Woodlouse season

One of my earliest memories is of Dad popping a tiny round pebble into my hand. It was grey, with stripes radiating out from the centre – odd-looking but not very exciting.

“Watch!” said Dad. And if he hadn’t held my hand steady I’d have dropped it. All of a sudden, it uncurled, put out lots of little legs and marched confidently across my palm. “It’s a pill-bug!”

“Wow!” Surprise turned to wonder, and I’ve been fascinated by woodlice ever since. There are a few different species, all with hard, segmented bodies and seven pairs of legs. The Pill Woodlice that roll up into such perfect tight balls, go by the zoological name Armadillidium, and they really are the minibeast equivalent of the armoured armadillo.

We have many wonderful common names for woodlice too – assorted regional names like slaters, roly polies, chuggy pigs, sowbugs and monkey-peas, reflecting how widespread they are. Now, with the soil still damp and summer just around the corner, is the perfect time to find one. Just turn over a stone or log, or lift a plantpot, and see what’s underneath. If the ground is pebbly, look extra carefully. One of those tiny pebbles might have fourteen legs.

Woodlice are one of the stars of the RSPB’s My First Book of Garden Bugs by Mike Unwin and Tony Sanchez (A&C Black, 2009), which is still one of the best available introductions to garden minibeasts.

World Pangolin Day

Pangolins are bizarre. They look like fantasy creatures, but they face real-world threats. Hunted almost to extinction, they are desperately in need of protection. Happily for conservationists working to save them, these roly-poly characters have cuteness overload.

Pangolins’ scaley bodies inspire art and craft ideas. A pinecone with a paper-cone head and tail works wonderfully, or try making one from modelling clay or – if you’re lucky enough to have one – with a 3D printer pen! 

3D-printed pangolin by Heather Bingham

Author-illustrator Rachel L Shaw‘s website has brilliant downloadable colouring sheets and other activities. Youngsters will particularly love the cute cut-out Peeping Pangolin. Rachel’s pangolin crafts are based on her creation, Pipisin. If you can ship from the Philippines, the book, ‘Pipisin the Pangolin’ (The Bookmark Inc, 2015) is available to order online.

It’s heartening to see pangolin characters popping up in children’s books. Conservation can benefit directly too – 30% of profits from ‘A Pangolin Tale: Adventure of the Armored Anteater’ by Louise Fletcher and Jason Derry (Oakenday Press, 2016) goes towards pangolin conservation. This ecologically sound, day-in-the-life book has jewel-bright illustrations and a double page spread of pangolin facts at the back. I think it will most appeal to children aged 7+

Today is the tenth World Pangolin Day. Check out the site for things we can all do to support pangolins. And for one cheering initiative, watch an ITV interview with a Cambridge University pangolin researcher preparing for an eight-hour run in appropriate fancy dress, hosted by Save Pangolins.

You can find out even more about pangolins from sites including  the World Wildlife Fund and the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group. Have fun! #Worldpangolinday #runforpangolins

Dog on Wheels Goes Snowboarding by Gillian McClure

Is anyone else wishing for snow? The magical, fluffy, white stuff feels like the perfect symbol of new beginnings and hopes as we welcome this particular new year with open arms.

Even if there’s no sparkly snow outside the window just now, your youngsters are sure to enjoy a beautiful winter-themed picture book. Dog on Wheels goes Snowboarding (Troika, 2020), by award-winning author-illustrator Gillian McClure, is a new favourite of mine. It’s the third book to star the adorably exuberant skateboarding Dubbin and his little friend Todd, joining Dog on Wheels (2017) and Dog on Wheels at Sunny Sea (2018).

Gillian McClure’s lyrical texts and the playfulness of her words on the page make the Dog on Wheels books a joy to read out loud. Little ones love the excitement and energy of the stories about Dubbin and Todd having fun with the adaptable skateboard. But there’s mild peril too, and there’s someone else to spot in the background. The lurking shaggy dog is a neat device for sparking a conversation about strangers. Is this sly outsider actually a potential friend? I do hope Gillian McClure helps us get to know the shaggy dog in a future Dog on Wheels book.

Still on the subject of snowy picture books, the Kindle edition of Little Deer Lost, by Rosalind Beardshaw and me (Scholastic 2011) is available now for just £2.82 from Amazon.

If wishes were snowflakes we’d all be playing in a blanket of fluffy snow in these first days of 2021. I wish you all health, happiness and many,  many hugs in the coming year.

‘Fox’ and ‘Moth’: Enchanting Nonfiction Picture Books

I do love a good fox story, and ‘Fox: a Circle of Life Story’ by Isabel Thomas and Daniel Egneus (Bloomsbury, Oct 2020) is very special – an engaging, visually stunning, nonfiction picture book.

