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Skrimsli - Nicola Davies

Nicola Davies and Jackie Morris reunite for another captivating adventure…

Who are you if you’ve never seen another face like yours? Where do you belong if you don’t know where your home is? What do you call yourself when others call you ‘freak’? How can you be brave when you are full of fear? Why would you choose purpose over love?

Skrimsli is the second fantasy adventure from author Nicola Davies set in a world where animals and humans can sometimes share their thoughts. It traces the early life of Skrimsli, the tiger sea captain who stole readers’ hearts in The Song that Sings Us. He and his friends, Owl and Kal, must escape the clutches of the tyrannical circus owner Kobret Majak, and his twin assassin-acrobats, then stop a war and save the ancient forest, where the Tiger, and the Owl are sacred guardians. Skrimsli and his friends are helped by the Palatine, desert princess and her eagle, a Chihuahua who thinks she’s a wolf, a horse with heart of gold and the crew of a very unusual ship. This is a story full of excitement and danger, that explores themes of friendship, loyalty, identity and love, in the context of some of humanity’s toughest problems.

As part of the blogtour for this fantastic fantasy from the brilliant Nicola Davies, I'm thrilled to share an exclusive guest blog about some of the inspiration for this incredible, powerful story about love, care and identity.

I was about six when I was taken to the circus. I remember reaching up to hold my Daddy’s hand and seeing everything on the approach to the huge tent through a sea of adult legs. It was dark outside, and we walked in to find our seat on the curved benches that circled the ring in tiers. There was a cow shed smell inside, a stink sharper than the rounded smell of cow or sheep, that made my skin prickle.
I remember the ring master, in a red coat and a top hat and a big moustache. He had dark eyes with very white whites and a loud voice, and was terrifying. The clowns too were frightening. I couldn’t understand why the crowd laughed so loud. But it was the animals I wanted to see so I held Daddy’s hand more tightly and waited.
The elephants came first, bigger even than I’d expected. Their trainer put them through their routine and they moved slowly, exhausted, bored, miserable. As they stood on giant beach balls, or twirled things in their trunks they looked sidelong at their trainer as if reproaching him for making them endure such humiliation. Only when they trotted from the ring with astonishing sudden speed and grace did I get any sense of them as real animals.
The big cats, tigers and lions came next and had the same sense of not being quite themselves. They were moth eaten, their coats rough and dull and they snarled and spat like petulant moggies. Why didn’t they just attack their nasty keeper, who shouted and cracked a whip at them? In fact, why didn’t all they all, elephants and big cats use their great strength and fierce power to break out of that I could see what a horrible captivity?
My five year old self sensed that the contract between animals and humans that I’d seen was based on fear and I never went back to another circus. But years later, when I was presenting The Really Wild Show I got a different perspective. We sometimes used circus animals in the studio as they were un-phased by coming into a set. It gave me the chance to talk to the people who had worked with animals all their lives, hear how much they loved their animals and to see how in many cases that affection was returned.
I saw that complex, uneasy relationship again when I went to Bhopal in India to research my book Walking the Bear a story about the Qualander community who are the traditional keepers of dancing bears. The Qualanders had just given up their nomadic existence with their performing bears and the bears had been taken into sheltered retirement. In spite of the undoubted cruelty involved in controlling a bear by a rope through its nose, the bear keepers spoke of their bears with great affection as if speaking of beloved family members.
But although the affection on the human side of all these human animal interactions was real, I couldn’t help feeling these were relationships of very unequal power in which the animals - who had never known a different life - had no choices, but the humans did.
So when, as I began to think about Skrimsli’s back story I discovered (it always feels like discovery rather than invention) that he was born in a circus I knew at once his human companion must be a child who also had no choices. I knew that I wanted the circus where they were both confined to be a much bigger operation than the one I’d seen in the early sixties.
Back in the 19th and early 20th century, as the railroads spread across the face of the United States, pushing aside the remnants of the Indigenous peoples, circuses became big business. Barnum and Baileys ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ brought trains with hundreds of cars full equipment, performers, caterers, costumiers and of course animals, trundling across the country, setting up and performing in one small town before dismantling everything and moving on to the next. A circus’ arrival was a huge event for scattered communities with little in the way of cultural input! Often the circus would parade through the town before the first performances began.
Horses and riding had been a part of modern circuses right from their start in 17th century England. Back then, a retired cavalry officer began to put his horse skills to work in performances in London. So when that met the wild west rodeo culture of the midwest US, it put trick riding right at the heart of what Barnam And Bailey did.
The big US circuses became exercises in ‘soft power’, reinforcing ‘American Values’ and showcasing American expertise and technology across the US, Europe and Australia.
So the circus gave me a place where I could bring together all the components of the story. Skrimsli and his human friend Owl, the rider Kal and her horse Luja, all in their own ways struggling with issues around belonging and identity. But the role of the circus as cultural mission from Nordksy to the Sand Sea allowed me to put those stories and that of the Palatine into the bigger context that I wanted for the whole story - a backdrop of the ruthless exercising of colonial power.
Of course I didn’t really know any of that at the start! All I saw as I began to write was a child, ripped from home and love and family doing what such children sometimes - miraculously- manage to do, which is to find the family, the love and the belonging that they need some other way. Owl’s way was loving a Tiger cub and naming him Skrimsli and that gave me all I needed to start to write.

I love Nicola's description in this of 'discovering' a character rather than inventing one, and of Skrimsli's strength of character ( and the acknowledgment of the power and determination of other such chikdren) in finding out their 'tribe' and place in life against the adversity they often have faced.

My thanks to Nicola for this powerful guest piece to accompany this powerful novel, which has everything you'd expect from her: a fantastic cast of characters ( animal and human), jarringly accurate and sense-shocking description ( see the 'circus-stink' description in the blog for an idea of her incredible skill in creating atmosphere) and fast-paced plot incorporating a warning message about nature and the planet.

Jackie Morris' beautiful illustrations are also a joy, on the cover and throughout.

Another great read, Skrimsli is out now from publisher Firefly Press, who supllied my review copy.

Check out other stops on the blogtour for more great blogs from Nicola.

Nicola Davies trained as a zoologist and studied geese, bats and whales in the wild before becoming a TV presenter and a writer. A former presenter for The Really Wild Show, she has written more than eighty books for children of all ages, which have been translated into many languages. She lives in Pembrokeshire in west Wales.

Jackie Morris is an award-winning writer and illustrator, living in Wales. She’s illustrated many books and written some, including The Seal Children (winner of Tir na N’og children’s book prize) and The Lost Words with Robert Macfarlane (winner of Kate Greenaway Medal). She also received the Hay Medal for Illustration for The Lost Words.

Nicola and Jackie have been firm friends for many years, both have a passion for the wild world and a belief in active hope. The Song that Sings Us was the first time they had worked together and for which they were nominated for the Yoto Carnegie Medal for Writing and Illustration respectively. This partnership is now renewed for Skrimsli.

Review and blogpost by Rich Simpson (@richreadalot) September 2023

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