Skara Brae , hobbits and giants

A highlight of my recent holiday was a visit to some of the Neolithic sites on Mainland Orkney.

The last time I was here, I was a student taking part in a survey, counting guillemots crowding the cliffs. (Tip: count the birds in groups of five, because it’s impossible to do it one by one by one…)

Back then I didn’t know there was an extraordinary stone-age village excavated just a few miles away. Skara Brae is a 5,000-year old settlement, a cluster of stone houses built partly underground. Tolkien surely must have visited the site when he was dreaming up The Hobbit‘s Shire.

The Hobbit

Eight Skara Brae dwellings and a ‘workshop’ are preserved almost complete, and we can look down into them through their missing roofs. The builders had a house-pattern they stuck to – a central fireplace, beds to either side, and a ‘dresser’ of shelves, set opposite the door to impress visitors.

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There would have been blankets and screens made from animal fur and skins, but we have to imagine those from the cold stone ‘skeletons’ of the rooms.

Skara Brae

These are true stone-age households. Everything was made from stone, bone, driftwood or pottery.  The people here made stone tools and etched patterns into their walls and pots. They carved bone beads and mysterious stone objects that we can only guess the purpose of. They also built stone circles.

Just over the brow of a hill across the water is a place where stone was quarried for the nearby Ring of Brodgar, a huge circle originally of 60 standing stones.

It isn’t hard to imagine people from the little community of Skara Brae excavating and transporting their own stones to contribute to the monumental gathering on the island.

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Our excellent tour guide told us a folk tale: the stones were giants dancing in a circle, and the rising sun turned them to stone. There’s probably a Viking aspect to this story – invading Vikings brought their own myths of trolls turning to stone in sunlight, and they would have woven them into existing, already-ancient, local stories.

Perhaps the first story, the one the circle builders told their children around the hearths of Skara Brae, was also about people becoming stone. What better way to immortalise your most revered ancestor than as a stone giant, standing for eternity, shoulder to shoulder with other heroic figures.

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Northern Lights

I’ve been on my first cruise, sailing up to and around Iceland. One of the highlights for me was seeing the snow-covered mountains materialise with the dawn above the lights of Akureyri.

Akureyri Lights

The lights everyone was most hoping to see, of course, were the Northern Lights, and we struck lucky. Late at night on 31st October, I was up on deck among the crowd watching the sought-after phenomenon.

The Lights weren’t the bright colours we see in photos. They were ghostly pale, grey rather than green. But the luminous, ethereal bridge hanging low in the sky, shifting into fingers and swirls at the edges, was as moving, for me, as if it had been vibrant greens and reds.

Someone nudged past. It was Frankenstein’s monster with a couple of witches. They’d spilled out of the ship’s Hallowe’en disco to join the sky-gazers, bringing a fitting, story-book touch to the display.

It’s easy to see how the Lights have inspired so many myths and tales over time. Coincidentally, while I was away, BBC One aired the first episode of ‘His Dark Materials’. Philip Pullman’s trilogy, which begins with ‘Northern Lights‘, is one of my all-time favourites. I can’t wait to catch up with the TV adaptation now that I’m home.

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Defying Eco-Anxiety

Climate Action Week, 20-27th September, started with a roar as millions of children and adults took to the streets to demonstrate ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit.

At last everybody’s talking about the climate. But at the same time, not surprisingly, eco-anxiety is on the rise. So how can we discuss environmental concerns without scaring our children? Only with a dose of hope and power.

We have hope – it’s still possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming – and everyone can be part of the solution. There are many empowering books available to show young eco-warriors how they can help.

Hoverflies bee poppy

Just out, ‘Be the change – poems to help you save the world’, written by Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow and Roger Stevens, is aimed primarily at children aged 7-11. The accessible poems shine with humour and optimism and come with tips for small, achievable steps we can all take to help the planet.

This book is not rubbish – 50 ways to ditch plastic, reduce rubbish and save the world’ by Isabel Thomas is packed with information and ideas. It has gems ranging from (my favourite) ‘eat more chips’ – because oven chips are more environmentally friendly than a baked potato – to an introduction to circular economy.

The National Trust’s ‘How to help a hedgehog and protect a polar bear’ by Jess French and Angela Keoghan is colourful, beautifully illustrated and full of wildlife facts and nature-friendly hints.

Even a tiny child can plant a seed. To borrow from young activist Greta Thunberg’s speeches: ‘No one is too small to make a difference’.

