A Pangolin’s Manifesto

Pangolins have a hard time. If they’re not being exploited for food or pseudo-medicines, they’re being blamed for a pandemic…

A Pangolin’s Manifesto – it’s not my Fault’ (author/illustrator Rachel Shaw, Apollo Publishers, 2021) reminds us that curling up into a ball when things get tough isn’t always the best defence – for pangolins or people.

This is both a gentle self-help book on being kind to ourselves and others, especially in difficult times, and also a cute introduction to what is sadly the world’s most trafficked mammal. The slim, 128-page text is interspersed with snippets of pangolin facts helpfully set in a different typeface, and the adorable line illustrations featuring Pipisin Pangolin will appeal to both children and adults.

My favourite spread is page 48-49, where Pipisin is lost in a book:

This charming little book would make a perfect gift for World Pangolin Day on 19th February 2022.

You can find more information on pangolins on the website of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group. The conservation support group, Save Pangolins, also offers lots of resources and fundraising ideas.

The very hungry caterpillars

Growing nasturtiums is a joy, and perfect for encouraging youngsters’ interest in gardening and nature. Like sunflowers, the chunky seeds are easy to plant, with stunning results – bright orange flowers and pleasingly round, peppery-tasting leaves.

And nasturtiums have a superpower. If you grow them, you’ll probably grow butterflies too. White-winged beauties flock to them to lay their eggs. Their caterpillars thrive on the leaves, and the nasturtiums don’t seem to mind. They just keep growing.

Here’s the treasure I found tucked under a leaf a few days ago – a clutch of golden eggs, with my giant thumb showing just how tiny they are.

With a magnifying glass, you can see they’re sculpted like miniature works of art. The yolk-yellow colour doesn’t last long – a day later, they’re black at the top.

Soon those black tops turn out to be heads – shiny and over-sized on bodies like threads. The hatchlings chew their way to freedom and then devour the delicate shells left behind. Their eggshells are their first meal – nothing goes to waste in nature.

A day later, the young caterpillars are growing fast, their bodies already catching up with their huge heads. The nasturtium leaves have holes in them, but the very hungry caterpillars haven’t spread out to enjoy their banquet. They cluster together like sleeping puppies.  I expect they’ll get more adventurous as they grow.

Eric Carle’s classic, tactile book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, is a wonderful way to introduce toddlers to the idea of metamorphosis – but the hero has a very funny diet. Nasturtiums are a much better bet, if you want to fill your garden with butterflies.

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.