How Billy Hippo Learned His Colours

Are you all safe and dry? I hope so. It’s been a wild one, hasn’t it? We got off lightly down here, although I haven’t been over to the allotment to see how the greenhouse has fared yet. Still, no flooding or power cuts. Watching the news, we feel very fortunate.

Our postman looked like a hero from a Greek saga this weekend as he handed over our bundle of post, battling the elements to get to our front door. I peeled open the packages addressed to me and the effect was like that of a washing powder advert, radiant sunshine lighting up my face as flowers floated upwards on the air and lambs gamboled from between the folds of the cardboard. My seed orders! I could almost smell Spring! 

In amongst the seed packets came another very special package, equally full of pictures of glorious blooms. My advance copy of Billy Hippo 2…How Billy Hippo Learned His Colours! Written again by Vivian French, and published by Little Door Books, it will be out on March 5th. It’s wonderful to get the real book through and hold it in my hands. The production is great on this edition, fantastic colours. Very exciting!

I waved Billy Hippo and my seed packets through the window at the grey skies of Storm Ciara as a warning. Winter, you are on your way out!

We are away next week for half term, on a jolly jaunt to see family in London, so no blog post from me, but I’ll be back the week after.

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Faces of Transition

New work I did for the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution (SCCR) went live last week. Their conference theme this year is The Faces of Transition. As part of this commission I used imagery from the Roman god Janus to explore ideas of conflict between people and within a person. As always, it was great to work with the team again for such a good cause. You can see the illustrations live, and find out more about the conference on the SCCR website here.

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London bound

Goldsmiths University London Hannah Foley SCBWI debut author event

I love that I live in a city that switches the streetlights off at night. You’re welcome to have a pleasant evening in Exeter but, anyone out and about after the streetlights have gone off had better have a good explanation. On Saturday I was up before the streetlights came back on again and my explanation is a good one. I was heading to St David’s to catch the train to London for a course aimed at debut authors about school visits and events. 

Here is the front entrance to Goldsmiths University where the course was held, hallowed ground for art college students because of its notable alumni. The course was put on by the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and hosted by the brilliant Sara Grant, Mo O’Hara, and Candy Gourlay. These three ladies have written a lot of children’s books between them and are tireless volunteers for SCBWI. What they don’t know about being a children’s author is probably not worth knowing.

One of the big reasons for me attending this course was a serious lack of confidence on my part. I find it nearly impossible to tell people that I have a children’s novel coming out in the summer. I might just as well be telling them I’ve killed a kitten. And I know it is utterly, utterly ridiculous. Having a book published is a really wonderful thing and I should be super proud. Instead I want to hide under a rock. For me there’s something toxic about the combination of sending the book I have put my heart and soul into, not only out in front of strangers for their approval, but attempting to sell that book to them too! And you know what, I would feel exactly the same if I had crafted a beautiful wooden bench, and definitely do feel the same about my illustration work. Now, if I were a skilled plumber offering to install a toilet, I would feel very different.

One of the questions Sara Grant asked us was about our values. What values underpin my writing? And that question stuck to me like loo roll on the sole of my shoe for the rest of the day. I couldn’t shake it off. What am I saying about how I value writing and books, if I can’t bear to tell people about my book? I’m saying that it, and they, don’t have any value, not in monetary terms anyway. Not like fitting a toilet. And the bizarre thing is that’s not what I think at all! I looked around the room at these marvelous writers there, many of whom are award-winning, and I thought how wonderful it is that these brilliant new books are going to be read by children up and down the country, if not the world. I absolutely believe that well-written, carefully edited, wonderfully illustrated children’s books change lives. So maybe I should start acting like it!

