The Last Viking Returns

Leave a comment

The Striker

I (Norman) am off to Kalgoorlie, out in the goldfields, for Country Bookweek in a few minutes to do a bit of plundering and pillaging and promoting The Last Viking Returns, so I thought I’d post a couple more pictures of progress on the Test-Your-Strengh Striker I’m building for the book launch. To my surprise the firing mechanism actually works, if you are as strong as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Maybe I’d better tone it down a bit so that not every user scores Horrible Little Troll when they hit it. An occasional Viking Princess or even a hit at the top Thor level might be good.

My good friend Sally Murphy, author of Pearl Verses the World and  Roses are Blue, and heaps of other gorgeous books, called in on Friday as she was doing talks nearby at Maylands Library, and tested it out – on my head mostly.

TLV_spreads_low res_Page_11

Here’s how it looks in the book …






Leave a comment

Toys for the Book Launch

The Last Viking Returns is being launched at the State Library of WA on September 10th, and you are invited to dress up, bring along your little Viklings  and help us celebrate.

We are delighted that Mrs Tonya McCusker,  wife of the recently retired State governor, has agreed to be the official launcher. Since we’ll be indoors surrounded by books and computers rather than at the edge of a Norwegian fiord, she won’t actually be smashing a bottle of champagne (or mead)  across its bow as if it were a longship but it will still be a very exciting event.

In TLV II, as we’ve been calling it, Knut tries a Test Your Strength machine at Viking World, setting off a catastrophic event that is revealed at the end, resulting in him being hailed as a hero, again.  What a surprise I hear you cry.

Jan, my beloved, thought it could be a great idea if we had such a machine at the launch, so I tried Google to locate one. The only one I did find to hire was 6 metres tall, far higher then the library ceiling, but not one to give in too easily, I decided to try and make one.

Back to Google to find some plans, but would you believe that the only descent description I could find was in a 1933 copy of Popular Mechanics magazine. I had to smile as we had old copies of this magazine around the house when I was a kid in the 1960s. I wasted hours trawling through these pages. Fascinating stuff and a real insight into the thinking and advertising of Great Depression USA.xlg_high_striker













Next it was off to Bunnings Hardware for sheets of MDF chipboard, paint, screws, glue and other stuff I didn’t really need but couldn’t resist.  That took a very long time because the place is such a distraction, and I had to check out every aisle, of course.

IMG_8267I just noticed the coffee cup in centre-stage is a promo for AJ Bett’s  fabulous, award-winning book, Zac and Mia.








Every blog  needs a picture of packets of screws, and my long-serving electric drill.









Could the photos get any more exciting if I tried?




















Houston, we have Lift Off, as you might say if you are my age and grew up with the Space Race, Astronauts and Thunderbirds Are Go! All these years later and I still talk like Virgil Tracey.




















And doesn’t this look like a demented, mad scientist up to his sinister, fiendish schemes, if ever you’ve seen one.  “Igor, it’s alive! It’s alive!”

I’ll keep posting the photos of the construction until the striker is finished, or until the damn thing ends up in a rubbish skip because it won’t actually strike, or falls apart, both not unlikely events. 🙂



Leave a comment

Roskilde Viking Museum

Roskilde Viking Museum

In my selfless, yet relentless search for the Viking vibe to keep my section of this blog reasonably interesting, last year I set off, entirely on your behalf of course, to visit the Viking Museum at Roskilde, about half an hour on the train from Copenhagen and located on the harbourside there, so I could tell you what it was like. 

IMG_4606Roskilde is a seriously historic place, being not only the  one-time capital of Denmark, but also burial place of many Viking kings. The Christian ones, at least. Before the Viking world deserted the Norse Gods and converted to Christianity, newly dead Viking kings would have been launched to sea on burning longships,  or buried in ship-shaped mounds along with their treasures and occasional slave girl to keep them company on their journey to Valhalla, the home of heroes.