We first meet Fox raising her family. After she dies, her cubs go on to have families of their own, while her body’s ‘tiny particles’ are recycled back to nature and new life. This sensitive factual telling could be helpful whether the subject comes up spontaneously or is prompted by the sad death of a pet or family member.

‘Fox’ joins ‘Moth: an Evolution Story’ by the same authors (Bloomsbury, June 2018). ‘Moth’ tells how, over generations, the Peppered Moth has adapted to survive in an environment transformed by humans. Like ‘Fox’, ‘Moth’ is an entrancing picture book, and it brings a much-needed message of hope in this time of eco-anxiety.

‘Fox’ and ‘Moth’ blend Isabel Thomas’ lyrical text and Daniel Egneus’ beautiful illustrations to tell stories every bit as magical as fiction. They will surely be invaluable to teachers and parents facing tricky questions from primary age children. Let’s hope there’s more to come from this talented author team.

Guess how much I love ‘Guess How Much I Love You’

I was saddened to hear that Sam McBratney, author of ‘Guess How Much I Love You’, has died. His most popular book was first published when my daughters were three and five, the perfect age, and it was one of our bedtime favourites.

‘Guess How Much I Love You’ also means a lot to me because it inspired me to write picture books. Its simple message of family love, enhanced by Anita Jeram’s charming  illustrations, made me think I’d like to write something similar. It led to the character of Little Fox brought to life by Rosalind Beardshaw in my first book, ‘My Little Star’ (later reissued as ‘Daddy’s Little Star’).

With their endearing, gangly limbs and countryside stomping grounds, Little Nutbrown Hare and Little Fox are cousins, of a kind. I could imagine the two illustrators, Anita Jeram and Rosalind Beardshaw, linking the characters arm-in-arm and sending them off to play together, fast friends.

And on the theme of friendship, Sam McBratney has left a parting gift. Today sees the launch of his and Anita Jeram’s new picture book, ‘Will You Be My Friend’, where Little Nutbrown Hare makes friends with a little snow-white hare. It’s available on the ‘Guess How Much I Love You’ website, alongside lots of fun, downloadable activities for young Little Nutbrown Hare fans.

A Covid-lockdown sparrowhawk diary

A pair of sparrowhawks have been nesting at the bottom of our garden.

I first noticed them courting in March, so my covid-lockdown diary became a hawk diary. Back then, when my garden was still full of birdsong and the sycamore branches were winter-bare, I had an amazing view of the two hawks sharing their version of romantic dinners.

A furious noise, one day early in April, got me worried that the female hawk was caught or injured. But she was just struggling to snap off a hawthorn twig with her beak. She took it to an ivy raft in an old plum tree, and that’s where they built their nest.

By the end of April, they had a hawk-highway across my garden, criss-crossing almost low enough to graze the top of my head. They had clear roles – he caught food, and she snatched it from him, sometimes in mid-flight.

The female spent a lot of time on the nest, calmly  turning her yellow eyes to every sound. My garden filled up with plucked feathers. There was a lot less birdsong.

Hawk Mum on nest 4May 2020

Then, on 21st June, I got a glimpse of a chick – a tiny fluffy white head just visible over the edge of the nest. Perhaps it was already a few days old, but for me that was Day One – my first sighting! I took a lot of blurry photos, and one or two that look like a chick.

Hawk chick 26June 2020

By Day Six, I’d counted three balls of fluff. They looked like Easter chicks. When one stretched a wing, the length and shape of it was a surprise – a proper flying-wing shape, white fluff edged with dark feathers.

Their snowy whiteness disappeared almost overnight. On Day Seven, they’d turned a grubby grey. It was fun to watch them shoot their poop. The white splattering on the leaf litter was a big clue that there was a nest above.

By Day Ten, one chick liked to sit upright on the edge of the nest, showing off tawny breast feathers. It seemed to double in size in 24 hours. The mother moved out and chose to sit on a perch just above the nest.

On Day Thirteen, two chicks were sitting up on the nest-edge like dappled-ginger-fronted penguins. Their dark-spectacled heads, with a mohican tuft over their eyes, looked too small for their fluffy bodies.  The third chick skulked behind them, harder to see.

Twin Hawks 3July2020 (2)

They reminded me of Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson’s wonderful ‘Owl Babies’, waiting and hoping for Mum to come home.

Owl Babies Waddell and Benson
Owl Babies by Waddell and Benson

Later that day, I saw a ball of ruffled fluff on the ground. The mother, on her usual perch, was unconcerned. The advice with fledglings is to leave them alone unless they deteriorate. So, apart from scaring off a stray cat, I let this one be. The last I saw of him, he was hop-climb-flying up a leaning tree-trunk, back towards the nest.

The next day I realised the nest was empty – the chicks had left to scramble about in the leafy branches.

