It has been the most incredible couple of weeks launching The Tiger Who Sleeps Under My Chair. I have visited bookshops, libraries and schools, and met so many wonderful people. There have been super kind reviews of the book online and I’m grateful for everyone’s support, both in-person and via social media. A real highlight was THAT incredible cake at the launch event at Bookbag independent bookshop in Exeter!
It’s a strange thing, letting your work go off into the world alone, especially a book which is so nuanced. Will people get it? Of course, we all have our own tastes and opinions. Some people will like it and some won’t. Some people will get it and some won’t. It’s wonderful we are different. But, I am really grateful for how the book has been received so far. To be told it has given people goosebumps is really great! I hope The Tiger Who Sleeps Under My Chair will continue to reach many readers.
So many people complain about January as being long and bleak but it is the darkening of November and the deep gloom of the days around the Winter Solstice which make me cower. By the time New Year is done, the days are lightening again and potted hyacinths are the bearers of spring tidings. Here, January has been torrentially wet and then bitterly cold. The water meadows were indiscernible from the river and steam rose in the icy air from the torrents crashing over the weir. Snow dusted the tracks on the high ground near Dartmoor. Finch and Wren enjoyed smashing through ice-covered fieldside ditches. But everywhere, birds were singing and I believe, the most strident January-haters, must feel something stirring within.
January has been a busy time for me of preparations for The Tiger Who Sleeps Under My Chair coming out. I was interviewed for Booktime and Exeter Living magazines. There have been wonderful and kind reviews coming in from book bloggers, librarians, teachers and other authors. The children’s book world is a generous place. So many people give their free time to get the word out about new children’s books. It’s quite humbling.
I have lots of lovely events, bookshop signings and school visits planned to celebrate publication. If you can make any of these, I’d love to see you!
The Tree is down and the decorations put away. The kids have been freshly bathed and checked for head lice (what a job!), ready for the new term. I brought the hyacinth bulbs we planted in the autumn, out of the shed and onto the windowsills. Green beaks puncture the dark soil. Now I am sitting with my back to the kitchen radiator, mug of tea in hand, watching the sun go down behind the trees. 2023 is here and we are ready!
I wondered if this might be my last year of posting our favourite picture books from the last twelve months. Wren is six and dragged beyond her years by her older siblings’ reading habits. She pours over Little Owl’s graphic novels and methodically sounds out each phonic in Finch’s chapter books. But no, she is as delighted as ever by being read to. She snuggles up, utterly absorbed by the experience. Once we start reading, I notice Finch pause, and slowly creep closer so he can nonchalantly cast an eye at the pictures. He still loves a picture book too. So, without further ado, here are the picture books we were bought, given or borrowed, and LOVED, in 2022…
Mouse’s Wood by Alice Melvin is a seasonal wander and wonder through the woods, meeting the animals, plants and other creatures in each month. Alice’s vintage style illustrations make this book feel like a charming throwback to the 1930s and will be especially loved by fans of Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit. But what makes this book so enchanting is the flaps that allow you to see inside the animals’ homes, boiling up fruit for jam or snuggling up by the stove.
The Queen of the Birds is written by acclaimed folk singer, Karine Polwart. After a storm the birds of the world are in such a muddle, they decide they need a king to sort them out. The result isn’t quite what they expected and the ending especially tickles Wren, but I won’t spoil it! This book is splendidly illustrated by the incredible Kate Leiper, whose pictures manage to be so lifelike yet so full of character at the same time.
Wren’s favourite picture book author-illustrator is Briony May Smith. She was delighted when we visited the Waterstones window in Exeter last year, which Briony had painted with characters from her latest book. Wren is desperate for Briony’s upcoming book, The Mermaid Moon, out in the US but not yet here. So instead, we settled for an older title we didn’t have, Little Bear’s Spring. The text is by Elli Woollard but it’s Briony’s characterful illustrations which make this book so special. As Little Bear searches for Spring we are drawn through the natural world waking up from a long winter. We’ll have to let you know what we think of The Mermaid Moon next year. It’s on the birthday list!