Now days, Roskilde is a very pleasant town with stylish and expensive shops either side of a wide main street with countless bicycle racks, like most of Denmark.   You pass a lovely old cathedral that dominates the end of town, a helpful visitor centre nearby, and quaint houses, and a tree-lined walk through a park on your way down to the sea. The harbour is almost dwarfed  by a massive new glass  building of the museum off to one side, but before you get there, you immediately see a whole flotilla of menacing, but oh so beautiful, Viking longships in various sizes moored.


 I instantly felt some compassion for the monks of Lindisfarne Monastery who looked out one dreary morning and saw a host of ships just like these ones, full of big hairy men waving swords and axes while descending on their shore, ready to do really unspeakable things to them, like steal all their precious stuff, burn their books and poke them with swords or capture them as slaves.

On a related note, but interrupting my train of thought, did you know that back in 1000AD, at the height of Viking era, a good Viking sword was worth as much as a Ferrari or Aston Martin is now?


But back to Roskilde, there is a networks of jetties and on the bank nearby, several longships are under construction by craftsmen using original  techniques and traditional tools. The air rings to the sound of axes and adzes cutting into spruce and fir tree logs. It really does make you start to feel you are slipping back in time.

IMG_4485 A shed nearby is filled with rope making equipment, and a blacksmith works pumping his forge, the way blacksmiths have done for thousands of years,  to produce the metal fittings needed for the ships. The smell of the burning coke really adds to the authentic atmosphere, and nearly hides the smell of pickled herring that are for sale in the canteen not far away. Nearly.


 I had read before visiting that the boat builders at the museum offered daily sailing trips on one of the traditional, Nordic boats. Everyone participates actively with rowing, setting the sail and carrying out other sailors’ work. Unfortunately, like many events, you have to be there early,  and by the time we arrived the ship was booked out. “Røvpule!” I said in my best newly-learnt Danish. Disappointed, (I was, but I’m not so sure about Jan) we stood on the jetty and watched as all the wannabe Vikings got kitted up in life jackets, given health safety lessons and instructions on handling an oar before they set off rowing out into the harbour.


Unfortunately for them, precious little wind was blowing, so instead of using the sail to get out to sea, they had to row and row and row and row some more. Eventually, when their boat was a tiny speck  on the horizon, they did get to haul up the sail, but by that time most of them would have been well buggered. Or jumped overboard and drowned in relief. It looked like really, really hard work, and as most of them were obviously novice rowers, oars went in all directions. I was reminded a bit of an orchestra conductor’s  baton conducting the Ride of the Valkyries. Da dum dar dar dar dar. 


The main museum building itself has three impressive longships which had been discovered in the mud in the harbour only metres away from where they are now in display. It turns out they had originally been scuttled to block the harbour and prevent raiders landing and, again, doing unspeakable things to the inhabitants. Viking were not only beastly to English monks, but also to each other. It seems it didn’t much to upset a neighboring tribe and before you knew it, they were descending on your settlement with swords and axes on high with murder in mind.


The mud on the seafloor preserved much on the timber from the longships’ planks, and a thousand years later you can reach out and touch history, providing you ignore the Do Not Touch signs and the guards are not watching, of course. If they did see you, you would  probably score a battle-axe to the skull for your trouble. They take their Viking history very seriously in Scandinavia and even though the people  seem to be gentle, sophisticated souls these days, you have to remember that Viking DNA is still running through their veins.


Having then checked all that out especially for you, we then headed to the canteen for a lunch of fermented auk open sandwiches, followed  by boiled cod flavoured ice-cream, washed down with ten-year old mead, the Vikings’ normal drink. Auks are a bit like puffins and taste like chicken. (Yeah, right!)