Of course, it hasn’t helped that when I have finally plucked up the courage to mention my book to someone, I’ve had a few thoughtless responses which sent me scurrying back under my rock. Here follows my top three things not to say to a debut author…

1. If you don’t know of any other publishers than Penguin and Harper Collins, DO NOT ask a debut author who their publisher is. When they tell you the name of their publisher and you pronounce, “never heard of ‘em”, it feels awkward to explain that from tiny indies through to global giants, there are tons of great publishers, who you will not have heard of, doing amazing work. For the record, I am being published by Discover Kelpies, an imprint of Floris Books, a large independent publisher based in Edinburgh, who publish an array of dazzling books 🙂 

2. DO NOT tell the debut author about your friend who ‘dabbles’ in children’s writing/illustrating, and subsequently turns out to be a Carnegie Medal winning writer who the debut author idolizes. If Carnegie medal winners only dabble, the work of this little debut doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

3. DO NOT tell them about your children, who are voracious readers, but will only read J.K. Rowling or David Walliams. You may as well have said your children love to eat but will only have white bread. Authors write books for readers and there is a feast of great books out there.

On the other hand, here are some great responses…

1. Tell the debut author what an exciting time it is for children’s literature, a golden time in fact…because it is!

2. Remind them how well they have done to a get a publishing deal, especially in such challenging times for publishing.

3. Ask about their book. They will be excited to tell you, because it means they don’t have to talk about themselves…and it might actually be quite a good book.

4. Put a note in your diary of the publication date (June 18th by the way) and then, if you like the sound of it, go out and buy it or borrow it from a library.

5. Tell people about the book. Only if you liked the book once you’ve read it of course. It’s really hard for authors without a celebrity profile to get the word out about their books.

6. Go to author events and book festivals with your children to support debut authors. Hearing that a child (or parent!) has genuinely loved a story lights up authors’ lives. And you might also enjoy the event.

7. Find out about the amazing children’s authors out there who write marvelous books that don’t make awards lists and don’t get featured in the press, but are often some of the most borrowed books in libraries.

I’m not going to say anymore about the course because Sara, Candy and Mo were super kind and generous with their advice, and you will just have to get along to one of their courses to find out more. Suffice to say, I came away enthused, full of ideas, and ever so slightly more confident in talking about my book.

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Duke of York

I have gone with Duke of York for my new potatoes again this year. Despite initial reservations they were delicious last year, and much better than the Charlottes I tried the year before, which are always so nice from the shops but were thick-skinned and tasteless when I tried to grow them. Our windowsills are full of chitting potatoes, or “chatting”, which is what Wren misheard, and is a funny thought.

We have had a frosty, sunny spell here, which has been lovely. My favourite sort of winter weather. The mild, damp is set to return however. It was already on the turn on this morning’s bike ride. A light, icy rain speckled my glasses making it almost impossible to see where I was going without multiple stops to wipe them on my trouser legs. As I cycled back through Exeter’s historic quay I caught a whiff of freshly-baked goodies from the bakery based down there. It spurred me on home with thoughts of breakfast.

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Picture Books 2019

In my fit of gardening optimism, Finch and I went to the allotment to clean the greenhouse at the weekend. Okay, it didn’t go quite like that. I cleaned the greenhouse and Finch made obstacle courses for woodlice in the soil. Then Storm Brendan blew in and it seemed the best thing to do might be to snuggle up in the warm with a good book. Cue my annual tradition: my round up of the picture books we were bought, given, or borrowed in 2019 and LOVED. 

Last year we enjoyed Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zummer’s collaboration on the fold-out book The Street Beneath My Feet. This year we have loved Yuval’s solo outing The Big Book of the Blue (pictured above) exploring the creatures who live under the sea. This has been most relished by Finch and my dad who have spent hours together pouring over the pages, exploring the details. It’s full of fun facts too which are simply pitched so that Finch has been able to sound out the sentences himself.

The Tide (pictured above) is by my lovely friend Clare Helen Welsh (I’m not biased at all!) and illustrated by Ashling Lindsay. It explores the topic of dementia through the eyes of a little girl whose grandfather is losing his memory. His memory is like the Tide, “sometimes near and close and full of life. Other times, far away and distant.” It’s a gentle introduction to a difficult subject which is only going to affect more and more of us. Deservedly, it won the North Somerset Teacher’s Award last year.

Six Dinner Sid (pictured above) by Inga Moore is an old classic which was around when I was a kid, and which I had to get for my lot. Sid manages to deceive the residents of Aristotle Street so that he gets six dinners a day. That is, until the fateful day when he gets a cold. It’s a brilliant story and makes Finch howl with glee at Sid’s craftiness.

