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Dominique Valente on her Favourite Magical Creatures

Posted on 10th March 2020 by Mark Skinner

Dominique Valente's Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Day is a hilarious fantasy romp for all children with a sense of humour as well as a sense of adventure. The novel, our Children's Book of the Month for March, features some unusual creations, from cloud dragons to bashful trolls to broomsticks with a mind of their own, and in this exclusive piece, Dominique runs through her favourite magical creatures in fiction.  

Whenever I was presented with a collection of fairy stories growing up, it was always the stranger tales that captured me most. You could keep your sanitised Cinderellas and Snow Whites, those pages left unread and unloved by jam-licked fingers, my sticky paw stopping only for stories about witches, sneaky spirits or that old woman who lived in a shoe.

See, when other kids had mothers who cut the crusts off their sandwiches and filled their plastic lunchboxes with dried fruit, biltong and mini Cheddars (this being the 90s and South Africa), I had one who wrapped up fish paste sarnies in clingfilm while she told me stories. Like that time she made friends with a ghost. Or the precise moment her sister, Liz, knew that she had experienced a past life.

I’m not sure if I believed everything or if I was meant to, but it did give me an appreciation for things that get a firm tick in the category marked ‘weird’. It is this sense of wonder, of things being out-of-the-ordinary, that has an enduring appeal for me. It was probably why when it was time to give the heroine in my middle-grade series a best-friend, I had her reaching for the monster-from-under-the-bed. It is also why more often than not, my most beloved characters in fantasy stories aren’t always human.  Here are some of my favourites.

Hobbits in The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty-wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, not yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.’

And comfortable it is. Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit in question (hobbits being: ‘a little people about half our height, and smaller than bearded Dwarves…’) is rather well-to-do, and lives a life of deep contentment with sprawling views of the Shire, several, fully stocked pantries, and enjoys second breakfasts.  I have often thought that in my next life (as it likely runs in families), I’d like to come back as one.

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Woven into the very fabric of the national consciousness, Tolkien’s staggeringly realised Middle Earth plays host to dwarves and dragons, Gollum and Gandalf amongst many others. With The Hobbit, British fantasy fiction soared onto another level and its influence and echo resound through every major work of the imagination written since.
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The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson

‘My house has chicken legs. Two or three times a year, without warning, it stands up in the middle of the night and walks away from where we’ve been living. It might walk a hundred miles or it might walk a thousand...’

Marinka, lives with her grandmother, the spirit guide Baba Yaga, and dreams of having a normal life and to stay somewhere long enough to make a friend …

Anderson’s debut is a beautifully written, poignant story based on Slavic folklore. The house itself stole a piece of my heart. It felt like an old friend, the kind that knows you better than yourself. There is a moment (spoiler) in the book where it is hurt, and it felt so visceral and raw, that it took me a long time to forgive Anderson for it. But it stayed with me a long time afterwards, which is the mark, I feel, of a born storyteller.

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Marinka longs to break free of her grandmother’s supernatural influence, but it’s hard to assert her independence when she is imprisoned in a house that can walk around by itself. A unique debut that layers Slavic folk tales onto very 21st century dilemmas, Waterstones Children’s Book of the Year nominee The House with Chicken Legs reboots the legendary witch and spirit guide Baba Yaga.
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Nac Mac Feegle in The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett has had perhaps the biggest influence on me as a writer, his stories, filled with such wit and warmth, appealed to my quirky heart and captured me from a young age. And so it is hard to pick a favourite creature from his world, as there are so many to love, like ‘the luggage’ which moves around on feet and belongs to the wizard, Rincewind. But nothing quite fits the bill like the infamous Nac Mac Feegle, the most feared of the fairy races, who were thrown out of fairyland for being drunk and disorderly. Who say things like ‘crivens’ and ‘waily waily’, have names like Rob Anybody and are afraid of lawyers and things written down. They are blue, and barely six inches. Their skin is covered in tattoos, apart from the bits clothed in kilts. Yet these creatures hatch a ‘Pln’ to help young Tiffany Aching to save the Discworld - lord help her. It’s marvellous.

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In this joyous and warm-hearted first part of the Tiffany Aching Series, we meet an aspiring young witch, whom her brother’s sudden disappearance propels into full-blooded sorcery action. Part of the phenomenal Discworld novels, The Wee Free Men brims with unforgettable characters, laugh-out funny dialogue and ever-reliable Terry Pratchett magic.
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Dragons in Dragon Keeper (The Rain Wild Chronicles) by Robin Hobb

I have always loved dragons but none more so than the ones created by Robin Hobb in this fantastic series.

In the Rain Wilds, dragons have returned. But they are not like the dragons of old, these are stunted, deformed, and cannot fly … they are deemed dangerous, unpredictable and need to be taken away. The authorities hatch a plan to find them keepers, looking from their own tangle of misfits for those who have become too marked by their wild surroundings. The ones with claws for nails and faces covered in scales. The ones they believe should have been exposed at birth. This way, they believe, they will get rid of both sets of undesirables.

The creatures, however, are not dim-witted, and decide not to give in, not to lay down and die just because they weren’t born the way they should. They vow to become dragons again, even if they have to fight, swim and crawl their way to it. So begins their journey, mapped out in four books, where along the way they grow stronger, and their fight unlocks something in the keepers too. They begin to discover who they can be , if they have the courage to embrace it and let go of what they are not.

It is an utterly beguiling tale, and I fell completely under the dragons’ spell, and as someone born with a disability, their quest felt like a wonderful metaphor – a story of survival, tenacity and of finding your own value, despite how others might perceive you.

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Unparalleled storytelling from one of the greatest fantasy writers of our day, Dragon Keeper opens a four-part chronicle of the return of the mythical beasts to earth. Full of imaginative zeal, the novel follows the young dragon keeper Thymara on his urgent quest to safeguard both the imposing creatures and the society that has long since disavowed them.
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Dobby in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

‘The little creature on the bed had large, bat-like ears and bulging green eyes the size of tennis balls.’

I have adored Dobby the house-elf ever since I first encountered him. With his kind soul, strange magic and courageous heart, he is a remarkable creature. Particularly because he showcases a darker side of Rowling’s magical world – one that has bleak parallels with our own – in the form of slavery. Dobby’s masters are the Malfoy family, known for their cruelty and alignment with dark magic – yet knowing this, more than most – he tries to help Harry, at great cost to himself. It is often, throughout the series, not the powerful witches and wizards that end up saving Harry’s life, but this small and kind, wonderful, sock-loving creature.

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In his second year at Hogwarts School, our beloved hero comes face to face with the surreptitious legend of the Chamber of Secrets and embarks on another dizzying adventure with his trusted companions Ron and Hermione. The second, spellbinding instalment of J.K. Rowling’s celebrated Harry Potter series is a true modern classic, full of enchantment and thrill.
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