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

Thistledown Houses

One morning in Suffolk, before this summer’s drought set in, I woke up to a garden strewn with raindrop-spangled silk.

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Some of the spiders’ webs were as round as dandelion clocks. Others dipped like  hammocks. Domed or dipped, every web was a densely-woven porch overhanging a dark, round doorway.

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I poked gently at one cobweb, with a grass-stalk. If you do that to an orb web, the spider often comes running out to see if her breakfast has arrived. But no hungry beast emerged from this labyrinth. Perhaps she’d fed already, or was sleeping, or she recognised the heavy touch of a human.

Eventually of course, out came the sun and dried up all the rain, and all the thistledown houses disappeared again.

My favourite book character spider is the Hairy Godmother in Spinderella, by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Sebastien Braun. What’s yours?

Don’t forget you could win a copy of the ‘My Little Star’ boardbook, if you can find the spiders drawn by Rosalind Beardshaw in two of my picture books.  See my Spider Hunt Giveaway blogpost.

Butterflies and Ladybirds

Today the British charity Butterfly Conservation launches its Big Butterfly Count. All you need to take part is fifteen minutes in your garden. Download an identification chart and find out more here.

As well as butterflies, I’ve been spotting ladybirds today. Back in April, I noticed 7-spots (Coccinella septempunctata)  emerging from among the violets. They do that every spring. And every summer, when the crowds of aphids appear, I wonder where the ladybirds are when I need them.

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You can be sure they’re never far away. This morning I was about to tidy up some unsightly dead ox-eye daisies, and there among a carnage of aphids, I spied two generations of 7-spots.

The larvae have a distinctive pattern of two sets of double orange spots along each side.7spot_ladybird_family

Needless to say, my flowerbed is still full of dead daisies. They’ll stay undisturbed until all the ladybirds have grown and flown.

By the way, the larvae of the Harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) look similar, but they have a line of orange spots along each side and a square arrangement of four orange tufts in the middle. They also are voracious aphid-eaters. harlequin_ladybird_larvaYou can find out more about ladybirds on the UK Ladybird Survey website.

 

Zoology Live!

Otter poop (spraint*) smells like a newly-opened pack of jasmine tea. I discovered this fun fact at the Zoology Live! Festival, held on 23-24th June to celebrate the reopening of Cambridge University’s Museum of Zoology.

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Along with many other people, I’ve missed the Museum since it closed for redevelopment in 2013, so it’s a joy to see it open again on the New Museums Site, off Downing Street.

The iconic Fin Whale still welcomes visitors, drawing every eye upwards. In the entrance hall below, a stunning automaton by one of the creators of the Corpus clock offers a fun reward for cash donations.

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The weekend festival had a lot going on, including children’s crafts and story-telling. Representatives of Shepreth Wildlife Park were there, with a host of live insects and reptiles, like this beautiful corn snake.

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There were talks (full-length and bite-sized), workshops and urban safaris, and plenty more to keep children and grown-ups alike entertained.

Exploring the collections in the lower galleries I happened to look up and saw giant glowing jellyfish swimming across the ceiling.

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The Museum offers events throughout the year, and it has Zoology Clubs for youngsters up to 18 years old.  Do take your kids along. You may not find a corn snake in the courtyard, but even on the most ordinary day, this place is a treasure trove of wonderful things to discover.

Just remember to look up!

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* Otter survey info can be found at Cambridgeshire Mammal Group

A-maze-ing garden storytime

I was in distinguished company yesterday, with fellow authors, Isabel Thomas, Katie Dale, Pippa Goodhart and Helen Moss. We braved the bitter northerly wind with coats, scarves and blankets, and brought storytime to the glorious maze garden in Balsham, in one of the preliminary events of Linton Children’s Book Festival, coming up this weekend 19-20th May 2018. (Don’t miss it!)

Isabel took charge of our last minute publicity.

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After a quick photo-call, we snuggled up in the mini-marquee with some of our books and lots of delightfully engaged children.

