Bath Children’s Literature Festival 2019

The Bath Children's Literature Festival 2019

We are very lucky to live within striking distance of the Bath Children’s Literature Festival here, which is the biggest of its kind in Europe. Little Owl and I headed up there on the train on Saturday. We hit the rugby traffic on the Bath train from Bristol, and I had to put Little Owl on a luggage rack to stop her being squashed, but otherwise our travels went smoothly. 

Our first event at the Guildhall was a discussion between authors Hilary McKay and Michelle Magorian. You might recognise Michelle’s name from the cover of Goodnight Mister Tom. She has written many books but that is the one she is most famous for. I still get goosebumps when I think about Goodnight Mister Tom and the impact it had on me when I read it in Year 6. I know it’s a special book for a lot of people and I enjoyed chatting to Michelle after the event about how her audiences are often multi-generational now that the book has been around so long. Hilary McKay is not so well known but has written a colossal amount of books for children which have a similar sort of feel to Michelle’s books. Last year Hilary won the Costa Book Award for The Skylarks War, which is a very beautiful book indeed and one I highly recommend. On stage they are both quite considered and softly-spoken people, which is unusual in the children’s book world where there are a lot of celebrities and big characters. What was very special for me was hearing about their writing processes and the lengths they go to get to know their characters. It was fascinating.

Liz Pichon, author and illustrator of the Tom Gates books, at the Bath Children's Literature Festival.
Liz Pichon, author and illustrator of the Tom Gates books…and super lovely person too as it turns out.

After lunch and the all important ice cream dessert, we went to see Liz Pichon who writes and illustrates the Tom Gates books. These books have been a world-wide sensation. In a similar way to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, they mix hand-written text with a doodling style of illustration. They have been credited with helping lots of reluctant readers get into reading, and they certainly helped Little Owl, who struggled with learning to read. Liz had a big screen up so that we could all see her doing some live Tom Gates illustrations. She broke them down step by step so that the children could follow along. Later on Little Owl was delighted to get her doodles stamped with the Tom Gates official stamp of approval when we went to get her books signed. I think one of the nicest things for Little Owl was discovering what a nice person Liz is. These events must be exhausting but Liz was unfailingly smiley, enthusiastic, interested in the children, generous and inclusive. I think children can tell when someone is tolerating them and when someone really likes them, and the sense we got is that Liz really loves children and being part of their world.

Children's doodles get the Tom Gates seal of approval at Liz Pichon's book events.

It was dark and raining by the time we arrived back into St David’s station here in Exeter. We sprinted past big puddles in the road so as not to be splashed by passing cars. Big Dreamer was waiting for us at home with mugs of tea and jam on toast, eager to hear of our adventures. It was a lovely end to a wonderful day.

Next week we are off on our holidays so there will be no post from me. We are heading down to Cornwall for a week of walks on the beach and board games by the wood burner. I’ll fill you all in on my return!

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Heralding the sun

It is dark now when I head out on my bike in the mornings. I nearly tripped over the hedgehog in the middle of the lawn this morning. I think we both gave each other quite a shock. By the time I return the sky is heralding the sun with golden fan fare behind the rooftops. Inside the house the mad rush of breakfast, teeth, faces, school uniforms, books bags, PE kits, lunch boxes, permission slips, last minute wees, shoes and coats begins. I stop for a moment before going back inside, taking a deep breath and savouring the special stillness of the garden in autumn. On nursing days I escape part way through the morning chaos, and Big Dreamer is left to try and tame it long enough for the walk to school. We scratch our heads at each other. How is it that after six years of doing the same morning routine five days a week, it still feels like a minor miracle when we deliver our children to their teachers in fairly good order and roughly on time?

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Wet girl

At the weekend we watched the surging grey seas smash onto the rocks as we climbed up to the top of the cliffs at Sidmouth and I made a mental note to pack extra sets of clothes for Little Owl’s school residential this week. Looking out on the rain that pours from the leaden skies today I wonder whether even the extras will have been enough. Wren is outraged that her big sister has gone on adventures without her. At each knock on the door she runs to see if Little Owl has come back for her. It is only two nights and Little Owl will be having a marvelous time but all the same we’ll be glad when she’s back, no matter how many bin bags of very muddy clothes she brings home with her!

