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.

Horningsea Church 2

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.

Wallet 1931
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.

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.

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.


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.


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).


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:


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.

A Timely Celebration

Writing can be lonely. Happily, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) offers a great support network, including critique groups.

My own critique group is almost four years old, so we all know each other well. More or less monthly we gather in a local bar, rubbing shoulders to discuss chunks of our work. We use constructive criticism and positive feedback in equal measure, and all our writing benefits. I’ve learned so much from my fellow critiquers, past and present.

Occasionally, like now, we have a tangible achievement to celebrate. Just in time for Christmas our friend, Tony Irvin, has published the second editions of his African Safari Adventure books, plus a related Young Adult thriller, Cobra Strike.

Ant Lion Cover-Kindle

Aimed at 8-12 year olds, the African Safari books are about three British children and the Maasai children they befriend, caught up in adventures on a wildlife ranch in Maasailand, Tanzania.

The author is a retired vet, and he spent many years working in Kenya as an expert on tropical diseases of cattle and wildlife. His books are infused with his familiarity with the people, landscape and creatures. Among the many vivid animal encounters are those with the so-called ‘Little Five’ that give the books their titles:

The Ant-Lion; The Elephant-Shrew; The Buffalo-Weaver; The Leopard-Tortoise; and The Rhinoceros-Beetle (yet to be published).

A drawback of critiquing is that you read a story a bit at a time, over months or years. Sometimes chapters are out of order, or you can’t remember what happened previously. Sometimes you never find out the end. I’m looking forward to reading the whole thrilling series of African Safari Adventures, in the right order, in my own time, for the sheer joy of it.

Seasons Greetings, everybody! Happy Christmas, and I wish you all peace and joy in the coming year.

Pizza for Pluto

Knowing I struggle to remember the sequence of the planets, my daughter found this fun bracelet to help me. It represents our solar system, with a stone for every planet.

Solar System Bracelet

I considered various mnemonics to go with it. I liked ‘My Very Educated Mother Just Served Up Nine Pizzas’ – but I had to tweak it to help me remember which M is for Mars:

‘My Very Educated MA Just Served Up Nine Pizzas.’

So now I can run my fingers over the beads and recite:

Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune…

But there’s no stone for Pluto – only a few densely-speckled beads representing the Kuiper Belt.

Pluto was, controversially, downgraded to a ‘dwarf planet’ in 2006, so my bracelet makers have omitted it. Sadly, we can’t have ‘Nine Pizzas’ without Pluto. It has to be Nachos instead:

‘My Very Educated MA Just Served Up Nachos.’

Apparently, Pluto is so small, if we call it a planet, we could count over 100 planets in our solar system – enough for a whole necklace of pretty stones. Now that would be quite a mnemonic!

Oliver Jeffers has sketched the solar system in his heart-warming picture book, ‘Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth’. He’s labelled Pluto as ‘our favourite dwarf planet’, which seems like the very best way to describe it.

The Wider Earth, a review

If you’re visiting London’s Natural History Museum over the coming months, be sure to see ‘The Wider Earth’.  Give Hope, the iconic blue whale, a wave as you pass through Hintze hall towards the Jerwood Gallery. Then settle into your seats to watch just a handful of actors together with animal puppets created by theatre company, Dead Puppet Society, portray Charles Darwin’s historic Beagle voyage.

Wider Earth NHM

Dead Puppet Society has links to the Handspring Puppet Company, creator of the stunning horses of ‘War Horse’. So it’s no wonder ‘The Wider Earth’ puppets are ingenious. Creatures from fluttering finches  to giant tortoises inhabit the stage while Bradley Foster, as the youthful Darwin, gropes his way towards an understanding of how they could have evolved.

The scientific and philosophical issues are pared down, but small children may still find the play dialogue-heavy. For older children and adults, though, it’s an enchanting spectacle, with exceptional puppetry.  The show is scheduled to run until 30th December 2018. Update: now extended to 24th February. AND KIDS CAN GO FREE!

Youngsters who want to read more about Darwin will enjoy ‘The Misadventures of Charles Darwin’ by Isabel Thomas, published by OUP. Out of all the editions of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, my favourite is the beautiful illustrated edition, with editor David Quammen, published by Sterling.

Blue Whale Hintze Hall