RRS cover

Cover illustration ©Jon Mitchell

February 22nd is publication day for my two latest Floris picture books! One is a board book version of Skye the Puffling (smaller and simpler than the original) and the other is a brand new story about two adventurous little squirrels.

mini Skye board book

The wee puffin board book is designed for little hands and is sturdy enough to withstand a bit of chewing! My new squirrel book is aimed at older readers (aged 4-6) and follows the adventures of a brother and sister, Rowan and Hazel, who are off to explore the forest for the very first time. Their mother tells them not to wander too far, but there are so many exciting things to discover that her words of warning are soon forgotten.

Rowan p2

To be fair, Rowan tries to hold his sister back, but Hazel is fearless and ready for adventure. Most of all, she is hungry, and she nibbles pinecones and toadstools and blackberries all along the way. This proves very useful when they get lost and need to look for clues as they try to find their way home.

Rowan p8

There’s a very scary moment when a fox tries to catch Hazel, but Rowan comes to the rescue by grabbing the fox’s tail. They both run off and escape up a tree, but soon it gets dark and more scary creatures appear in the shadows.

Rowan p10

When they finally make their way back to their crooked old tree, Mum is very glad to see them! They tell her all about their hair-raising adventures and promise to be more careful from now on.

Rowan p14

I’m looking forward to sharing my new book in Scottish primary schools as we celebrate World Book Day 2018. I’ve also got an official launch of Rowan the Red Squirrel at Waterstones bookshop (Byres Road, Glasgow) on Saturday, 3 March at 2pm.

Rowan invite cover

If you’re in the neighbourhood that afternoon, do come along! The staff there are lovely, and they have delicious cakes in the cafe, too! A great place to spend your £1 World Book Day token. See you there!



Othello painting

Lately I have been rediscovering the joys of iambic pentameter, blank verse and colourful Elizabethan insults. When I was young, Shakespeare was a part of my everyday life, as my dad was a professor of English and would regularly quote the Bard at the dinner table. A gilt and velvet-framed image of Othello telling marvellous tales to a rapt Desdemona and her father used to hang in our front hall. My first introduction to Shakespeare’s plays was in a Classic Comic (popular in the 1960s and ’70s) similar to this one:

Hamlet comic

The story of Hamlet was conveyed in a simplified form, and yet some of Shakespeare’s language was retained to give a sense of the original:

Hamlet comic inside

I remember the play-within-a-play scene had a powerful impact on me that lasted for years. It was the moment when Hamlet’s uncle pours poison into the ear of the sleeping king, murdering his own brother. From the day I read that, I was never able to go to sleep again without the covers pulled up high over my exposed ear! (Not that I suspected my younger sister of wanting to murder me…)

I grew up in Ontario, Canada, and we were lucky to have a town called Stratford on a river Avon, just like the English one. A Shakespeare festival was established in the town in the 1950s and my dad was a young actor there in the early days, along with Sir Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi) and William Shatner (the original Captain Kirk). The first festivals were held in a big tent, but eventually they built a beautiful theatre whose design reflects its modest beginnings:

Stratford Ont theatre

Inside the theatre is a traditional “thrust” stage which is modelled on the Globe Theatre stage (where Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed). This photo shows a 2013 production of Romeo and Juliet:

Stratford Ont stage

Photo ©Stratford Beacon Herald 2013

When I was a teenager we used to drive the hour-and-a-half to Stratford several times every summer to see a variety of plays. I was very lucky to be around during the 1970s and ’80s when famous British actors like Maggie Smith and Brian Bedford used to perform. One of the plays I went to was Much Ado About Nothing in 1980, with Maggie as Beatrice and Brian as Benedick:

Much Ado Maggie Smith

Photo from Cleveland State University Library

Both actors were brilliantly funny in the roles! Thanks to my trips to the Stratford Festival, I was familiar with Maggie Smith’s wry asides and arched eyebrow long before her Harry Potter and Downton Abbey fame.

When I was eighteen, I moved to Toronto (to study at the Ontario College of Art) and I took advantage of all the theatre on offer in the “big city.” I remember a fantastic production of Romeo and Juliet performed outdoors one summer in High Park. It starred a young and handsome Paul Gross as the wildly impetuous Romeo, and was perfectly timed for night to fall just as Romeo challenges and kills Paris in the tomb.