The Wall in the Middle of the Book by Jon Agee has the feel of a vintage classic from the 60s. The deceptively simple story and illustrations cleverly play with the visual line created by the spine of the physical book. In the grand tradition of 60s picture books, this story mixes humour and politics to brilliant effect.
Finch loved Joe Todd-Stanton’s graphic novel-esque series, Brownstone’s Mythical Collection. The Comet is similarly, impeccably illustrated, but is a more traditional picture book story. A little girl moves to a new home in the city and struggles to adjust, until, one day, a comet passes overhead. This story is all about finding the beauty where we are.
The Last Rainbow Bird by Nora Brech is another stunningly illustrated story which explores conservation themes. Alex and Jo journey though a magical world in search of the rarest bird, the Rainbow Bird. Will they find it in time for Professor Feather to save the species?
I am the Subway by Kim Hyo-eun has been translated from Korean by Deborah Smith. It is written from the perspective of the subway, fondly exploring the lives of the inhabitants of the city. It has an anime quality to it, a beguiling mix of poetry, story and artwork.
The Baker by the Sea by Paula White was one of the Sunday Times Best Children’s Books of 2022 and tells the story of an old fishing community from the perspective of the baker’s son. While undoubtedly, the village is portrayed through rose-tinted spectacles, the strong sense of place, loyalty to community and the idea that each person has their part to play is a powerful message for children faced with the fickle and transient global marketplace of a world we live in.
A Dress With Pockets by Lily Murray and Jenny Lovelie is a delight of a book. When Aunt Augusta takes Lucy dress shopping, Lucy causes outrage by asking for one with pockets. Where else will she keep the things she finds when she goes exploring? The shells and frogs and stones and feathers? By being true to herself, Lucy changes the view of the adults around her. What a special message for our small ones, who have so little power but are precious beyond our imaginings.
So, there we are. Our favourites from this year. As always, we are so grateful to the booksellers, bloggers and reviewers who have brought these fabulous books to our attention. Three cheers and thankyou!
I stopped on the bridge by the river one evening on my cycle home. It had stopped raining and the clouds had cleared. Above my head was a whole star-spangled universe. Water ran in rivulets all over the water meadows, glowing pale blue with moonlight. A luminescent vasculature of the earth. I stood on the concrete span, feeling the crisp cold sneaking in among my layers of clothing, setting my skin atingle. My breath billowed in great steaming clouds.
Immense work has been done over many years, but especially recently, to make the Exe behave and protect houses like mine from flooding. But shadows of memories still linger around the place. A now dead-ended lane is called Shooting Marsh Stile. What must it have been like here when the Exe ebbed and flowed, flooded and trickled, just as it liked? When reed beds and marshes ran for miles and the flood water nourished the land. Did great flocks of birds wade here under the same stars? Did hunters sit silent on the marsh stile waiting to bag one for the pot?
We walked the clifftops near Otterton recently, where the Environment Agency are restoring 55 hectares of intertidal marshes and mudflats. Schemes like these seem the way forward to me, a great undoing of the Victorian hubristic infrastructure projects.
The wonderful PR team working on The Tiger Who Sleeps Under My Chair have been gathering kind words for the book, pre-publication. Two authors I admire enormously, Hilary McKay and Sophie Kirtley, have given generous reviews and I’m so grateful for them taking the time to read it. And a real pinch-me moment was learning The Bookseller had named the book as one to watch in 2023!
The evening sky turns to dark teal and then midnight blue. A shining slice of new moon is framed by chimney pot silhouettes. Among the houses life tableaus blink on in bright windows before the curtains close – a real life advent calendar.
In the garden I have cut back the rambling roses, snipping vigorous growth into bitesize chunks for the compost heap. I gather up the yellow, handspan leaves of the fig tree and feed them in too. All the better for nourishing spring mulch when the world has turned and the fresh shoots of a new growing year are bursting forth. But that is a dark winter away.
