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Mystery at the Mill: Projects and interview

July 24, 2018 by cymaster

Mystery at the Mill (Blue Readers Fiction, Level 5) takes you on an adventure in space and time, and it also raises some  important issues in our society that your students will care about, too.


The story is set in Yorkshire, England, in our time with a parallel narrative that takes you back to Victorian England. A young girl discovers her great-great-grandmother's diary and learns about her hard life as a child worker in the local mill. Soon she starts to investigate if the local boutique sells ethically made clothes, and she gets into some serious trouble. What makes this story special is not only the way Elspeth Rawstron combines excitement with issues such as child labour and ethical fashion, but also the story within the story as seen through the great-great grandmother's diary.

The illustrations create a special atmosphere in this reader as Nick Tankard walks us through Saltaire, Yorkshire, in both the present and the past.

We have prepared two special projects for you and your class to use with the book. Level: CEF B1, Cambridge PET, Trinity 5, 6 Age: 11+ Themes: Human interest, Mystery

Illustration by Nick Tankard in Mystery at the Mill. © Helbling Languages

Project 1: Ethical Fashion and Fairtrade

Project 1 is about Ethical fashion and Fairtrade and discusses these topics, asking your students  to prepare a poster. You can carry it out as a workshop  or homework activity, and I would let students decide if they want to do it independently or in groups.

Project 2: UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Project 2 focuses on our heritage,  UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Saltaire, Yorkshire, which is also a World Heritage Site.

  • You can print the project or use it on an IWB: UNESCO World Heritage
  • You may like to use websites to introduce the story:

Here you will find more worksheets you can use with the story:

Meet the author and the illustrator: an interview with Elspeth Rawstron and Nick Tankard

We chatted with Elspeth Rawstron and Nick Tankard and learnt a lot about the story, the setting and their experiences.

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): Hello Elspeth and Nick. Can you tell me how the idea of Mystery at the Mill was born?

Elspeth: I have a fascination with Victorian times and after a visit to Salts Mill one day, I knew I wanted to write a story set there. Around that time, I was writing some texts for a coursebook and one of them was about child labour and ethical fashion and the idea came to set the story in the past and the present. I spent another day walking along the canal and a day in Saltaire and the mill and parts of the story began to form and Emily came to life and I jotted down a bit of her story.

Nick: Elspeth got in touch with me after finding one of my illustrations on a website about my hometown of Saltaire. I had been working on a series of illustrations about Saltaire and it’s founder Sir Titus Salt for a number of years so it was lovely to read about it from another perspective and it was also a great opportunity to learn something new about the history of Saltaire.

HRB: I really like how the story within the story is represented both visually and textually. There is a magical balance between these two forms of representation that creates a special atmosphere in this book. How did you work together? How much do you inspire each other?

E: Whilst I was researching the Mystery at the Mill, I saw one of Nick’s illustrations of the mill and Titus Salt, on the Saltaire history club’s website. I loved the illustration and it really inspired me to finish the story. At that point I didn’t know whether he would agree to illustrate it or not. Luckily he did! It was a nice feeling knowing that Nick knew all the places I mentioned in the story. It meant I didn’t have to describe those places in the picture descriptions. I think because we are both inspired by buildings and places, in this case Salts Mill, it makes it easy to work together. Nick brings out the magic of a place in his illustrations. He makes the buildings come alive and gives them a character of their own. His illustrations are a story in themselves.

Yorkshire is a place that has inspired some of the world’s most famous stories from The Secret Garden to Wuthering Heights. From the stark windswept moors to the towering chimneys of its dark stone mills, from the ruined abbeys, burnt down by Henry VIII, to the huge stone mansions of former mill owners, from woodlands of wild flowers to the rolling green hills, it has poverty and wealth, mansions and terrace houses, sometimes neglected, majestic inner-city and breathtaking countryside. If you travel North and venture not far beyond the industrial cities, you’ll find a landscape that is dramatic and breathtakingly beautiful, a landscape full of stories begging to be told.