No one is too small to make a difference

Four-Legged Butterflies

I’ve been enchanted by the insects on my buddleia plant this summer, especially Jiminy, the speckled bush cricket. He set up home there two months ago, and he’s hardly strayed from his favourite leaf.

Speckled Bush Cricket

Crickets have an amazing pair of back legs – long and muscular with spring-loaded knees, adapted to jump fast and far. They also have two more pairs of legs. Because, of course, insects have six legs. It’s the magic number.

But do they always? I can only see four legs on this Red Admiral butterfly. Peacock butterflies are the same.Red Admiral Butterfly Legs

Red Admiral and Peacock butterflies are part of the Nymphalidae family. Their front legs are so small they seem hardly there. You might just see them, looking like tiny, twin brushes curled in front of the body. They probably help the butterfly to taste, smell and communicate, but never to stand.

What about caterpillars? Isn’t it odd that baby butterflies have more than six legs? In fact, only the three pairs at the front are true jointed legs. Those grasping feet further back are called ‘prolegs’. They help the caterpillar move by hydraulic action. When it metamorphoses into a butterfly, the prolegs disappear. This caterpillar has five pairs of prolegs.

Caterpillar Prolegs

So, that’s that. Insects have six legs – even when they don’t.

Of course, storybook heroes can flout the rules. The anthropomorphic ants in Disney’s A Bug’s Life have just two legs and two arms. And Eric Carle’s famously peckish Very Hungry Caterpillar has an odd arrangement of legs. These much-loved characters don’t need realism. They have an altogether different kind of magic.

Red Admiral Butterfly square

Judging Lines

A neighbouring village recently held its inaugural story-writing competition, ‘The Horningsea Tales’, and I was honoured to be asked to help judge the Under 12s’ category.

The writing theme was ‘Lines’, a powerful prompt that sparked various story ideas – from surreal, talking lines to sinister wartime borders – all brimming with originality and imagination. Well-deserved prizes went to several runners-up as well as the overall winner.

Finding ideas for stories is something I’m often asked about, so when we gathered for the prize-giving in the uplifting venue of Horningsea Church, we naturally talked about inspiration.

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Illustrators speak of ‘taking a line for a walk’ when they’re looking for ideas. They make a doodle, and then find hidden pictures within their scribbles. Like most people, I did a version of it as a child.

Author-illustrator Anthony Browne used this trick for his book, ‘Play the Shape Game’. He drew one random shape and gave it to 45 celebrities to turn into a picture. It generated an amazing range of characters and objects, all potential story-sparkers.

The Shape Game
Play the Shape Game

So, we played the Shape Game at the prize-giving, with one volunteer drawing a random shape, and someone else transforming it. Here are a few of the brilliant, spontaneous results.

Shape Games

It was a fun afternoon, and fabulous to see so many children and adults happily bitten by the story-writing bug. I’m sure the 2019 ‘Horningsea Tales’ will be the first of many.

Separately, another thing I’m often asked is how to get stories for children published. SCBWI – the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – offers support and advice, including critiquing, to published and unpublished writers. Once you’re happy that your work is as good as it can be, consult Bloomsbury’s Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook for all the information you need. Good luck!

A Scrap of Family History

My Great-Uncle Willie was born around 1905 and died before I was born. My mother’s mother was his big sister. I love this photo of them as children with their grandparents and a rather blurry auntie.

William&Mary Johnson with Grandchildren William&Mary and daughter Sally ca 1910
Willie (centre) in around 1910

Like all the men in his family, Willie grew up to be a miner, and he spent his life working 15-inch coal seams. My mum remembers him as a gentle man who played his gramophone for her and loved his allotment. He never married.

Mum has kept Willie’s old wallet for over 60 years. A 1931 diary is tucked inside. Willie would have been in his mid-20s then. It falls open at one poignant page.

Diary 1931 inside pages

There’s Willie’s name and address in neat cursive handwriting, and some detailed gardening notes. There’s also a sprig of purple heather and a silver-paper memento with the note ‘Granny’s Golden Wedding, Dec 7th 1930’.

That suggests the elderly couple photographed on their doorstep got married on December 7th 1880. Their son Robert, who was Willie’s father and my own great-grandfather, was born on 12th July 1882. I know this because Willie kept his father’s birth certificate neatly folded inside his wallet.

Also in there are family photos, plus three of an unknown young woman. Mum guesses she’s the girl who broke Willie’s heart. He said it never mended.