This month I spent a week in a hotel in Steveage, on a course for specialists working in MS, generously paid for by the MS Trust. If I’m honest, I couldn’t have told you where in the country Stevenage is before now. Despite the learning and the sumptuous bed my internal alarm clock woke me at my usual time and I tromped out in the early mornings to find the fields when E. M. Forster dreamed up Howard’s End.
We also spent treasured days in a chalet beside a North Devon cove, savouring the ocean spray and swell, and climbing narrow combes teaming with fungi and tumbling autumn colour.
I love this time of year – the freshness of the mornings, giving way to mild, sunny afternoons, low mists lying across the water meadows by the river, the sculptural forms of seed heads and drying stems. I gathered up poppy pods to put in a jug on the kitchen windowsill. I find the way nature perfectly marries form with function especially beautiful – the frilly caps stop the tiny, full-stop seeds from tipping out before they’re ready to be carried on the wind to fresh ground.
A sinuous trail of silver-topped mushrooms appeared in the garden at work – a fairy path across the dew-tipped grass. It has been a relief to have the rain back. I stood beneath the fig tree in our garden listening to the tap, tap, tap of falling drops one mellow evening, The thick, waxy leaves create wonderful acoustics. I’d gathered a handful to take in to make an apple and cucumber raita to accompany pumpkin parathas – such a delightfully seasonal meal! Did you know fig leaves smell of coconut? Neither did I until I tried this recipe – you soak them in warmed milk. I stood with my head among the rain-dancing branches and inhaled the mild coconut scent of the sun-warmed leaves cooling in the shower.
Just after I signed off from the blog I had news I could reveal the cover of my latest book, The Tiger Who Sleeps Under My Chair, so here it is in case you missed it on Twitter and Instagram. The cover illustration is by Lucy Rose and the cover design is by Jessie Price. They have done a fabulous job. I’m so pleased. The Tiger Who Sleeps Under My Chair will be published in Feb 2023, coinciding with Children’s Mental Health Week, which is very apt as mental health is one of the themes. It’s set along the Jurassic coast here in Devon. I hope you will find it a beautiful and inspiring story. I received my proof copy in the post over the bank holiday weekend, which was super, super exciting! More news to come in the Autumn!
Hasn’t it been a strange summer? Although I took a break from social media through August it was hard not to catch glimpses of people’s gleeful summer pics, delighting in the hot weather. For many of us, the drought has been accompanied by a deep and unsettling uneasiness. The team at Riverford wrote an article about how they were going to run out of water despite the huge investments they’ve made in water capture and irrigation systems. A local farmer to us, wrote of her despair at seeing fields of crops shriveling in the heat, the loss of this produce only likely to add to the cost of living crisis. The irony is we’ll be wishing we could have bottled the warmth when winter comes. And that was all before the horror of water companies releasing sewage on to beaches where families were holidaying.
In the grand scheme of things, my little allotment doesn’t matter much but tending my plot brings me closer to what is going on in the soil. I’m glad I opted for more perennial veg this year. My tree cabbage isn’t the slightest bit phased by the heat. I’m also glad my haphazard approach to companion planting meant many of my veggies got some shade from jumbling nasturtiums, marigolds and cornflowers. But still things struggled. My beans needed desperate watering to stop them withering on their poles. Leeks and winter greens, which should have been happily getting going this month germinated or were transplanted then, did little more than hang on for dear life. We were picking blackberries at the end of July, for goodness sake! Flowers have bloomed and faded in a matter of days. Everywhere, everything is going to seed. I worry for the pollinators. And of course, in my day job, I’m on the end of the line for the sick, the elderly and the economically disadvantaged, who have not found this heat fun in the slightest.
