Recently I visited my cousins in Canada, and stayed in a beautiful wooden house deep in the woods near Kingston. It had a big veranda out front and lots of fine woodwork inside, from the kitchen cupboards to the many beams holding up the ceiling.

cottage kitchen

I have always thought it would be fantastic to design my own house. Mine would have lots of windows and be eco-friendly with recycled water and solar panels. As well as stairs, I might put in a curving slide (my son would like that) and I would design my own furniture too, with wacky bunk beds and basket chairs suspended from the ceiling.

But it’s not easy to build your own house, especially if you live in a big city as I do. First you have to buy a plot of land, and get permission to build on it. Then you have to design the house, with lots of drawings to show how it looks on the outside and where all the rooms will go inside. If I wanted to build my own house I would definitely need some help, but my cousin Scot can do it all! He is an expert woodworker, and he knows how to build a house.

House design by Scot King.

House design by Scot King.

Here is one of my cousin Scot’s drawings, which shows a sort of see-through image of the outside and the inside. You can even see the foundations of the house that are underground. Scot does these drawings using a computer programme called Chief Architect. It allows him to look at the house from all different angles so he can spot mistakes before he gets working on site.

Traditional beams are cut to slot together, and wooden dowels hold them in place.

Traditional beams are cut to slot together, and wooden dowels hold them in place.

Scot lives in Kingston where there is lots of land for building and people like to have cottages by the water. He builds traditional timber-frame houses using big beams like the ones above. First they have to put up the main frame of the house:

The house starts with concrete foundations and a wooden "skeleton".

The house starts with concrete foundations and a wooden “skeleton”.

When they are in place, these same beams look beautiful and are part of the interior design. The wooden floor, staircases and counters are all hand-crafted, and my cousin can even make furniture!

The structural beams are part of the rustic "look" of the finished house.

The structural beams are part of the rustic “look” of the finished house.

The houses Scot builds are just as beautiful on the outside. Often they are built on a waterside plot with tall trees, so they fit well into the natural setting.

Some of these are summer cottages, and some are lived in all year round.

Some of these are summer cottages, and some are lived in all year round.

If you are designing your own house you can make it exactly as you want (providing you respect the laws of physics so it won’t fall down). Here is a very handsome one built for a family who wanted a half-circle window, rustic porches and a Georgian grey-green exterior:

House designed and built by Scot King.

House designed and built by Scot King.

And the one below was designed for a member of the family. Sometimes I wish I lived in Canada so I could build my own dream house (with Scot’s help)!

Another Scot King design.

Another Scot King design.

Scot has a company called Kingline Design and a great website (where I got all these pictures). It never ceases to amaze me that he can actually create something so big and complicated that you can actually live in! My cousin is one clever guy.

ceiling beams

Photo © Rob McDougall

The Scottish Seabird Centre Puffin Fest is launched! Photo © Rob McDougall

I’ve just had a lovely day in sunny North Berwick, a pretty seaside town northeast of Edinburgh on the south shore of the Firth of Forth. I had been invited as one of the “opening acts” at the first Puffin Fest celebrating all things puffin at the Scottish Seabird Centre.

Arriving by train from Edinburgh, I strolled along towards the harbour admiring the town’s charming stone cottages and handsome Victorian houses. When I reached the harbour I was impressed by the long sweep of the bay and the striking view of several rocky islands offshore.

From North Berwick you can see the Bass Rock, Fidra, Craigleith and The Lamb. These are ancient volcanic islands that are home to thousands of seabirds including puffins, gannets, razorbills, cormorants, shags, guillemots, eider ducks and various types of gull.

The island of Craigleith from the East Bay, North Berwick.

The island of Craigleith from the East Bay, North Berwick.

Craigleith is the nearest island to North Berwick, and for many years it was home to one of the largest puffin colonies in the UK with 28,000 breeding pairs. By 1999 the puffins had become endangered because of a plant called tree mallow that grew rapidly and choked the areas where puffins made their burrows. Unable to raise their pufflings, the birds started to abandon Craigleith. It was the sharp observational skills of one Scottish Seabird Centre volunteer, Maggie Sheddon, that alerted people to the dwindling population of puffins, and SOS Puffin was launched. Since 2007 hundreds of volunteers have gone out by ferry in the winter months while the puffins are at sea to “weed” the island’s invasive tree mallow. This has helped the puffin colony reestablish itself on Craigleith.

The Bass Rock from North Berwick.

The Bass Rock from North Berwick.

The other well-known island in this group is the Bass Rock, which is distinctive in appearance because it is white with 150,000 gannets and their droppings! The lighthouse you can see in the photo above is the only human habitation now, but around it you can see the ruins of a castle from the 15th century which was later used by various Scottish kings as a prison for their enemies.

The Scottish Seabird Centre invited me to take part in their very first Puffin Fest because I have written two books about puffins: Lewis Clowns Around and Harris the Hero. I had a great time sharing these two stories of heroic puffins with a lovely audience of children who had lots to contribute to our discussion.

