Well, these are odd times indeed, aren’t they? I have had my nursing hat on over the last three days, operating under a cloud of contingency planning and training, while running around to make up for the absence of self-isolating colleagues. It was strange to walk out of the office yesterday evening and see life going on as usual. My head was so full of the what-if demands that may be made on clinical staff over the coming weeks, that I half expected the streets to be empty as if we were already in quarantine.
Big Dreamer and I have tried to plan as well as we can, thinking how we can provide childcare while releasing each of us, and particularly me, to remain in our frontline roles. An author event which I was due to do at a nearby library on Saturday has been postponed. We have cancelled Little Owl’s birthday tea at a local restaurant next week, thinking we will buy vouchers from them to use later in the year, or how else are these businesses to survive? I feel as though I have woken up in a dystopian YA novel, yet outside the clematis by the backdoor is sending vigorous shoots skyward and my potatoes are almost ready to go into the ground. The children helped me sow tomato and sweet pea seeds in pots on the windowsill. There was something soothing about methodically filling the pots with warm earth and covering the seeds over. Someone posted this on Twitter today and it was just what I needed, so maybe it will be what you need too…
This year I have decided to be better at lists. Don’t get me wrong, I love lists, and I’m pretty good at them. But my lists are almost exclusively for everyday jobs and chores. I have weekly to-do lists. I have daily to-do lists. I have lists for the children. I have writing lists and nursing lists. I have lists for shopping, birthdays, seeds to buy, allotment plans, and holidays. But I’m going to do better.
On the last day of my Return To Practice course for nursing, my mentor gave me a few pieces of advice. One of them was to keep a notebook, and after work each day, write down some of the good things I had done as part of my nursing duties. It only needed to be a smattering of words, not an essay. She explained that it’s so easy to sit in the car on the way home stewing away about the one thing that went wrong, the one thing that I could have done better, rather than focusing on all the things that had gone well. She explained that it doesn’t take long to have pages filled with good things and eventually a notebook full, a whole book bursting with positivity that can nourish you on a particularly tough day. So I gave it a try.
Now, nine months after starting back as a Registered Nurse, I have a notebook filling up with good things. Over the months it has expanded too. I have found myself noting down things that I have done well as a mum or a writer too. It’s such a cheesy idea but it’s been really helpful. I already feel excited about the day when I will have completed a full year and can look back on each day, letting all that positivity feed into my present. And it has got me wanting to write lists about other good things in my life.
Some of you faithful readers may remember my attempt at a walking diary a couple of years ago. I started with good intentions, then the weather got bad and we didn’t walk much for a bit, and it fizzled out. So I’ve started it again! Sticking in little maps with coloured lines showing where we went, noting down the weather, where we had our picnic, the wildlife we saw, and the funny things that happened or the children said. And I’ve already enjoyed looking back on the two or three walks I did manage to put in the first time round.
I’ve also taken the plunge and joined Good Reads. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a way of keeping track of what you’ve been reading. Yes, it’s essentially a digital list. To the right, here on the blog, the beady-eyed of you will have noticed my Good Reads plug-in. It’s currently not working (and I’m not too sure why!), but when it is up and running, it will show the books I’m currently reading. Good Reads is also a nice way of connecting with other people who love reading, and getting recommendations for your next read. I’m hoping it will help me find book recommendations for Little Owl. She’s a very sensitive reader and will often abandon a book half way through, unable to go on for fear of what is going to happen next. I’ve been reading tons of books for her age group to find things she might like (my latest haul from the library are pictured above), and having read a book, to be able to reassure her that things turn out well and she can keep reading to the end! It’s also lovely to be able to leave reviews for authors whose books have really hit the mark for Little Owl. I understand these things make a big difference to how well a book does…as I’ll find out for myself come June!
Anyway, do you keep lists of ‘good’ things? What are they? Do you find it helpful?
It is light now when I come in from my morning bike rides. The riverbanks are full of bird song and lolloping bunnies. In the streets near us, front garden shrubs explode with sparrow chatter as we pass on the way to school. One family of sparrows have been flitting in and out of our neighbour’s extractor fan outlet that has lost its cover. It would make a cosy spot for a nest.
Today is World Book Day, which means parents all over the country madly scrambling to find costumes to represent favourite book characters. Of course that black bin liner will do for a Harry Potter Hogwarts cape! Not in our house however! Finch has been planning his costume for almost a year. He will be going as the Beast from his favourite comic, Cardboard Kingdom, all about the imaginary adventures of a group of friends and their cardboard boxes! Highly recommended reading for any kids who, like Finch, love to while away their days making freestyle cardboard models. The final cardboard costume has been ready for at least a month. We’re hoping it stops raining by tomorrow!
World Book Day is also the day How Billy Hippo Learned His Colours hits the shelves! There is a launch event happening at the wonderful Portobello Bookshop in Portobello, Edinburgh. If you’re likely to be in the area, here is a link to their Events page where you can scroll down to book free tickets (https://www.theportobellobookshop.com/events). I wish I could be there but alas, not this time.
Despite the wet and wild weather we had a lovely half term and a great trip to London. Here is Finch and his cousin scrawling on a giant chalkboard at the South Bank Centre. When Finch saw it, he couldn’t resist shooting me a mischievous look. This was because he and I have been butting heads over his creative outpourings recently. He wrote his own, and his sisters names, in big letters over his bedroom wall the other week. The writing was beautiful but, I explained to him, we don’t write on walls. He nodded and said “Yes Mummy”, but there was a blankness behind his eyes that told me that this rule wasn’t really hitting home.
A couple of days later I found three familiar names written in familiar handwriting on the wooden computer desk. I explained to Finch that we don’t write on walls OR furniture. “Yes Mummy,” he said, nodding emphatically, a fog of incomprehension still behind his eyes. I explained that it’s not ideal to put permanent marks on something we had bought to last a lifetime. I explained that the piece of furniture had been thoughtfully and carefully designed to look and function the way it was, without his writing on it. And I explained that it wasn’t respectful to write on furniture OR walls without permission.
A couple of days later I was carrying a pile of laundry up the stairs when I noticed a stick figure and the word ‘daddy’ had been drawn onto one of my ornaments on the staircase shelf. It was clear I was going to have to change tack. “Finch,” I said. “We don’t write on walls OR furniture OR ornaments. We only write on paper.” Which isn’t true, but was the best I could come up with on the hoof.
Another couple of days passed and I was putting our library books in a bag to take back. I happened to flick through one of Finch’s books. He had only written in the book and coloured in some of the pictures! And you can imagine what he said when I asked him about it…”But it’s paper and you said we only write on paper!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.