One salve to this gloominess has been a book I read over the summer by Claire Ratinon. Unearthed, charts Claire’s personal journey into growing from an urban, Black, working class background. She has no easy answers but what spoke to me most was her gradual unpicking of the habits and behaviours she had developed in response to society’s perception of her and her family history. Gently and methodically she pioneers her way into new territory, retreating when the forces of inequality become too ferocious to bear so she might live to grow another day. Set against the backdrop of the historical and ongoing environmental destruction wreaked on her parents’ home country of Mauritius, this book felt profound in many ways. It gave me new impetus to feel that one of the biggest things I can do about the climate crisis is to grow as much as I can for my own table, but most of all, to be here, not jetting off on holiday, here, engaging with the realities of this place, summers of sewage and all.
Claire’s book was also a tender reproach to me. Despite my best resolutions at the beginning of the year, I’m too busy, doing too much (again!) and sinking fast! Rashmi Sirdeshpande shared on Twitter the other week:
“One of the hardest (non-financial) things about being a children’s writer is the lack of visibility when it comes to your schedule. You pitch things, you wait, you have nooo idea what the future looks like. Will you be freee? Will you be smashed to pieces by deadlines? Who knows?
I’m thinking of traditional publishing here. Sometimes it’s pitch wait pitch wait pitch wait wait wait OH NO EVERYTHING IS HAPPENING AT ONCE… Or everything is ALMOST happening at once (so many ‘Nearly There’s in publishing as publishers think about whether to take you on!). I should also add that personally I neeeeed routine and certainty. I feel dizzy and restless without it. The relief when a schedule is pinned down is immense! So it’s a tricky industry for me!“
I’m not a full-time author, so the ‘pitch and wait’ thing isn’t quite my experience but I do work a full-time job and have three children, so that horrible feeling of dizzying uncertainty as you may or may not get “smashed” by deadlines while trying to keep the usual plates spinning is something I can really relate to. All the while, you know you had to put in place the things you did because you needed to know you could pay the bills. This is mixed in with a disorientating sense of gratitude and relief because my work is being published, which is wonderful. Holding the proof of my book and chatting with schools and bookshops about potential visits for when it comes out is very special. Claire Ratinon’s thoughtfulness made me look at where I’m going wrong… again! We had a wonderful week at our friend’s cottage in North Wales, which gave me a bit of space to think. It’s in the middle of nowhere and, appropriately given Claire’s book, was originally a squatters’ cottage on marginal land. We climbed mountains, visited castles and played in the woods. It was very cathartic. There’s nothing like the view from a Welsh mountain to blow away some of the capitalist cobwebs we all unwittingly internalise. So, fresh resolutions made, the new term awaits…!
A final short note on comments on this blog: I switched comments off over the summer to avoid having to go through and label the spam. Honestly, there’s reams of it and the content is awful. So, I’ve decided to keep the comments off here permanently. Many of you are kind enough to follow me on Twitter and will reply to my tweets letting you know there’s a new blog post. I love hearing from you and that seems to work well, so please do comment there 🙂
The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee feels like a long time ago now. Elizabeth seems a dear old lady, but I have mixed feelings about the institution of monarchy. I lived in Scotland, where the Crown has done some truly terrible things. My mum is from Wales, where the Crown has done some truly terrible things. I’m learning more and more about global British colonialism and imperialism, where, in the name of the Crown, some truly terrible things have been done. And I’m from Devon, a region with a proud history of rebelling against royalty. But at least the monarchy does have some accountability to the public, unlike faceless multinational corporations or the likes of Richard Branson, spending our carbon budget on flying into space. So we went to stay with our friends in the Pennines, walked the hills, fed the chickens, had a go at driving a tractor, toasted sausages on a fire, thanked Liz for an extra bank holiday, and ignored the Jubilee.
At the allotment, I turned back the tarpaulin covering the muck heap and found the most enormous, elegant slow worm relishing the warmth. I speedily dug out what I needed, careful not to disturb her, and pulled the cover back down. I love the allotment for these sorts of encounters with wildlife. These moments always catch me when I’m least expecting it and make me smile for the rest of the day.
