‘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.

IMG_6345 (3)
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!

IMG_6376 (2)

 

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!

International Book Giving Day 2020

We’re decorating upstairs, so I’ve had to empty the bookshelves. Seeing piles of my cherished books carefully strewn (is it possible to strew carefully?) over every spare surface, is like meeting crowds of dear old friends, too many to talk to at once. I just want to sit with them for hours.

I love my own little library. There are books I’ve read more than once, some I plan to read again, and some I’m looking forward to reading for the first time. And every week  wonderful new books are coming out that I want to add.

But, like a gift that won’t go back in the box after opening, I know all my books won’t fit back on the shelves after the decorating is done. I need another bookshelf.

Or perhaps I need to let some go. Hoarding is a pleasure, but nothing beats the feeling of pressing a book into someone’s hand, and saying, “Read this. It’s brilliant!”

Happily, International Book Giving Day (IBGD), coming up on Friday 14th February, is the perfect excuse to give away a book or two.

ibgdposter-withtext-1

Visit the IBGD website for ideas on getting involved. This year’s fabulous design is by illustrator Sanne Dufft, and the poster, bookplates and bookmarks are all available for downloading.

I hope you have a wonderful Valentine’s Day on 14th February. And please consider joining me in giving a book, whether to one child or several through schools, libraries or charities. Thank you. #BookGivingDay

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.

IMG_5969

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.

Ring of Brodgar cropped

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.

IMG_3539 (2)

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.

IMG_6003