Paul Gross Romeo

Romeo and Juliet in park

Like my dad, my son is now interested in becoming an actor, and getting into drama schools requires mastering a Shakespeare monologue. Inspired by this, I have been exploring the plays as I dip in and out of my battered Shakespeare Complete Works. Unlike the rest of my family, I didn’t read much Shakespeare in university, as I chose to study French literature instead. My younger sister has become a Shakespeare professor too, so I have a lot of catching up to do!

The best way to enjoy Shakespeare is of course to see it, and if a live performance isn’t possible there is plenty of choice online. If you want to watch performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company there are some available on their website HERE, and schools can sign up to Drama Online. The Globe Theatre also has a wide selection of plays to buy or rent on their Globe Player website. The National Theatre broadcasts both live and pre-recorded films of Shakespeare plays (and many others) in cinemas across the UK and around the world through their National Theatre Live programme.

Al Pacino Shylock

And of course there are many Shakespeare plays that have been made into commercial films. One performance my son found particularly inspiring was Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice. This was a 2004 film which also starred Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes, and luckily it is still available on DVD. My son likes the speech in which Shylock points out that Jews are just like any other human being, “fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer” and therefore worthy of respect. You can see Al Pacino perform the speech on YouTube HERE.

The best thing about my son having to choose a Shakespeare monologue is all the great films we can watch! The hardest part is making that choice…

Cover illustration ©Jon Mitchell

One of the best perks of my job as an author is the chance I often get when a new book is published to dedicate it to someone special. It’s sometimes hard for me to wait until the book comes out to let them know (I’m terrible at waiting!) My next book, Rowan the Red Squirrel, won’t come out until 22 February, but I just had to tell a good friend recently that it will be dedicated to his two children. I hope Jamie and Rosalyn will be as thrilled to hear this as he was!

When my children were small, they often inspired my writing. Jack’s Bed, for example, was all about a little boy who did not like bedtime (just like my son). I was delighted when I saw that the illustrations looked very like him!

In the story, Jack’s mum buys him a soft leopard toy that holds a hot water bottle, and this helps Jack sleep through the night. We still have that leopard today, though at 18 my boy doesn’t need it any more! It was lovely to be able to dedicate that book to him when he was still quite small. I think he felt pretty special seeing his name in print and looking at Rosalind Beardshaw‘s drawings of him!

I have two children, so it was very lucky that I was able to get another book published to dedicate to my daughter. It’s important to be fair, after all! This one was called I Win!, and it was inspired by the endless competition and rivalry between my two kids when they were young. Today they are the best of friends, but it wasn’t always that way.

For some reason I imagined twins for this story, and lots of bright tropical colours like turquoise, pink and yellow. Melanie Williamson did a fantastic job, and my daughter was delighted with her special book.

My next book, Pink!, was the first proper “trade” picture book I had ever published, and it made quite a splash at the time. I have illustrator Margaret Chamberlain to thank for that! Although the story was inspired by my daughter, I had already dedicated one book to her, so this time I chose my friend and agent Lindsey. She richly deserved the dedication, as without her, the book would never have been published!

Pink! has since toured around Scottish schools and nurseries as a musical, and it has been republished by Birlinn Ltd in Edinburgh.

My next two books came out in quick succession, and were both published by Hodder Books. Jacob O’Reilly Wants a Pet was also inspired by my children, who were not unusual in wanting to get a dog. This time I thought it was high time my beloved husband got a dedication, so Jacob is for Mark.

I Do Not Eat the Colour Green is all about a girl who refuses to eat healthy green foods (or even unhealthy ones) so it seemed a good idea to dedicate this book to my parents, who always made me eat my peas.

I haven’t published so many books that I have run out of special people for them. I doubt if that will ever happen. In fact, I still have plenty of friends who deserve a dedication!  In one case I really wanted to dedicate a book to the boy who inspired it, but that wasn’t possible. Instead, I will dedicate it to him here. For Kofi, the boy who challenged me to write a potato story.

Cover illustration ©Jon Mitchell

Recently I’ve been doing some research about red squirrels for a new book. Despite having lived in Scotland for 25 years, I have never actually seen a red squirrel in the wild. They are the only squirrels native to Britain, but unfortunately someone thought it would be a good idea to bring a few grey ones from North America in the 1870s. The grey squirrel is larger and hardier, and competes with the red for food. As a result, over the past 150 years the red squirrel population has suffered, and now there are 15 grey squirrels in Britain for every red one. No wonder they are hard to spot!