N: Elspeth writes beautifully about the history and atmosphere of Saltaire and it’s industrial past, reading Elspeth’s story it was very easy to feel what it was like to work in such a noisy and frightening place, the village of Saltaire was built to help people have a better life so I also tried to put that across in my illustrations.

HRB: You both come from Bradford and the story is also set in the area. What significance did Saltaire, the Mill and the canal have in your lives?

E: The canal was at the bottom of the hill where we lived in Apperley Bridge, so we drove over it every day to Bradford, on a wobbly wooden bridge. We walked along it and played along it, and there was always great excitement when a boat went in the lock and the gates were closed. When I was growing up, the mills in and around Bradford were still working mills and the textile industry was still thriving. Textiles were a big part of my childhood. My mum studied textile design at art college, and my dad worked for a company that traded in mohair and alpaca wool. I’ll never forget the llama in a glass case in his office. My granny worked as a dressmaker at Brown & Muffs department store in Bradford in the 1920s, long before I was born, but the department store also played a big part in my life. Uncle Sanjit’s shop in the story is the happy ending I’d like to see for the now sad and empty building that was Brown & Muffs.

David Hockney has also had an influence on my life. When we were children in the seventies, my mum bought us each a first edition of a blue leather-bound book of fairy tales illustrated by David Hockney, which I’ve always kept. It’s crossed continents with me. Bookshops have always played a big part in my life. I’ve been in thousands, but the Salt’s Mill bookshop in Saltaire has to be the best in the world. The feeling you get when you pull open the huge wooden door and walk into it cannot be described, it can only be experienced - I'd recommend a visit.

N: I have lived in Bradford and Saltaire for most of my life, in my youth my bedroom at my parent’s house looked across the valley towards Salts Mill, it was the first thing I saw in the morning and the last thing I saw at night for many years! I moved away from Bradford for a few years and then settled back in Saltaire, I got a job in the Gallery/Bookshop based in Salts Mill and have worked there ever since. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place to live and work, very different from the noisy place it once was. Salts Mill seems to have always been in my life, so this is partly my story as well!

HRB: How much research did you have to do to create this story?

E: I read a lot about the history of the mill and Titus Salt, who built the mill and the village in the 1850s. That’s a wonderful story in itself. I also read a lot about children working in the textile mills in Manchester, Leeds and Bradford and all about the child labour acts and the movement for reform. At the same time, I was reading a biography of Charles Dickens, so I immersed myself in Victorian times. Just as in the story, Caterina and Jake visited Salts Mill on a school trip, I visited a woollen mill on a school trip and the memory of it has stayed with me.

N: Very little from me! Having lived and worked in Saltaire/Bradford for so long I know it very well. It was lovely to read Elspeth’s story and also Maria’s terrific art direction as it enabled me to look at my home in a new light and push my work in a different direction.

HRB: The story raises the question of ethical fashion and child labour. Do you think today’s teenagers are aware of these issues?

E: Over the past decade there has been a lot of media coverage of these issues, and I think that teenagers today are aware of the issues. However, the lure of cheap clothing is all too tempting. I think because children learn about child labour in history lessons, it’s easy to think of it as history. That’s why I wanted to set the story both in the present and in the past. I wanted to show that the terrible conditions that children worked in a century ago are not history. Children around the world today are still living and working in terrible conditions. There is an argument for teenagers working. School isn’t for everybody and learning a trade is a better option for some teenagers. If it’s their choice to work and they are happy and working in good conditions, and helping their families financially, that’s fine. It becomes a problem when children have no choice, the hours are long and the working conditions are terrible and they are treated inhumanely. As Uncle Sanjit found in the story, when his suppliers lied to him. It is difficult for a shop to trace every stage of the production of its clothes, but it can be done.

N: I’m not sure teenagers or their parents for that matter are aware of these issues. I hope this book helps to highlight the problem and makes people think about where their clothes come from and how they were produced.

HRB: Do you remember your very first story or illustration you worked on?