The General (pictured above) by Michael Foreman and Janet Charters is another old classic about a general who learns to turn his back on war to embrace nature and beauty. Written in the midst of the cold war its message feels as appropriate as ever with all the recent sabre-rattling that’s been going on. And of course, Michael Foreman is a master-illustrator so the illustrations are just a feast for the eyes. The General is a masterclass in colour and design.

The Secret Sky Garden by Linda Sarah and Fiona Lumbers is about a little girl who creates a garden from a grey, disused car park in the city. Along the way she also makes a friend. This book has loads of great messages for children about being yourself, being positive, making room for nature in our modern lives, and building relationships. 

I’ll be honest, we got the Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield for the illustrations. It’s a similar story to Mr Big by Ed Vere but doesn’t quite manage to match Vere’s incredible sense of pacing and light touch, however the illustrations are fantastic. It’s about a bear in a forest who learns to play the piano and ends up heading off for the city where he plays to sell-out theatres. It’s all about belonging and finding your place in the world, and there can never be enough stories to help children navigate that difficult terrain.

My Two Blankets by Irena Kobold and Freya Blackwood is one we bought with Wren in mind. It came out a few years ago and is fantastic. Cartwheel is a migrant and at first she struggles to settle into her new country. Everything is so different and strange, but with the help of a new friend she begins to find her place. It’s a gorgeous book and I can’t fathom why Freya Blackwood is not better known outside her native Australia. I remember mentioning her at my Picture Hooks interview and was met with blank looks. This story is particularly apt for Wren, whose current best friend at pre-school is a little Syrian girl. The fact that neither of them speak very good English doesn’t stop them from dressing up in all sorts of finery, and clattering around looking after their dollies together. 

Looking After Daddy by Eve Coy is a sweet and tender story of a small girl ‘looking after’ her little boy, William (aka Daddy). The illustrations are stunning. It’s lovely to see more and more books like this, reflecting the reality of modern parenting. While there may not be lots of exclusively stay-at-home dads around us, I’d be pushed to name any families we know where both parents aren’t working. Certainly ‘daddy-days’ are a regular feature of my kids’ lives, especially with me working weekends. 

In Tad by Benji Davies, Big Blub is the huge, grumpy fish who lives at the bottom of the pond and Tad is the littlest tadpole. Recently Tad has noticed that there are less and less of her tadpole brothers and sisters around. Could it be anything to do with Big Blub? Tad knows she must use all her wits to stay out of Big Blub’s way until one day he finds her and chases her through the water. It’s then that Tad has to make the biggest leap of her life, right out of the pond, finally discovering where all her brothers and sisters had gone. Benji Davies has really grown into his writing from his illustration roots and this is a lovely story about being the littlest and learning how to grow up. Of course, it being Benji Davies, the illustrations are fabulous, travelling from the murky depths of the pond, to the rainbow palette of the frog-filled forest at the end.

So there we go. There’s so many wonderful books out there, we really are spoilt for choice. These are just some of the treasures we’ve enjoyed.

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Happy New Year!

The festive holidays were bookended by headlice and a stomach bug. In between I didn’t have much of a break, juggling nursing with another round of edits. Still, we had a lovely time seeing family and friends. I think we managed to get the right balance of keeping it simple, plenty of fresh air, savouring the wonder, and over-indulgence. I hope you all had a good time.

Last night Little Owl and I spotted the moon from her bedroom window as I wished her goodnight. We have been so battered by grey skies and endless rain that it felt like greeting a long-lost friend. A stack of seed catalogues landed on the doormat this week and I felt the old tingle of anticipation as I flicked through the pages. We’ve got a way to go before spring gets here but at least we’re on the right side of the solstice now.

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Merry Christmas

At the weekend we completed our annual ritual of walk in the woods, sausage sandwiches in a twinkly barn, and Christmas tree purchase from the Dartmoor Park Rangers. Once home, we put on some Christmas tunes, fired up the wood burner and set about decorating the tree. Wren helped me put up glittery poinsettia garlands in the middle room. As the low winter sun crept around the house and found it’s way in at the window, Wren looked down at her arm in amazement. Glitter from the garlands had sprinkled all over her sleeve as we had tied them in place, and it sparkled in the sunlight. She looked up at me, her eyes full of wonder and whispered, “Mummy, I’m turning into magic!”

