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 is the author of The Unmapped Chronicles and The Dreamsnatcher series, both fast-paced imaginative adventures, with magical other worlds, wild drama, narrow escapes, shared laughter and lots of heart. She is also the curator of the anthology Winter Magic and the author of a number of standalone novels including Sky Song and Saving Neverland, a thrilling reimagining of the classic story of Peter Pan. She is also part of a picture book partnership with renowned illustrator Fiona Woodcock; together they have created the wonderfully wintry stories The Frost Goblin and The Snow Dragon.

Ember Spark and the Thunder of Dragons is the first book in her new adventure series, where readers enter a world of wonder, magical creatures and derring-do centred on an inspirational heroine who has a special connection to animals.

We are delighted to welcome Abi Elphinstone as our Guest Editor. Abi has shared her top reading recommendations and has picked a Book of the Month for May 2024, and begins with a letter to her readers....

Hi everyone!

I’m thrilled to be Guest Editor of LoveReading4Kids because I think stories are amongst the most powerful things in the world. You see, my teachers taught me about Pythagoras' Theorem, William the Conqueror and all sorts of important things like that. But I learnt about courage, friendship and wonder from the books I discovered growing up. Lyra Silvertongue from Northern Lights showed me that girls can be just as brave as boys, grown-ups and even armoured polar bears. Mildred Hubble from The Worst Witch helped me navigate friendships. Lucy Pevensie from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe taught me to believe in worlds behind wardrobes. So, although my teachers taught me, books brought me up and I’ll always remember the ones I discovered as a child.

Four failed books and ninety-six rejection letters later, I became a writer. And what I love most about my job is that inspiration can come from anywhere: I named a character after a shower gel in The Dreamsnatcher; I invented an eagle huntress in Sky Song after living with the Kazakh Eagle Hunters in Mongolia; I created a secret-eating dragon in The Unmapped Chronicles after learning about a real-life insect that feeds on the tears of sleeping birds; I based the heroine of Ember Spark & The Thunder of Dragons on my own feisty, flame-haired, animal-loving daughter. But unlike Ember Spark, my daughter’s still waiting to become an Apprentice Vet to Magical Beasts…

Keeping reading and writing: stories make us kinder, braver and infinitely more interesting.

Abi Elphinstone

Q. Which came first — the brave, inquisitive Ember Spark character, or the magical world?

A. Ember Spark came first. She’s based on my daughter who, like Ember, has a passion for three things: animals, swimming in the North Sea and getting her own way. Once I had her in mind – and the notion of her becoming an Apprentice Vet to Magical Beasts – I built the setting, which is based on the east coast of Scotland, where I live. Here, ancient castles perch on clifftops, islands rise vertically out of the sea and wild ponies roam the mountains. It’s impossible not to find yourself on an adventure, as Ember discovers…

Q. Do you have a favourite dragon from fiction or myth?

A. I love the jaculus, or tree-dragon, in Katherine Rundell’s book, Impossible Creatures. He is small and fierce and desperate for someone to write his biography. He also has some of the best one-liners in the story: ‘…it is my bounden right and duty, now, to eat you. It was courteous of you to come ready-washed.’

Q. We love how Ember takes inspiration and strength from her comic book heroine, Gutsy Wonder. Does that element of Ember Spark and the Thunder of Dragons derive from your childhood experience of reading?

A. Funnily enough, I never read comic books as a child. I used to find it hard to follow the text because it was printed on different parts of the page and for some reason my brain couldn’t follow the story! But my two boys, aged 4 and 6, adore comic books (Bunny vs Monkey, Dog Man, InvestiGators). They also subscribe to The Phoenix and they squeal with delight when it drops through our letterbox each Friday. I wanted to create a character with a similar love of comics in this story.

Q. Do you hope young readers find a comparable source of strength in your work?

A. Here’s hoping! Fundamentally, 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.

Q. And what do you hope young readers take from Ember Spark and the Thunder of Dragons?

A. I hope that kids who read Ember Spark and 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.

Q. While magic is very much at the fore of Ember Spark and the Thunder of Dragons, real-life themes are also present through, for example, references to how the departure of Ember’s dad has affected her. How important is it to you as a children’s author to address some of the complex situations and emotions your young readers might face?

A. I wrote about separated families and true friendship because when I was little, my parents’ marriage broke down and 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.’ And so, they head out into the wilds of Scotland on a life-changing mission to reunite a baby dragon with its father.

