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James Nicol on The Spell Tailors and his favourite fantasy books for kids

The Spell Tailors by James Nicol. Book cover and author photo. Photo credit Julian Serella 2022.
Our Cockatoo subscribers are heading into a charming and magical world with The Spell Tailors by James Nicol this month. It's a gorgeous book that represents fantasy writing at it's very best. It combines brilliant, empathetic characters, spellbinding adventure and a gripping mystery in an historical setting with an important message about mass production that will resonate with young contemporary readers. Here James tells us about being inspired by his seamstress mum and which fantasy books for kids he thinks should be top of your reading list.

What inspired you to write The Spell Tailors?

A small piece of the idea for The Spell Tailors had been with me since writing The Apprentice Witch - this was the idea of sewing or weaving a memory - but the story that existed then didn't feel quite right. Key elements were missing, like the world and the main characters. When I then had another idea for a story that involved magical clothes it made sense to bring the two together and The Spell Tailors started to form. But it still needed other ingredients and so I really drew on a lot of my own memories from childhood that surrounded clothes and dressing up. My mum was a brilliant seamstress and could whip up anything on her ancient cyborg Singer sewing machine. And she and my Nana would never dream of leaving the house in anything but their very best outfits. They understood the power that clothes have to make us feel happy or confident - they could also be rather scathing if you wore something that perhaps they didn't like!! 

Are any of the characters inspired by real people?

I try not to base characters on people that I know - you will always upset someone by either not including them too or by how they think you have portrayed them - you cannot win! So, I dont really do that. I do borrow people's names though, if they have a good one that fits a character. Having said that though, The Danellis are kind of based on my own ancestors - like lots of people they travelled here from other countries, Italy and America, and feel like they are wrapped in mystery. And certainly Nana has elements of my lovely nana wrapped up in her!

Do you have a favourite place to write?

I actually really love to write on trains - something about the steady noise and limited distractions (aside from the view rushing by), though all of The Spell Tailors was written in my lovely writing room at home which is also a favourite too - thankfully!

Why did you choose to write books for this age group?

The books we read during this stage of our lives (7-11/12) are truly the ones that stay with us forever. I can still recall the feeling of following Lucy into Narnia through the wardrobe and following Ged the wizard in the Earthsea books. They have a special place in my heart and memory in a way other books just don't quite. I also love how young readers' imaginations are just so open and willing to follow the writer through all their craziness - much more than (most) adult readers do. I also love meeting my readers and if I wrote for older readers I’d be too scared to speak to them - I’m actually quite shy really!

What other fantasy books would you recommend our subscribers read next?

Well, they could perhaps go back and discover my Apprentice Witch series for starters - that would keep them busy for a while! And then I’d definitely recommend reading books by Vashti Hardy, Liz Flanagan, Sinéad O’Hart, Peter Bunzl and Abi Elphonstone - all fab fantasy writers!

Can you tell us anything about what the future holds for Hen and Connie?

Ooooh - I’m sure Hen will be getting ready for a huge magical fashion show in the not too distant future, whilst Connie will be trying to figure out exactly where she fits in with the family business and what if any her own unique abilities might be! I do have a plan for a second book to follow on from The Spell Tailors so watch this space!