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It is Ploughing Match season again down here in Devon. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky at the weekend as we followed the trail of little white signs down a myriad of narrow lanes to the allotted fields. The actual ploughing was nearly over by the time we arrived. We watched the horses, clinking in all their regalia, circle round for the last time. There were one or two vintage tractors making adjustments before completing their final furrow. We ummed and aahed about who we thought had done best, but in the end, we proved ourselves too shallow not to be won over by the prettiest tractor.

There were sacks of oats and barley, and piles of beets and maize, adorned with winners certificates, to peruse. In the produce tent we marvelled at egg yolks and runner beans. The cake stall sagged under a veritable mountain of mouth-watering home baked treats. As I took a generous mouthful of jam scone, I gazed out over the golden fields to the trees and green hills beyond and felt the old pang that this time of year brings. Dark nights beckon, but just for now, I’ll revel in the bounty of September.

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Still moments

On Monday, I narrowly missed being drowned by the pouring rain as I dashed between visits. On Tuesday, I didn’t go to one home when someone didn’t comment on how cold it had got. But on Wednesday all was calm stillness. I paused for a moment to sip some hot coffee from my flask and gaze at this view, before hurrying on to my next patient.

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Three Brown Eggs

The weather has taken an autumnal turn this week just as the children have gone back to school. One of my patients sent them each a brown egg from her hens to start the term. I was unsure whether to give Finch his, still feeling cross at him over near disaster with a tin of putty. Have you seen this stuff? Everyone is making slime or playing with putty and I don’t understand it. Why would you want to play with ‘slime’ for goodness sake? I had previously banned all such substances from the house, seeing it as yet another short cut to ruined carpets, but then a friend gave Finch a tin of magnetic putty, and I had to concede, it was quite cool the way it moved around if you waved a magnet near it. Finch was to keep it in in his top drawer and always put the lid back on, but I should have listened to my instincts. 

In the middle of the night he got up, had a play with the putty and fell asleep. In the morning he was caked in the stuff and it had dried hard. Dry magnetic putty looks a lot like a spatula you’ve accidentally put in the oven, melted and left to cool. It was solid plastic, and it was stuck to everything. We soaked Finch in the bath for an hour and a half to try and get it out of his hair but to no avail. The sheets had to be thrown away. Big Dreamer had one shoe on, ready to take Finch to the Barbers, when we thought to Google for advice. Funnily enough, we are not the first people this has happened to. Amidst wailing and screaming from Finch we managed to comb out the putty using cooking oil. I did give him his egg, and I think we have firmly established that we prefer egg gifts to putty gifts in this house.

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Allotment pickings by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (
Allotment Pickings

Yesterday evening, from the back door, I watched a cloudburst of summer rain fall. The door was wide open to let the steam out of the kitchen. Big Dreamer had a vat of bubbling jam on the hob. It was a mongrel jam made from fruit gatherings at the allotment, none of which amounted to enough on their own to make a pedigree version. Plums quickly dissolved into syrup while blackberries rolled around on the surface. It smelt delicious. The rain started with slow giant drops that were quickly soaked up by the hot earth, and then, like a choir gathering force, more and more drops joined in until every other noise was drowned out by the chorus of cascading water. It was as if all the world had stopped to listen to the sudden deluge. I sat on a stool, watching the rain, and stitching name tags onto new school uniforms.