Q. Does your writing process differ with each novel, or does anything unify the process across all your novels?

A. I start every story I write by drawing a map of the world I want to write about. For Ember Spark and the Thunder of Dragons, I sketched the east coast of Scotland, marking up various points of interest: a seaside village, a harbour, an unexplored beach, a secret cave, a loch further inland. Once I had the landscape drawn, I then added a wiggly line through it to mark my protagonist’s journey because it’s only when my main character starts moving from place to place that a plot unfolds in my mind. Then I just throw lots of exciting obstacles in my protagonist’s way (as the writer Vladimir Nabokov once said: ‘the writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them). I invent perilous situations: an ambush on the beach, a kidnap by the loch, a chase over the moors. I include riddles to puzzle over, anagrams to solve and curses to beat. And all of this I set against a ticking clock to keep the tension high and the reader hooked.

Q. How many more Ember Spark adventures can readers look forward to, and can you share any hints as to what might be in store..?

A. The second book in the series, Ember Spark and 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?!

Q. Were you a keen reader as a child? Did you have a favourite author or series?

A. I adored reading as a child. I raced through Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch series – I loved that the gloriously-named heroine, Mildred Hubble, never brushed her hair, was late for every lesson and was impossibly clumsy yet she still triumphed at the end of every book. I also loved books by C.S. Lewis (few moments in literature impacted me as much as the moment Lucy Pevensie, youngest of four siblings, steps through that wardrobe door), Roald Dahl and Eva Ibbotson. Adventures with a hint of magic and a good dose of humour.

Q. Apart from writing wonderfully imaginative, magical children's books...what would have been your dream job?

A. I’d love to have presented Blue Peter. The closest I got was going onto the show for World Book Day a few years ago – with literary legends Cressida Cowell and Rob Biddulph. I keep my Blue Peter badge in a little box in my writing shed.

Q. One in three of all books sold is a children's book yet children's books get a tiny amount of review space in the media. Why do you think this is - and what can be done?

A. I think there’s a misconception that because a book is written for a child, it is somehow less note-worthy, less important and less wise than had it been written for an adult. But children’s books should be read by children and adults because they are packed with wonder, hope, courage, compassion and wisdom. Take Kate Di Camillo’s stories. Reading a book by her is like swallowing a secret. One you should have known but didn’t and are now all the wiser for having discovered. As to what can be done about: everyone in the publishing industry continuing to bang the drum for change until it happens.

Q. What does LoveReading4Kids mean to you?

As a parent, I use LoveReading4Kids the whole time. It’s bursting with brilliant, up-to-date book recommendations and author interviews. It’s a doorway into reading for so many kids and I’m hugely honoured to be a Guest Editor! Thank you.

As our Guest Editor, Abi would like to pass on her five must-read recommendations:

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate Di Camillo. Reading this book is like swallowing a secret – one you should have known but didn’t and are now all the wiser for having discovered.

Impossible Creatures by Katherine Rundell. This is a soul-soaring voyage, complete with salamandric fire, a flying coat, a miniature dragon, sphinxes, an impossibly cute baby griffin and two children who refuse to give up.

Skellig by David Almond. This story – about a boy, a girl, William Blake’s poetry and a strange creature hiding in a garage – is one of the most beautiful, hopeful and quietly brilliant books I’ve ever read.

Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver (8+). Set in the Stone Age – a world of wolves and tree spirits and magic – this book sees twelve-year-old Torak set off on an epic quest to destroy a demon that killed his father and threatens to destroy the world.

Billy and the Dragon by Nadia Shireen. Nadia Shireen’s books make me laugh out loud and this picture book – featuring Fatcat, a girl called Billy, a fox fond of trifle and an informative worm – is impossible to read it without chuckling.

And Abi has chosen Twice Upon A Time by Michelle Harrison as her Book of the Month for May 2024.

Twins, Merry and Spike, don’t expect much from Fox House, the dusty old building they plan to spend the holidays in. And yet it’s full of secrets. A missing woman, a baby left on the doorstep, a locked study… Merry and Spike launch an investigation. They can stop time, after all. But can their strange power help them solve a decades-old crime? A thrilling mystery told by one of my favourite writers.

Thank you Abi!

Find Abi's magical adventures below, and be transported into another world.