The Cutting Room Floor / Outtakes


 James suggested this blog, but I wasn’t so sure. It is bad enough putting your carefully selected words out there in the magical world of Children’s Book Land for every reader and their unicorn to read after the words have been polished, proofed, repolished, endlessly discussed, reedited and edited again. But raw, just as they came out of the tips of our fingers? Shudder! In the very distinct danger that I will end up looking like an illiterate fool existing on the edge of lunacy, or at least in some sort of altered reality, here are some of the scenes and paragraphs they were, often very wisely, dropped.
James can get away with it. He’s an artist, so all he needs to do is cut his ear off, or something equally eccentric, and people will nod wisely and think, artistic temperament, work in progress, isn’t the structure behind the ink interesting. Me, I just look like I have a poor relationship with grammar.

Occasionally, James would say, “Come on, you can do funnier than that,” goading me into producing a better joke, and sometimes he would just add in the better joke himself.
More often Cate Sutherland, our editor, would simply highlight a sentence in red and leave if for me to think about (reconsider) and, occasionally, I’d think of a better subplot, but rarely, as I tend to think every word I write is worth a Pulitzer Prize, at least initially. The short passage of time usually brings me crashing back to my more humble senses.

Picture   k

So, in no particular order, here are some parts that never made it in the 32 pages of either The Last Viking nor The Last Viking Returns, which you can see after September 1st.

Image   Image
Sunday School? What kids go to Sunday School anymore? That had to go even though I really liked the reference to Geraldine, the Vicar of Dibley. reference.

 Picture   k



The tame bullying here seemed out of proportion to the Gods’ retribution at the end. The nastiness needed revving up somewhat.





On the other hand, the bullies hanging poor little Knut up by his ankles was way over the top. We could imagine wholesale nightmares among the Kindy kids of Australia.

These bullies are far too frightening. By not seeing their faces, we do not know how old they are. They could be teenagers, or even be Hell’s Angels… or worse.

Picture   k


ImageImageThe fire-fighters were dropped in the paddling pool / funeral sequence as they added more characters to the scene and so distracted from Knut and Nan & Pop.


Picture   k

ImageThis is the initial storyboard. As you can see, the text almost swamps it. The writer may have forgotten the first rule of Picture Books 101. Let the pictures tell the story when possible.


Picture   kImage

A 3 o’clock in the morning addition after a wild dream not even connected to the story.

Picture   k



The numbers down the side are me deciding on the page breaks. I have no idea what the Stalag 13 reference is on the top. The soon-to-be-Runes along the bottom read Why are you reading this (?)
I would also have loved to have seen James’ version of a Bunyip mentioned in the last paragraphs.

Picture   k


This is a prime example of the editor earning her fabulous salary. Well, it would be except Cate is in the book trade where the words fabulous and salary are never, ever found in the same sentence.

Picture   k

And this following page is a section of The Last Viking Returns that did not make it to the final version as Knut didn’t quite reach the graveyard on his quest before he ran out of pages.
The 32-page picture book rule is strictly enforced across the book industry, unless you are Shaun Tan and you have just created The Arrival.

Pages 22-23.
Scene : The Recreated Village.
In the graveyard among the Runestone grave stones.
Carved on the rune gravestones are:
Here lies Harald Greentooth. He became Christian and believed he could walk on water. Seems he could not.
He lies Eric the Black. He pillaged the wrong village. Now he is plundering down under.
He lies Bjorn Berserker. He thought he was loved by everyone. He got that wrong.
This grave is saved for Sven Svenson. He will be using it just as soon as his wife catches up with him.

It changes into a dark, Tolkeinesque forest full of scary long sinister shadows. Brrrr! Scary characters straight from Lord of the Rings / Boewulf surround Knut. Knut is in the graveyard with Rune gravestones and.
Knut is all alone in Viking World, frantically searching for his twins. He was responsible for them, and now he has failed.
‘I am not lost,’ he says, trying to convince himself. ‘I am not worried. I am brave. I am Knut, a fierce Viking, afraid of nothing and no one. Nan and Pop and the twins are the ones who are lost.’
The shadows of the ogres and the building grow bigger and take on shapes.
Knut takes out his sword.
‘I will be fine,’ continues Knut, bravely. ‘I will be. I must be brave and find the twins.’