Lewis and Harris

My storytelling event was only one of a long list of exciting activities for the whole family that make up the Puffin Fest programme between 16 and 26 May. Click HERE to see all the events planned, which include puffin trails, boat cruises to the islands, expert wildlife talks, puffin parties, a puffin-themed art exhibition and the chance to see puffins in action on the Scottish Seabird Centre’s live interactive cameras. If you love puffins as much as I do, this is a festival not to be missed!

©2005 Lynne Rickards

©2005 Lynne Rickards

Spring has returned at last, and all sorts of weird and wonderful minibeasts are waking up. Not everyone likes playing with bugs, but if you look closely they can be very interesting. When I was nine I had a little plastic cylinder with a magnifying glass at one end and a removable cap at the other. If I was quick enough I could catch beetles and grasshoppers in the cylinder, pop the lid back on and then look through the glass at the amazing creature I had captured. Of course I would always set them free again!

Cam n worm

When my son was little he loved worms and snails. Anything slimy had great appeal, and he would forget all about racing if he found a worm on Sports Day! For some reason, insects and other creatures tend to sneak into my books now and again. In Jacob O’Reilly Wants a Pet, the little boy gets a pet snail which suits him perfectly.

©Shelledy Elementary School, Colorado.

©Shelledy Elementary School, Colorado.

In another story I have a little housefly who is unhappy because he wants to be a more colourful and impressive bug. He looks at the beautiful butterfly and the bouncy grasshopper and the shiny ladybird and wishes he was like them. The story is written like a poem, and it’s called Buster the Fly:

Buster 1

Buster 2

Buster 3

Buster 4

Buster 5

In the end, Buster’s mum convinces him that he has his own special talents and that he should be proud of who he is. Buster the fly is OK!

If you’re studying minibeasts at school, I’ve found a fun BBC Minibeast video you can watch. It shows all sorts of amazing creatures, including beetles that look like an old leaf, and others that can squirt hot liquid or horrible tasting goo to keep from being eaten! Very clever.

©2002 Lynne Rickards

©2002 Lynne Rickards

I think some beetles are very beautiful. A while back I did some paintings of beetles, including the one above which was shiny and golden. It is similar to the scarab beetle which was seen by the ancient Egyptians as a symbol of their sun god Ra. In the early morning these dung beetles could be seen rolling balls of dung along the ground, just as Khepri, the morning sun god, was believed to roll the sun across the sky. Because these beetles were sacred, the ancient Egyptians made beads, amulets and small carvings of them for good luck.

This ancient Egyptian carving shows a sacred scarab beetle.

This ancient Egyptian carving shows a sacred scarab beetle.

Beetles take all sorts of interesting shapes. There are some with triangular bodies that make me think of Art Deco brooches. There are others with great horns like a deer. They come in a huge range of colours, too!

©Christopher Marley

©Christopher Marley

It’s amazing how beautiful minibeasts can be. Take a look at these fantastic stamps:

©2007 Royal Mail

©2007 Royal Mail

If you’d like to try some free minibeast activities (like crafts, puzzles and colouring) you can visit Activity Village which has lots of ideas. Get thinking about your favourite bug, and see what you can create!

Who can resist a troll? Photo ©Andrew Dunsmore/Rex

Who can resist a troll? Photo ©Andrew Dunsmore/Rex

The P2 classes at my Patron of Reading school, Comely Park Primary, are looking at the 1960s (“When Gran was a girl”) this term, and it just so happens that I am a 1960s baby. It’s a bit scary to think that I could be a grandmother, since my own kids are just teenagers, but I am looking forward to visiting the school in April to share my memories of those Olden Days!

I was thinking back to my favourite toys when I was very young, and thanks to Google Images I was able to find all sorts of them to show you! I couldn’t resist that troll picture above. Trolls were hugely popular in the early ’60s and I remain a big fan. Who could resist such a face? In researching this topic I have just learned that the first troll doll was carved from wood by a Danish man called Thomas Dam. He made the doll for his daughter but soon everyone wanted one, so he made more and more until he had to set up a factory!

One of my earliest memories from my childhood was a trip my parents went on when I was about six and my little sister was four. We stayed with our grandparents for a week, and when our parents came to collect us, they brought us each a very special present!

Skipper dolls

Everyone knows about Barbie, but have you heard about her little sister Skipper? My sister and I got identical Skipper dolls with bendable knees and long auburn hair. I really wish I had kept mine, but sadly she is lost now.

Easy Bake oven

Another thing I remember very well was my Easy Bake Oven! It came with little packets of cake mix which I would put in that red bowl and mix up with a bit of water. I’d pour the mixture into the steel baking tray and then slide it into the side of the oven. Amazingly, the little cake would bake with only the heat of two incandescent light bulbs! It was like making one fairy cake, but it really did seem like magic!

tiny rubber dolls

Another toy I used to love playing with was a tiny rubber doll, only 3 inches (8cm) high. She had jointed arms and legs, was very bendy and could fit in the palm of my hand. She looked just like the ones in the picture above, with her painted face and hair, and little painted shoes and socks. Apparently these were made in Germany back in the 1960s. Can you still buy them today?