So far, other than my parsnips, which haven’t come up at all despite re-sowing, it’s turning out to be a good growing year on the plot. The sweet peas have been magnificent and we have jam jars full around the house every week. We’ve gorged on strawberries and raspberries. My experiments with perennial kale and cabbage are going well. And my red Duke of York new potatoes have been delicious – not a bit of blight.
I attended an in-person book event at our local independent bookshop, Bookbag, the other week. I’ll just say that again… an in-person book event! The event was part of the Africa Writes Festival and featured Karla Neblett, author of the King of Rabbits, a story of class and race in rural Somerset. I loved hearing about how she had been inspired to write this story for the men in her life and found her thoughts on the loss of a key family member severing a link to your heritage very poignant. But mostly, it was just really lovely to be at an in-person book event! Too often, I think I’m too tired to get along to things like this, but a bookshop event is not like going out in the ‘socialising’ sense. You sit and listen to people talking about wonderful books in the soothing atmosphere of a bookshop. There’s no pressure to make conversation or ask questions if you don’t want. And Bookbag are only up the road… so, one of my resolutions is to get along to more events.
We went camping last weekend with my sister. We usually go at this time of year. We head to a remote, rural spot where we love to mark the lightest days. I say camping but really our camping days are done and we stayed in a cute little wooden pod with views over the fields. I did my knee in playing rounders, which was okay because it was time for snuggling up under camp blankets with a hot chocolate. I had to share this picture with you; the sun setting over the fields. Whenever I have lived away from Devon, the thing I have missed most is lingering evenings. No British county (whispers: perhaps Cornwall!) does evenings like Devon.
I am posting this after getting back from the summer school fete, where it didn’t rain, though it did look threatening. I’ve had my head down in edits so I wasn’t doing my usual PTA duties and this year, I was able to wander the stalls with Wren (Finch was off with his mates). I managed to steer her clear of the Colour Table (colour-themed raffle prizes, win every go) in case we won back our donations!
There will be no blog post from me next month. Last year, I took August off from social media and found it was a helpful month of recalibration, so I’m doing the same this year. Comments will be off on this post as I get so much spam and really can’t face coming back to the sheer volume of unpleasantness that will have accumulated. I’ll share this post on Twitter however, and would love to hear your thoughts there. But for now, I hope you have a good summer and that the light-filled days, lighten your soul.
May started with a bang for us, quite literally. Finch leap-frogged a bollard, didn’t make it, and face-planted the pavement. Amongst the tears and considerable amount of blood, there was a silver lining. Through wet eyes, he grinned at me – his front two milk teeth, which have been wobbly for ages, had finally come out. It was an expensive week for the tooth fairy!
May is a glorious month, isn’t it? The natural world goes into super sonic mode, and everything, everywhere, is blooming and bursting forth. My last lot of edits for the new book handed in, I was able to breathe a little. It was charming to watch blue tits from our kitchen window, diving in and out of our rambling roses, picking off aphids. They did me a great service in pest control and entertainment value. Down by the river, I cycled past frothing towers of May blossom on the way to work. First thing in the morning, the scent seems to linger in clouds like no other time in the day. I’m sure there must be some clever reason for that.
And then the swifts arrived, which means summer is really here, screeching and wheeling between the rooftops. Up on the moors, we explored bluebell woods and flower-filled meadows. One hot day we found a brook to paddle in, the crystal-clear water pouring into an icy pool from a spout beside a ruined mill. These May days are ones to savour, storing up memories of warmth and light for the dark days of deep midwinter. Now, as we emerge tentatively from the pandemic, for me, they also carry with them the memory of May 2020, when we were finally allowed to go a little further for walks. I remember the children running through buttercups fields and dipping their toes in glistening streams as if the world were brand new. I may have done a bit of meadow-running myself!