Picture   k

This is another scene that did not make the cut in TLV II as it is too much of a horror story, though I may try reworking it if we do TLV Three.

Later, Nan and Knut are back in the kitchen making the pirate outfit, while Pop is reading the Norseman Times.
‘Closing our library? ‘That’s what they think!’ rants Nan. ‘Philistines! Fools!’
‘But there’s nothing you can do,’ says Pop. ‘That ICE Corporation is a world-wide giant, and we’re too little. What chance do we have?’
‘That’s nonsense, James! Of course we can do something. Remember who your ancestors were! They were afraid of nothing and no one!’
‘Just like me!’ thinks Knut, excitedly.
‘Go and make some banners, Pop. Josh will help, won’t you, Josh? And get some chains.
6. ‘We’re going to stand up to these creeps. Remember the sixties peace marches! The equal pay for women protests!’ declares Nan. We’re not too old to do it all over again!’
7.Outside the library small children are wailing and lamenting, and looking pitiful.
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ says Sam, the Children’s Librarian, ‘but story-time has been cancelled. Forever!’

8. Nan chains herself to the library railings, holding her umbrella up like a sword.



Leave a comment

Up-Helly-Aa Viking Festival

Few years ago when James and I worked on the early drafts and illustrations of TLV and really started getting into the Viking vibe, it seemed that James was most interested in the Norse myths and legends, whereas I had more a feeling for their history. James started amusing  me, and no doubt small children, with his colourful tales of what the Norse gods were really like. The gods in our two Viking books are much more tame and civilized than the historical ones, though as I said before, James’ Fafnir the Dragon is a right piece of work.


While James sharpened his crayons, I headed to Scotland on holiday with my good friend Allen Newton and decided to add on a week staying on the Shetland Islands. The islands are famous for Jarlshoff Viking ruins, a terrific Viking museum, Viking boat races and most of all, the annual Up-Helly-Aa Viking Festival held every January in the capital, Lerwick. I imagined I’d come away fired up with new found Norse passion.


The Up-Helly-Aa festival is actually a year-long event with the locals spending eleven months constructing a full-size Longship, recreating Viking costumes and weapons and growing authentic looking beards.



Then, at the coldest month of the year, they drag the ship though the streets of Lerwick to the local park where they ceremoniously set it alight, dance round the flames with much “merriment” and have a party that lasts for four days. With the amount of “merriment” it is said they put away, I imagine a few more days might be missing from the working week as well.


With January that far north not really being an option (brrrr),  Allen and I planned to be in the Shetlands at the end of August so we could see the thousands of puffins that colonise the cliffs near Sumburgh Lighthouse, the southernmost tip of the islands, so we sadly missed the festival by months. Even sadder than that, as far as Allen was concerned, on the day before we arrived, the final puffin flew off south for the winter, according the lighthouse keeper (“you should have been here yesterday”), so we missed them as well. All that way. It was actually a 12-hour overnight ferry crossing in a Force 9 gale.


The redeeming feature in this story is that while we there exploring the islands, the weather wasn’t too bad, in a Northern Hemisphere kind of way. The Shetland Islands are notorious for abysmal weather, with snow, sleet, rain, hail, and hurricane force winds all arriving at the same time, and as the islands are little more than grass-covered, barren rocks sticking out of the remote North Sea, shelter from the weather for the thousands of hardy Shetland ponies that inhabit the place is limited.


The Vikings chopped all the trees down a thousand years ago so little natural shelter is available other than the thousands of ruined stone cottages and dry stone walls.



The locals, too, are famous for their grit and hard living, surviving over the centuries on fishing and collecting peat bog. In recent years, though, with Lerwick being used as a base by North Sea oil rig tenders, the economy has boomed beyond belief, and heated swimming pools, sports centres, wide roads and good schools have become a feature in almost every tiny village.

