture Blackbeard. Maynard told his men to hide below deck, so when Blackbeard and his crew came on board they ambushed them.
In a man-to-man battle with Maynard, Blackbeard received five gunshots and 25 stab wounds, before he died from his injuries.

After his death, his head was chopped off and hung from his ship as a warning to others not to become pirates. A story began to spread that his headless body had been swimming around his ship looking for his head!

This woodcut from 1725 featured in Charles Johnson's book A General History of the Pyrates features the famous Jolly Roger flag and shows a skull and crossbones.
Charles Johnson's book included lots of stories that may or may not have been true, but which had a big influence on how people think of pirates ever since. It particularly inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Treasure Island and J M Barrie to write Peter Pan - two very successful pirate books for children.

Individual pirates designed their own flag. Blackbeard was said to use this flag featuring a horned skeleton - perhaps representing the devil - spearing a heart. In his hand is an hour glass. The message seems to be something like Your time is up! You're going to die!

Among the crew named as working for Blackbeard was a pirate called Israel Hands. Israel features in Treasure Island and is thought to be based on a real person.

Israel Hands depicted by Howard Pyle

He is the third pirate who inspired my book. It is said that Blackbeard shot Israel Hands in the knee and when asked why, the captain said "if he did not now and then kill one of them they would forget who he was!"
An injury like that, may well have led to an amputation. Israel was said to have later become a beggar in London - though in my book I have given him a reprieve and he is running a pet shop on Ile Sainte Marie with his daughter Kintana.

WRITING CHALLENGE: A lot of pirate stories feature a hunt for buried treasure - with clues on a map. Can you design your own map? What features will you include? A harbour, a fortress, secret caves? Don't forget to mark a big X where your treasure is located. You can use your map to plot out your own treasure hunt adventure!

Susan Brownrigg is the author of Kintana and the Captain's Curse, and the Gracie Fairshaw mystery series. (Uclan Publishing)

Find out more at

Tuesday 3 October 2023

Recycling, Victorian Style: Sweetheart Brooches by Barbara Henderson

Remember that time when we…? We often share precious memories, don’t we? We love to look back on times, people and places which are special to us, or which meant something at the time. Why else would there be such a thriving souvenir trade in tourist hotspots, for example? And photographs fulfil the same purpose – they help us hold on to things and events in the past which we may otherwise forget. The Victorian construction workers who built the first significant steel bridge across the waters of the Firt of Forth were no different – only, they rarely had photography at their disposal. If they wanted a memento of their time spent working on the bridge, they had to be ingenious and thrifty – and they came up with a fantastic solution.
The Forth Bridge is constructed from shaped and cut steel, riveted together by at least 6.5 million rivets. But this sort of construction effort did not come about without waste – there would have been many steel offcuts lying around in the famous workshops on the hillside. The workers found a good use for some of this waste material: jewellery for their loved ones.
Yes, I know it sounds a little strange: taking bits of a bridge and turning the waste material into something to be admired and stared at? The resulting brooches and pendants were often simple in shape, cut using the tools of the steel trade, and polished until they resembled the more precious silver. In addition to cutting, there were skilled engravers on site who knew how to add words and decoration to such jewellery. Imagine your delight if you were a girl, courted by such a bridge worker (“brigger” was the word used for the workforce)! You may find your own name engraved on the brooch, or perhaps the name of your admirer who gave you the piece. Many of the men took great pride in being involved in such important work, and they wanted to shout about it!
Occasionally, the offcuts were worked on by a skilled jeweller instead of the workmen themselves, resulting in a more ornamental, detailed design.
I love that there are still items of jewellery made from bridge offcuts in drawers and attics around the country. If only we knew their stories!
Writing challenge: Think of a person who is special to you: a parent, a friend, a relative… Now think of a place that means something to both of you. Design a brooch or pendant, containing words – what would it say? Now write a card which would accompany such a beautiful and meaningful gift. Barbara Henderson is a Time Tunneller. Her latest historical adventure is Rivet Boy, set during the construction of the Forth Bridge.

Your sister, brother, mother and grandmother have confessed to witchcraft - and you must give evidence against them! That's what happene...