This is me signing off for Christmas. I’ll be working with my District Nursing hat on from Saturday through to Christmas Day. The children break up on Friday. The last of their Christmas plays was today. As usual, Little Owl stood behind the tallest girl in the class so that I could see nothing of her, but could definitely hear her belting out “…so bring some right here!’

Once again, a huge and hearty thanks to all of you who keep up with my adventures on this blog, especially now that I am following new creative (and not so creative!) paths. I shall return in the new year with more posts. In the mean time, have a really wonderful Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

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As you can see Finch has been working hard on his Christmas cards. Each one has had extensive illustration work done throughout. It’s taken him a loooong time but finally they are ready to go out to his classmates.

In contrast, Big Dreamer and I will only be sending a smattering of cards this year and I feel quite torn about it. Many regular readers of this blog have kindly supported my Christmas card offerings in the past, and I love receiving Christmas cards myself, especially if they contain a bit of news. It’s a good way to stay connected with people that you would love to see more of but, in this particular season of life, it’s just not possible. Buying cards from local charities helps to support good causes, and buying from local artists helps to support small businesses too.

But, with the rising cost of postage and concerns about the environment we’ve decided that our Christmas card budget might be put to better use this year. In the past, Big Dreamer and I have worked with various hats on in the area of youth homelessness. It’s an issue we both feel particularly passionate about. Kids who have had a rough start in life through no fault of their own, often struggle to leave behind those disadvantages and successfully transition into adult life, trapped in a cycle of poverty and abuse. Many of these young people can find themselves homeless. Hostels and shelters are frightening places at the best of times, and they are places where young people can be exposed to problems we would never want our own children to witness.

Given all this, we’ve decided to donate our Christmas card budget to Centrepoint this year. Every year Centrepoint supports 10,000 16 to 25 year olds into a home and a job. They do a fantastic job, providing mentoring and support so that young people don’t just flounder once they’re off the streets. So, I hope you don’t mind receiving our Christmas greetings via a good cause this year. Happy Christmas one and all!

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Lunch break spot on my rounds this week

The rain has finally stopped, and given way to frost, ice and spectacular wintery skies. A flock of long-tailed tits flew into the garden the other morning as I hung out the washing. They gathered on the Japanese maple, chattering loudly to each other, then flew off in one motion to explore our neighbour’s crabapple tree. There is something about long-tailed tits, fluffy lollipops in jolly unison, that makes me want to laugh.

Wren was to be a star in the school nativity this week but she turned her nose up at the star costume I offered her. No, she was adamant she would be wearing the second hand angel outfit from the dressing up box. She was so adamant about this that she didn’t just wear the angel costume for the nativity but has been wearing it all week, even in bed. She was briefly stumped by the logistics of a pair of wings and her coat but that didn’t last long. She put her coat on backwards and off we went to school.

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Winter sunrise from our attic this week

I managed to catch a dry spell last week and headed to the allotment to dig up the last of my root vegetables and plant some more field beans for green manure. A little robin followed me around, pouncing on any exposed worms. Fortunately my allotment drains well but still, I hope I haven’t done more harm than good stomping around on wet soil. On the radio hanging in the green house I listened to farmers unable to drill their wheat seed into waterlogged soil, or get heavy machinery onto their sodden fields to harvest potatoes. What a wet autumn it has been. 

Despite the rain that continues to pour we have had some wonderful wintery skies here. Long shifts in my formative years means I have a peculiar fondness for the daily commute home in winter. While I still had hours left at work, I envied the trails of headlights making their way back to cosy homes accompanied by familiar voices on the radio. Now, as I head home on my nursing days, I love to catch glimpses of window-framed, back-lit domestic vignettes from the houses I pass, in the moments of growing dusk before the curtains are drawn. It makes me think of Little Grey Rabbit’s Christmas, where the animals peak in at a lit window and learn what a Christmas Party entails from the children inside the house. Of course I realise that the homes I glimpse will not always be capsules of domestic bliss, but just for a moment, looking in from the dark wet evening, they seem like glowing treasures. 

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