After my mum, there’s no-one to remember my Great-Uncle Willie. I’m privileged to be able to touch a small scrap of his life.

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A time-capsule in a wallet, 1931

Happy World Sleep Day

March 15th 2019 is World Sleep Day – a whole day dedicated to celebrating sleep. What a fabulous excuse to spend the day in my pyjamas!

In fact, World Sleep Day has the serious aim of raising awareness of sleep disorders and related issues. Good sleep is worth celebrating. For children, especially, sleeping well is essential for mental and physical health – theirs and their parents’!

Fortunately the World Sleep Day website has a ’10 Commandments for Children’ page with helpful suggestions for encouraging good sleep habits. Not surprisingly, consistency and routine top the list. Tip three is ‘establish a consistent bedtime routine’. It doesn’t actually say ‘share a bedtime book’, but it could be there in big, invisible letters.

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Illustration by Sebastien Braun, from Goodnight Sleepy Babies

Reading a book together is one of the best things you can add to the bedtime routine. Even if the story is a frantic, rip-roaring adventure, the act of sharing it comforts and relaxes, and offers reassurance before sleep.

Last year I was thrilled that the terrific Story Snug blog reviewed my picture book, Goodnight Sleepy Babies for World Sleep Day 2018. Story Snug is updated frequently with new recommendations for picture books and chapter books, perfect for young children.

But you don’t need to stop sharing books as your children get older. A new book from Meghan Cox Gurdon, The Enchanted Hour: the Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction (Piatkus), highlights the benefits of reading aloud for all ages.

It’s never too late to establish regular, relaxing, family together-time. Sharing a book is the most wonderful place to start.

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Illustration by Rosalind Beardshaw, from Daddy’s Little Star

Book Giving Day

The date of International Book Giving Day 2019 is almost here, and I’ve been thinking about a certain Little Fox. Here’s why…

In Daddy’s Little Star, Little Fox asks some big questions about the sky: Where does it stop? and Where does it start? I hope the story inspires delight in exploring the natural world.

So, the book is about the sky. But it’s also about family. When Daddy Fox says, “The sky is like love… it starts right here, with my own little star,” he is expressing the boundless love of a parent for their child.

This Thursday, 14th February, is Valentine’s Day, when we traditionally celebrate love. Fittingly, it’s also International Book Giving Day. This fabulous volunteer initiative to increase children’s access to and love of books started up in 2012. It’s now celebrated in around 45 countries.

According to research published by the National Literacy Trust in 2017, a staggering three-quarters of a million UK school children don’t own a book. They may never have experienced the joy of snuggling up to share a story.

Giving a book to a child is just one way we can help. The IBGD’s How To page has lots of ideas for how to get involved, through communities, charities and social media, and the site offers downloads like this great poster by Priya Kuriyan, which is  available in five languages.

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Have a wonderful Valentine’s Day, and please consider giving someone a book, or making a book donation to a hospital or school or charity. They’ll love you for it. #bookgivingday.

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The Never-Ending Birthday

I love having a January birthday. The New Year celebrations hardly fade away before I have a whole new reason for cake and company.

Nowadays, my birthdays seem to arrive with weird frequency, but they never come round as fast as those in The Never-Ending Birthday (Macmillan).

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In this book by Katie Dale, twins Max and Anni make a wish to redo their 13th birthday, after it goes terribly wrong. Their wish comes true, and they find themselves waking up on the same morning, again, and again, and again…

We hear the story from the alternating points of view of Max and Anni, as the twins desperately repeat their efforts to get their birthday right and escape their bizarre ‘Groundhog Day’. The consequences are funny, touching and at times heart-breaking, with an all-round satisfying ending. This is a perfect story for both boys and girls aged 8 to 12. It can inspire this kind of deep absorption:

the never-ending birthday reading

The Never-Ending Birthday has been translated into French and will be published in March 2019 as Un Anniversaire Sans Fin. Here’s a sneak-peek of the lovely goofy cover:

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Author Katie Dale also uses alternating points of view in Mumnesia, for the same age group. Here, Lucy’s mum wakes up believing she’s the same age as her 12 year old daughter, with hilarious results.

Katie Dale has written loads of brilliant children’s books, ranging from the ridiculously funny, rhyming Fairytale Twists like The Big Bad Werewolf (Orchard Books), to the gripping and thought-provoking Young Adult books, Little White Lies and Someone Else’s Life (Simon & Schuster). Check out Katie’s blogspot here.