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.

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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!

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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.


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.


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.

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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.


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.

Wallet 1931
A time-capsule in a wallet, 1931