Until Allen and I went there, I had not met anyone who had visited the Shetlands, but since coming back, I have found that two of my friends have done so in recent years. First was the lovely Amanda Curtin, the extremely polished writer of The Sinkings, a haunting novel set in Albany, and the equally moving and atmospheric, Elemental, published last year, and which is set in Fremantle but starts in the Shetlands, where she did a lot of research.

Image  Image

The other friend is John Cusack, an internationally renowned architect, who has traveled all over the world on building projects, including one in the Shetlands. John was lucky enough to be there on a recent January and took these fabulous photos of the Up-Helly-Aa Festival, and kindly shared them with me. John is also lucky enough to be the partner of the famous, award-winning creator Wendy Binks, mother of Stripy the Emu and owner of the fabulous Stunned Emu galley on the Cappuccino Strip in Fremantle.

Image   Image Image





And did I come back fired up with a new sense of Norse passion? You bet! The funny thing is that James came back from holiday all fired up as well, except he had been in India. Perhaps it was the influence of the Bollywood pop group, The Bombay Vikings that did it and why the The Last Viking Returns is looking do fabulous? (In an Indian/Viking sort of way?)




Leave a comment


‘Where do the ideas come from?’ I hear you ask. Well, if you were about 11 years old you would most likely ask that that question. Most kids do at some point when I’m giving a talk to a class of school kids. That, and how much money do you earn?

My usual answer is that ideas are often borrowed, referenced, or we are paying homage, which is just a pretentious way of saying they are pinched from other favourite works, then reshaped a little to help disguise their origins. There is no shame to it. People have been rewriting Romeo and Juliet over and over for the past 400 years. Every film you watch will be using plots and scenes from earlier ones. What you have to do is try to bring a fresh approach to the story. Often, what happens is you use someone else’s idea as a starting point, but then as your story progresses, it takes on a life of its own and eventually the original is so far removed from its source that yours looks original.


One example I use from The Last Viking. In our version James and I have little Knut, the frightened boy, become brave by channeling the Vikings. He goes to the skateboard park, gets bullied and then, bravely and all alone, faces up to the three bullies. Although he doesn’t realise it, he is eventfully saved by the Norse gods.

The starting point for the sequence came from High Noon, the Gary Cooper western from 1952, directed by Fred Zinnemann. In that Frank Miller and two killers are due to arrive on the noon day train and kill Will Kane, the sheriff, in revenge for him sending them to jail some years earlier.

Will Kale tries to persuade the other town folk to help him, but they all cowardly refuse, so he is forced to stand up to the three killers (bullies) all alone. Whereas Knut is saved by the gods at the very last minute, the sheriff is also saved at the very last minute, but instead by Grace Kelly, a different sort of god (dess). Image Image
For The Last Viking Returns, or The Return of the Last Viking or Here be Dragons, as it has variously been called along the way (it is referred to TLV II in all my notes) we turned to Norse legends for inspiration. We wanted a dragon in the story because they look so majestic, dramatic and simply petrifying with their scales, big sharp teeth and breathing fire. The legend of Sigurd slaying Fafnir the dragon seemed perfect. Being a kids’ books though, we adapted the slaying to something not quite as deadly.


With James now finished illustrating Fafnir in all its terrifying glory, we are both a little worried that it might scare the living daylights out of our young audience. Fafnir scared the pants off me when James first revealed him. It didn’t take too much imagination to believe the dragon could have toasted me for breakfast with his furnace-like breath and the chomped into me with those sharp teeth. But then I’m not anywhere as brave as Knut, our little Nordic hero. In fact, I suspect that when Will Kane came to ask me to help him against Frank Miller, I might not have been as brave as Grace Kelly.

Norman? That’s him leaving town on the five minutes past High Noon train.