Silly Putty

I also remember a little plastic egg that broke open to reveal some strange pinkish goo that was stretchy and soft (a bit like blu-tack). It was called Silly Putty and if you rolled it into a ball it would bounce! You could also flatten it out and press it down on a newspaper or comic and it would pick up the ink, creating a picture on the Silly Putty that you could stretch out of shape. Once you’d done that it got a bit dirty, though!

fancy rat

When I think of it now I’m amazed that my Mum allowed Silly Putty in the house. Even more surprising is the fact that I was allowed to have a pet rat! Her name was Whiskers and I think we rescued her from a science lab. Whiskers was very clever and she loved to run through the mazes I used to make for her out of a cardboard box. I let her wander all around the house, and she was easy to pick up and play with. The only time she ever bit me was when I stuck my finger in her cage with some peanut butter on it. “Ouch!” I yelled, pulling my finger away. And then for some reason I tried again, and this time she licked the peanut butter very carefully!

slinky

Another fun thing we had was a Slinky. I think you can still get those, so maybe you have one too. In the 1960s they were always made of metal and were quite heavy. This made them perfect for sending down the stairs, because the weight of the coiled metal would hold the “foot” of the slinky in place as the top flipped over to the next step. The only problem with a Slinky is that it is easily bent and even more easily tangled. Once that happens it is sadly never the same.

Monkees

When I was young I loved watching cartoons on a Saturday morning. I watched Bugs Bunny and the Roadrunner and lots of other shows, but my favourite one of all wasn’t a cartoon – it was a comedy show about a boy band called The Monkees! They were always doing silly things and getting in trouble, and of course on every show they would sing a song. To this day I still think Daydream Believer is the best song they did, but perhaps I’m a bit biased because Davey was my favourite of the four.

Gabrielle cover

I’ve already written about my favourite book I read as a child. You can see more about Gabrielle and Selena HERE. I still have my copy of the book (rather old and battered now) and I am looking forward to reading it to a new generation of children who are learning about life in the 1960s!

After Dr Seuss, my favourite author who both writes clever rhymes and draws brilliant cartoons is Shel Silverstein. I didn’t know about him growing up, although he was writing books and silly rhymes in the 1960s when I was little. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that someone gave me a copy of A Light in the Attic to read to them. From that moment, I was hooked!

Something Missing, from A Light in the Attic ©1981

Something Missing, from A Light in the Attic ©1981

This has got to be my favourite Shel Silverstein poem, not only because it’s so funny but also because the poem is brilliantly written, leaving the reader to finish the final rhyme. I love the loose and exaggerated style of his pen and ink drawings, and it’s been really hard to choose which poems to show you here as there are so many good ones!

Me Stew from Where the Sidewalk Ends ©1974

Me Stew from Where the Sidewalk Ends ©1974

Me Stew is another brilliant example of Shel’s clever poetry, which often involves eating. From the same collection you have little Melinda Mae who takes eighty-nine years to eat a whale, Hungry Mungry who eats the whole world and then starts nibbling on himself, and Peanut-Butter Sandwich in which the king gets his mouth stuck shut and even the fire brigade can’t unstick it!

The Farmer and the Queen from Where the Sidewalk Ends ©1974

The Farmer and the Queen from Where the Sidewalk Ends ©1974

This poem about a visit from the Queen is good fun, and I think the illustration really shows off Shel’s amazing skill at capturing the essence of both people and animals in a comical way. If you haven’t discovered the wonderful Shel Silverstein already, go and find some of his books right now!

The opening page from Anna's award-winning comic, Bea and the Marshmallow Menace ©2012

The opening page from Anna’s award-winning comic, Bea and the Marshmallow Menace ©2012

Another budding cartoonist I am very fond of is my daughter Anna. I have lots of her drawings on my website, and she won the Reading Zone Picture Book Competition with this charming character Bea. I am always amazed at how she can draw with just a fine-tipped black pen, without even sketching it with a pencil first!

Bea and the Marshmallow Menace ©2012

Bea and the Marshmallow Menace ©2012

As you can see, Bea is a sweet little character, but she has hidden powers…

Bea and the Marshmallow Menace ©2012

Bea and the Marshmallow Menace ©2012

Anna has always loved drawing cartoons and she is especially good at conveying emotions on her characters’ faces. If you’re a keen cartoonist like Anna then perhaps this worksheet of Bea’s facial expressions will help you perfect your technique:

©Anna Rickards 2012

©Anna Rickards 2012

I think if you click on the image it should be possible to print it, and then you can practice your own cartoons. Have fun!

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