Red squirrels are very pretty, with tufty ears and white tummies. My new rhyming story is about two young ones who are venturing out into the forest for the first time. I did a little Googling and found this adorable photo:

Photo ©AP

The first ten weeks of a red squirrel’s life are spent in a drey, which is a nest built in the fork of a tree with twigs, moss, leaves and dried grass. Sometimes these dreys are communal, shared by a group of squirrels at different times.

Photo ©wildwoodtrust.org

In my story the two baby squirrels, Rowan and Hazel, set off down their tree to explore the forest nearby. Naturally, they wander further than they should and run into a few scary creatures, including a hungry fox!

I had to find out exactly what red squirrels eat, and the Wildwood Trust website is a great source of information. Red squirrels live in forests with both conifer and deciduous trees, and their main source of food is hazelnuts and seeds from conifer cones. They also eat berries, flowers, green shoots and mushrooms. To ensure they have food to eat in the winter, they bury nuts in the woodland floor, and hang mushrooms up in the trees to dry for later use.

My little squirrels get distracted by all the tasty food they find, and soon are lost in the forest. One of the clues they use to get home again is a mushroom that Hazel has nibbled. This is a Scottish story because most of the red squirrels found in the UK today live in Scotland. The Wildwood Trust says there are about 160,000 red squirrels across the country. Of those, about 120,000 live in Scotland, 30,000 live in northern England and 10,000 in Wales. They have almost completely disappeared from southern England.

There are several organisations devoted to protecting the red squirrel, including the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. There are lots of ways to get involved if you want to help out.

I hope my new book will raise awareness about the red squirrel. I have found two lovely toy squirrels to take with me when I visit schools, but I hope we’ll never reach a time when they are the only kind left.

I’m looking forward to seeing an opera based on Macbeth next month, written by Giuseppe Verdi. And much like Proust’s famous madeleine biscuit, the thought of Verdi (whose handsome portrait you see above) brought memories of my youth flooding back!

When I finished university I moved to Montreal and rented a flat on the top floor of a small apartment block. The flat was small and bright with white walls and a skylight, and basically had three rooms: a bedroom in front, a long narrow living space, and a kitchen in the back. It was the first place I’d ever lived on my own, and I took great pleasure in furnishing it to my taste.

That striking portrait of Verdi (by Giovanni Boldini) hung on my kitchen wall (in poster form, not the original!) I have always admired the skill of the artist in capturing every whisker, those sparkling blue eyes, the velvety blackness of the coat and the sheen of that top hat. Even more impressive to me is the fact that Boldini worked in pastels, which I have never mastered. I just love this portrait and wish I still had that poster!

Another beautiful thing I miss from my Montreal flat is the bamboo bird cage that stood in my living room, under the skylight. I would never keep birds in a cage, but it was perfect for holding a trailing ivy plant which was very happy there. I have tried to find a similar cage online and was taken aback to find they are now called “vintage” (making me feel rather old!)

I lived on Rue Messier, which was typical of the area in Montreal known as the Plateau Mont-Royal. You can see the three-storey buildings with six flats in each, and the distinctive curvy metal staircases to reach the upper floors. I remember having to brush eight inches of snow off each step every morning in the winter!

I studied French and Quebec Literature in Toronto, and then moved to Montreal to live in a French-speaking environment. I had read the novels and plays of Quebec author Michel Tremblay and was a huge fan, so it was quite a thrill to move into the neighbourhood where he had grown up! Much of his work is set in those same streets around the Parc La Fontaine, and in one novel he mentions Rue Fabre, just a few streets away from my place on Messier.

The first novel in Tremblay’s chronicles of the Plateau Mont-Royal was called La grosse femme d’a coté est enceinte (The Fat Lady Next Door is Pregnant). You can see from the image above that my copy is well worn and well loved!

Photo ©Alchetron

Michel Tremblay is most famous for an early play called Les Belles-soeurs (The Sisters-in-Law). I have seen it performed in French, which is quite a challenge for a native English speaker since it is written in a working-class Montreal dialect called joual. The play has had such success that it has been translated into many languages, including Scots! It was a great pleasure for me to see a production of The Guid Sisters in Glasgow a few years ago. It took me right back to my youth in Montreal. And now an opera of Macbeth has done it again!