Today, Day Fifteen, the mother is still sitting on her perch. She clearly knows where all her babies are. Soon I’ll be watching flying lessons. After that the babies will leave home, and the parents won’t be so tied to the territory.

Then, I hope, the songbirds will come back to my garden.

A 90th birthday, and self-publishing

My dear mum, born in 1930, turned 90 this month. As for every other lockdown birthday-girl or boy, the celebration wasn’t what we’d planned. Hugs were out, but at least we could shower her with love from a safe distance.

Kit birthday
Birthday Girl (photo credit Denny Buckley)

My present to her was a published book of her early memories. We’ve been working on it for months, with me scribbling away while Mum put names and dates to the oldest photos in her cardboard-box archive and reminisced about everything from cruel headmistresses to VE Day celebrations.

For a writer, nothing beats receiving a box of newly-printed books, whether they’re traditionally or self-published. Opening this box gave me such a thrill, and I can’t wait to give out copies to the rest of the family sometime soon!

Helping my mum write her memoir reminded me that it’s too easy to let our elders’ memories slip away. Lockdown may be the time to encourage youngsters to learn a little more about their grandparents. So next time they’re facetiming Grandma or Granddad, perhaps suggest they ask them about their earliest memory, and see where the conversation goes.

Memoir

I chose Matador (self-publishing imprint of Troubador) for Mum’s book on the grounds that their website information is clear, with a handy cost-estimate service available before you sign. The production process was smooth and friendly, and they delivered a beautiful, high-quality product. In the end, even covid-19 didn’t upset their schedule.

Our book is a legacy memoir just for Mum’s close relatives, so I haven’t used and can’t comment on Matador’s promotional or marketing services. But judging by their handling of this non-commercial self-publishing project, they do a great job.

Rainbows, diaries, poetry and bug hunts

Have you got a rainbow in your window yet? Children have been putting them up everywhere, ever since COVID-19 closed down our schools in March. Rainbows signify sunshine after rain, so they’re the perfect symbol of hope for this difficult time – and they’re fun to count on our rare forays out of doors.

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Popping up beside the rainbows are colourful messages of thanks to the NHS. It’s just one of the ways we’ve found to say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to the brave key workers risking their lives for us. Download and print an NHS heart template by Millie Marotta, from Pavilion Books, or a flower design by Michael Craig-Martin, and get colouring!

While rainbows, hearts and flowers are multiplying in our windows, we’re also finding ways to pin down our fears and feelings. A group of award-winning authors are encouraging children to keep diaries to record the details of this strange period, with the aim of creating a unique, first-hand, historic testimony. Sign up to the Our Corona Diary newsletter, to find out about this exciting project.

There are tons of other free resources being offered by authors and publishers, to help entertain and amuse children stuck at home. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) has compiled an online directory of resources from its members. Check it out, for activities, book readings, teaching guides and lots more.

Just as we always have, we’re using stories and poems to help us cope and make sense of the world. One of my favourite children’s poems is Jez Alborough’s The Smile. First published in 1991 in Shake Before Opening, it’s the story of an infectious smile – exactly what we need to feel better right now!

And when we can escape outdoors, there’s nothing better than a bug hunt. The SchoolScience Great Bug Hunt 2020 is open to age groups from 3 to 11 years, with fabulous prizes for the winning entrants and their schools. The closing date is 12th June, so there’s time for plenty of bug hunts. Enjoy!

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World Book Day 2020 Share a Story

School visits on World Book Day are the best, and this year I was thrilled to spend time with the Reception and KS1 pupils at Waterside Academy in Welwyn Garden City. They absolutely love books, and they were dressed up as every character I could think of.

To mention just a few of the brilliant costumes, I caught sight of Peter Pan, the Very Hungry Caterpillar, Wally, the Cat in the Hat, Amelia Fang, a Little Fox, a Disney princess or two, plus, among the grown-ups, Three Little Pigs and their Big Bad Wolf, and one particularly Fantastic Mr Fox. Oh, and Gangsta Granny, who was resoundingly boo’d every time she waved her walking-stick.

My own costume was Dora the Explorer, and Backpack brought along everything she needed for a bug-hunt.

Dora Explorer backpack

We read ‘A New Home for Little Fox’, and then chatted about the creatures, or clues to creatures, that we might see on a nature walk.

New Home for Little Fox Cover

Poo, of course, is a very good clue to who’s lurking in the neighbourhood, so we shared ‘The Story of the Little Mole who knew it was none of his business’. If you want to encourage a budding naturalist, or just have a good giggle, get this book!

Mole Business cover

All our story-sharing is helping the World Book Day campaign, Share a Million Stories. Their message is that sharing stories every day, for just 10 minutes a day, has a lasting impact on every child’s future. Take a look at the brilliant #ShareAStory campaign results. There’s still time to register your school and join the celebration. You might see your name up in lights – and perhaps win a fabulous book prize!