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Kelpies Prize 2019

Janis MacKay, Christopher Mackie, Aimee Ferrier, and Catherine Rayner

At the end of last week the Kelpies Prize winners of 2019 were announced up in Edinburgh. I say winners because this year there was a change of format to the prize. This year the Floris team were asking for samples of work from illustrators and writers rather than a completed manuscript or book cover design. There were two prizes on offer, one for an illustrator and one for a writer, winning mentoring and a publishing contract. It’s a really exciting prize and it shows how committed Floris are to nurturing home grown talent in Scotland. Congratulations to Aimee Ferrier who won the illustration prize, and to Christopher Mackie, who won the writing prize. And a huge, warm round of applause for all the shortlisted illustrators and writers too. You can read about the shortlist here. 

It looked like a great party so I was sad to not be able to make it up to join in the celebrations. Instead I followed the ceremony via pictures and messages being posted on social media. It doesn’t feel like a year since I was up there receiving my award. In lots of ways it feels longer and in other ways it feels like only yesterday! The editing process over the last year has taught me so much and I am really enjoying having the amazing team at Floris working with me to make this book the best it can be. You should see the front cover! While the experience has been overwhelmingly good, there are lots of impossible-to-answer-questions that float around in my head. Publishing is a precarious business and there are no guarantees. No matter how marvelous this book turns out to be, it may not sell. It may be the only published book I ever have to my name. When I hear people use the phrase ‘debut novel’ I wonder how they know. How do they know it’s their debut, and not their one and only book? On good days it’s easy to be philosophical about it, after all, it’s still a published book right? But on grey days, such thoughts don’t do much for my sense of self. Uncertainty means I’m straddling multiple worlds: being a mum; paying the bills with nursing; carving out time and space to write; and getting all the laundry done. Something that perks me up is the thought of going out meeting children and talking to them about reading and books when this book launches, which seems pretty wonderful to me. I already have lots of ideas for activities and topics for school visits and book events, BUT what if no one wants me to come?! Or what if they want me to come when I’m in one of my other worlds, dressing a leg ulcer or taking the kids to school, and I can’t come?

“Triumph and Disaster,” quotes my dad from the Rudyard Kipling poem, If. “Treat those two imposters just the same.” He’s right but it doesn’t help. Roll on next year’s Kelpies Prize ceremony, I say, when, no matter what happens over the next year, I intend to toast the next lot of winners with the largest glass of fizz I can find

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Home again

We are not long back from dropping Little Owl off at her Summer Sport’s Camp. Wren hummed merrily from under the pushchair rain hood while Finch was only a flicker of bright yellow mac whizzing along on his bike in the drizzly distance. Back home, dripping coats hang from hooks and soggy footwear makes puddles on the floor in the porch. Our holiday in Wales feels a long time ago. Before the weather warning hit last Friday we had enjoyed beach days, sea swims and sandy ice creams. It was a peaceful, restful time, with all the freedom and space we have come to treasure about our times away there. Back at home cucumbers were bursting out of the greenhouse door and I had only lost one sunflower to the gales.

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Vegetable robots

Little Owl won third place for her vegetable robot at the Allotment Association Show last weekend. Her’s was the cucumber one. She won a whole pound coin in prize money. Finch’s chest heaved as he wrestled with his pride of his sister and his own hurt feelings at not being placed. He was somewhat mollified when he learned that Mummy’s beetroot hadn’t been placed either. We were losers together but we had a lot of fun taking part.

Sweetpeas on the allotment by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (

I discussed the beetroot category at length with another entrant who hadn’t been placed and who I had thought was a shoo in. This lady had entered a rainbow selection of beetroot: a deep red one, a golden one, and a stripy one. She, on the other hand, had thought I would win because mine were by far the biggest. As we looked at the category description again we realised what we had missed. They had wanted three matching beetroot, and ours were most definitely not matching. Ah well, there’s always next year.

The allotment is all about flowers at the moment. I have a small section I’ve grown for cutting but lots I planted as companion plants to my veggies and which have carried on merrily flowering long after their companion vegetable has been dug up. There has also been tons of stripy cinnabar caterpillars munching away on the groundsel weeds. They turn into a beautiful grey and pink moth that flies in the sunshine. A great excuse not to do too much weeding!

We are away on holiday in Wales next week so no post from me. See you on my return!

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