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Isabel treated us to a pre-publication reading of her new book, Moth, a brilliant, lyrical account of an example of natural selection and evolution in our times.

Among other stories, Pippa enchanted with her beautiful, fable-like tale, A Bottle of Happiness; Helen intrigued with clever clues in The Mystery of the Green Lady; and Katie caused hilarity with her mum, Elizabeth Dale’s Nothing Can Frighten a Bear – which just shows that Katie’s mastery of rhyme and humour runs in the family.

I read Daddy’s Little Star. It’s always a joy to read to children who love books as much as the Balsham audience clearly did. And they were especially delightful wearing their fox masks (courtesy of and ©FirstPalette, a brilliant site for kids’ craft ideas). I’ve kept one of the masks as a souvenir of a fabulous afternoon.

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Spider Hunt Giveaway

How scary is a tarantula? My latest storyline stars one of these giant mini-beasts, so I had to do some research.

My spider-loving friend, Sarah, kindly introduced me to her pets. The Mexican Red-Knee is gorgeous, with orange and black tufts like tasselled trousers. But he’s prone to puffing a cloud of irritating hairs at unwelcome visitors, so I left him in peace.Red_knee_tarantula

Pablo, the Brazilian Black was happier to make friends and she sat, docile and velvety, in my hands. I could feel her slight weight through each of her pipe-cleaner legs. Occasionally she probed the air with a foot before setting it down again.

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I had to count and recount her legs. Oddly, there seemed to be ten. But, no – that short pair at the front are pedipalps, more like arms than legs. Back in her tank she used them to grab a hapless cricket for her lunch.

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How scary is a tarantula? Not at all. Unless you’re a mini-beast smaller than she is. Then she’s very scary indeed!

GIVEAWAY: The wonderful Rosalind Beardshaw illustrated six of the picture books I’ve written. If you don’t already have them on your bookshelf, your local library may be able to find them for you. The English language titles are: ‘Daddy’s Little Star’ (or ‘My Little Star’ or ‘Mommy’s Little Star’), ‘A New Home for Little Fox’ (or ‘Daddy’s Little Scout’), ‘Goodnight, Magic Moon’, ‘Night, Light, Sleep Tight’, ‘Little Deer Lost’ and ‘The Best Present’.

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Rosalind put in lots of cute mini-beasts, including dragonflies and beetles. I think there are only two spiders among them. Can you spot them?

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I’ll send a PRIZE* to the first person who correctly names the two picture books and tells me where these spiders are hiding. Anyone can enter. Just leave a comment on this website.

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*The prize is a copy of the toddler-sized My Little Star board-book, now out of print. Good luck!

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World Book Day 2018

Cambridgeshire, like the rest of the UK, was in the snowy grip of The Beast from the East on World Book Day, two weeks ago.

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My weather-wise rabbit warned me to stay at home, but I had an important engagement to keep. So I ignored him, packed up my Little Fox books and set off on a twenty minute drive to Cottontails Pre-school.

I needn’t have worried; the roads were clear for this intrepid explorer. Also, something fabulous happened on the way – I saw a running fox, gloriously red against the snow. Clearly, I thought, Cottontails must be a very special place if Little Fox comes out to see me go! 

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And I was right. Outside, the icicles on Cottontails’ playhouse roof were echoed by a row of ingenious ice sculptures hanging from a line, and inside there were lots of sunny smiles.

There was some marvellous fancy dress to be seen. Here’s the merry band of staff in character:

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Cottontails’ children know a lot about animals and birds, and they told me all about Forest School activities, like exploring and making dens. Little Fox would be right at home there.

We had fun with role-play, with our lumbering bears, trotty badgers, hopping bunnies and buzzy bees all finding their way home for a snooze in the end. Later, a stack of paper plates inspired some brilliant drawings of different creatures in their dens and burrows.

Thank you, Cottontails, for a lovely warm welcome on a very chilly World Book Day.