This month, I was part of a Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution (SCCR) online event for The Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival (SMHAF). I teamed up with Dr Sara Watkin to talk about our work with the centre over the years. I spoke of how words connect us to the local and to place – its significance underestimated at best and wilfully erased by the centres of power at worst. Our thinking has been boxed in on all sides by our industrial and imperialist past, our capitalist and colonialist legacy still an all too present reality in oppressing other cultures around the world – oppressing ourselves too, if we’re honest. Our relationship with our own landscape, the soil that nourishes us in these islands, is mostly hugely dysfunctional. I can’t help reflecting on this as I remember the red lines which appeared across my slides, offensive insults in the comment box and a voice spoke over the top of me. Someone had hacked into the event and was intent on being malicious.
It wasn’t personal, a lashing out at something good. Sara Watkin commented compassionately as she began to present, this person is in great distress but we are not in a space that is appropriate to try to help. She spoke later in the session, of the way a child growing up amongst domestic abuse might choose to identify with the aggressor in a bid to find power in a situation they have no control over, becoming an aggressor themselves. It’s a maladaptive coping mechanism and in the light of the shooting in Texas, it’s hard not to wonder how it might be undone. I have read before of how traditional Hebridean villages would buffer the impact of troubled parents on their offspring because these young people were embedded in a local culture, their kith just as important as their kin. And of course, there is the land itself. Many of us can speak of the deep anchoring that comes from our connection with place, with our rootedness in a particular landscape. I think the response to such tragedies must be societal.
But now, it is back to work for me – a new round of edits have landed on my desk. Here are a couple of pictures from our trip to Charmouth this month, fossil-hunting. I may have been doing a little fact checking for the book while we were there. Hopefully that whets your appetite for what is to come!
April has been such a dry month this year. I’d been panicking about sowing my seeds too early at the allotment after the temperature dropped, and then decided I’d maybe done right, glad my sowings had at least got a bit of moisture to start them off. I’ve also gone ‘no dig’ with my spuds, which has raised eyebrows. My plot-neighbours have decided the opposite and are going for deeper trenches this year. Half the fun is chewing it all over, as long as you don’t mind that the apocalyptic commentary on whatever approach you’re taking usually comes after you’ve already committed!
Fortunately I don’t grow sweetcorn, which has been the source of the greatest chewing-over between plot-holders this season. You see, there is a canny badger on the site who is partial to the golden crop. In a bid to outwit our striped friend, one gentleman is planting his sweetcorn inside a fruit cage. I overhead his pal scoffing at that, this badger can almost certainly pick locks! Well, in that case, he’d consider installing lasers. Immediately I had visions of the badger, clad in spy gear, dropping down on a wire from the nearest tree, glint in his eye.
I had a wonderful author visit to Seaton Primary School this month, running a session for KS2 (years 3-6, in case you were wondering), followed by a creative writing workshop for Year 5. The children were fabulously imaginative and engaged. I’m super-grateful to Jenny at the independent bookshop, Owl and Pyramid, for setting this up. Since things have opened up post-pandemic, it really has been very special to get out there and meet readers. I’m gaining confidence with each visit and it’s been heartening to get some great feedback from teachers… instructive and inspiring which supports their work in the classroom. I’ll take that.
My first lot of notes arrived from my editor for the new book this month too, so I’ve had my head deep in thoughts about re-writes. This first stage of the editing process usually pays close attention to the structure of the book, making sure the pace is working, prodding characters into life, identifying plot-holes and those saggy bits that lack enough tension to drive the story forward. It doesn’t matter how lovely the editor, most writers seem to agree there’s a heart-sink moment when you get these notes. My brain screams, I can’t do it, there’s been some terrible mistake, someone mis-took me for writer, I have no ideas left at allllll! This panic has a name: Cognitive Dissonance. It’s where your neurons scramble for ideas to try and resolve the crisis of contradiction, searching every dusty recess of your cranium for something that might help, anything in fact, and slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, finds glitter amongst the dust. Then you’re away, freshly fired up to make this book the best you possibly can. That is, until the next round of notes arrive…