E: The first story I worked on was called ‘The Little White Cat’. There’s a special breed of white cat from Van in the South East of Turkey. It's got one blue eye and one green eye. The white cat in the story wanted to see the world so it hid in a carpet bag and travelled by bus to Istanbul. My mum illustrated the story and it was a first for both of us.

N: I’ve been drawing all my life, I was making little comic books when I was a child. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing. Illustration is very important for me, it’s a lovely way to spend a day.

HRB: What is the biggest challenge when you are working on a reader for language learners?

E: The biggest challenge for me is limiting my language and not using all the tenses and structures I would like to use. I try to keep the sentence structure short and simple but not limit the vocabulary. Stories are the best way to learn vocabulary for native and non-native speakers. Children don’t always understand every word they read but that doesn’t mean we should edit them out. I think the most interesting ELT challenge I ever had was to adapt Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for a reader. Charles Dickens had chosen the PERFECT words to describe things and it was heartbreaking to change them. Should we change a word to fit the level of the student if it’s the perfect word? If the sentences were short and understandable, I left the word. I find using a lot of dialogue is the easiest way to keep the language simple in a reader.

N: I really want the reader to feel the atmosphere of the story, it doesn’t have to look real and just as you see it, things can be stretched or squashed, it can be wonky and odd. I think if the reader can get a strong sense of place or emotion from the illustration then you're halfway there.

HRB: What is your biggest inspiration?

E: Historic buildings are the biggest inspiration for my stories. Whether it's caravanserais in Turkey, castles in Northumberland and mills in Bradford - more often than not, there is a stunning building at the centre of my stories. Quite often my stories include something I would have liked to have happened to me as a child. I would have loved to have found the story of my great-great grandmother’s life in an attic as Caterina did.

N: My book collection! I’ve been reading children’s books ever since I was a child and I haven’t stopped. These books have helped shape my view of the world, they have stretched my imagination, they’ve informed and educated me and inspired me to make pictures of my own. My heroes are Maurice Sendak, Raymond Briggs And Tove Jansson. I also love to travel and I’m inspired the places I visit, I always take a sketchbook and my camera.

HRB: How do you see the world of illustrated readers in 10 years’ time?

E: I’d like to see them stay the same as they are now. Growing up with books and loving books makes it hard to see the necessity to replace them with a new format. However, I’m sure they’ll soon all be accompanied by a story app. As long as the app doesn’t distract from the story, that’s fine. Reading a story and playing a game are two separate activities and I don’t think they should be mixed. Children can and do enjoy them both but one shouldn’t disrupt the other. I recently read a fairly negative article in the Guardian by a reporter who wasn’t impressed by story apps. He said his five-year old daughter soon got bored of the app of a well-known story he had bought for her, and asked him to finish telling her the story. All young children love being told a story.

N: I have worked in the book trade for a number of years as both a bookseller and illustrator, it’s undoubtedly changing but there will always be a market for good quality stories and illustration. The presentation of books might change , computers and  other devices are being increasingly used to tell stories, I’m sure books and these other methods of reading can sit alongside each other. In the end all that matters is that people are telling stories, making pictures and educating future generations.

HRB: Do you think that educational publishers like Helbling Languages, who also value story and illustration, have a chance today? Is there market need for high-quality illustrated books?

E: I really appreciate it that Maria Cleary, the series editor is so careful in her choice of illustrators and that she cares so much about good illustration. I strongly believe there is a need for good stories and illustration. I think it's important for children to learn to appreciate art and literature. I think the saying, 'Someone who reads can never be bored' is true. You are giving children something very precious when you give them a love of stories and art. If you have high-quality books as a child, you expect to see high-quality books as an adult too. If you’re surrounded by beautifully crafted or well-designed things, you feel happy.

N: I think as long as there are people willing to tell stories and illustrate to the best of their ability the trade will survive and indeed thrive.  The method of producing these books might change but we will always need words and images.

HRB: Thank you for the interview!