Skye cover

When the main character of your picture book is a baby puffin who grows up, you’ve got a bit of a problem. Skye the puffling starts as a fluffy little grey thing and ends up looking just like her parents. This gradual transformation made it tricky for the illustrator, Jon Mitchell, who had to think about the children reading the book who might not recognise Skye from beginning to end. He must have done quite a bit of puffin research:

grey puffling

Photo ©Saeheimar, Iceland Monitor

After the grey fluffy stage, pufflings start to grow proper feathers and the fluff falls off. This process of molting lasts some time and makes them look rather odd. Perhaps it’s no surprise Jon decided not to show Skye in this in-between phase!

Before it becomes a fully-grown puffin, the ‘teenage’ puffling is a dark grey and white, and it hasn’t yet got its brightly coloured beak and feet. In time the black-and-white colouring becomes more pronounced and the oranges and blues start to appear.

puffin teen D Melville

Photo ©Dawn Melville (from http://www.Puffinpalooza.com)

My favourite illustration from Skye the Puffling is a sweet portrait of the teenage Skye, who is gradually turning black-and-white like her parents. Jon Mitchell used watercolours to great effect here:

baby puffin

Illustration ©Jon Mitchell, from Skye the Puffling.

You can see that fluffy grey pufflings look very different from their parents, and they are not unusual in that way. Lots of cute baby animals grow up with quite surprising results! Here is another baby bird who is not only a different colour from his mum and dad, but also quite a different shape:

Can you guess what kind of bird he is? You might be able to tell from two clues. One is his beak, which is starting to curve like his parents’ and has a slight pink tinge. The other is the fact that he is standing on one leg. Have you figured it out?

flamingo mum

He’s a flamingo! It will take another two or three years for his feathers to turn pink, as a result of the food he eats. His beak will continue to grow in a curve and will develop black markings at the tip. Look how much growing his little stumpy wings will have to do!

Here is another baby animal that looks quite different from his parents. He is covered in stripes and spots so as to blend in with his natural surroundings (a forest with dappled sunshine):

He is much smaller than his mum and comes from Brazil in South America. Do you know what he is?

He’s a tapir. When he gets bigger his stripes will disappear and he’ll turn a pale grey all over. Tapirs look a bit like pigs but are actually related to horses, donkeys and rhinos. There are several different types of tapir and some are black with a white back. A tapir like that is the star of a new children’s book called Mango & Bambang The Not a Pig by Polly Faber and illustrated by Clara Vulliamy. It looks like a lovely book and is part of a series, so Bambang the tapir has all sorts of interesting adventures!

Here is one more baby animal that looks quite different from his parents. You might be able to guess what he is by his colouring:

baby panda

Photo ©Smithsonian National Zoo

He is very tiny compared to what he will be when he grows up. He will also get a lot more fur, so he won’t look like a little fuzzy pink eraser forever. He doesn’t look very fierce yet, but one day those claws will be big and scary. Can you guess what he is?

panda and mum

Photo ©Toronto Zoo

He’s a panda bear! Perhaps you guessed because of his little black ears and the black circles on his eyes. In this picture with his mum you can see he has grown quite a bit, but he still has a long way to go. Pandas come from China but they can be found in zoos around the world. We have two pandas in the Edinburgh Zoo that were a gift from the Chinese government. The zoo’s website has a PandaCam where you can see what the pandas are doing. You can also watch the penguins and the spider monkeys. I am writing this late at night, so when I looked it was dark and quiet. I guess everyone was sleeping!

This Christmas my family and I went to Canada. Along with the woolly jumpers and big mittens under the tree, we found some very special gifts this year. They came from Plan Canada and were not for us but for children and families in developing countries.

school essentials

My daughter’s gift was for one child to have school supplies, including textbooks and pencils, and funding for school meals and teacher training. These are things we take for granted in our well-equipped schools, but without them education is impossible.

anti-bullying

My gift was funding for an anti-bullying project which provides training for children, parents and teachers about the rights of the child. It includes “Speak out boxes” into which children can post their concerns and experiences so that issues of bullying can be discussed and dealt with. This gift was chosen specially for me because of my anti-bullying story, Pink.

clean water

My husband’s gift was clean water for families. In many  parts of the world the water is not safe to drink, and this is the most essential gift of all. These three gifts all came from the same Plan Canada Gifts of Hope website, and there are lots more amazing gifts to choose from.

Apopo rat 2

The final gift for my son was a surprising one. It was a rat! Even better, a HeroRat who sniffs out landmines in fields and open spaces where war has ravaged crucial arable land. This is an initiative started by a Belgian organisation called Apopo which trains and uses rats to find land mines in former war zones in Mozambique, Cambodia, Thailand and Angola.  They can also be trained to detect tuberculosis in a lab setting, which speeds up diagnosis and saves lives.

Rats are very intelligent animals (I know because I had a pet rat as a child) and they are light enough to be able to find a land mine without setting it off. This helps prevent the terrible injuries people suffer when trying to cultivate land or collect water or herd cattle on mined fields. The Apopo rats have all got names (like Oprah, Pink and Jolie) and they look quite cute in their little harnesses. Maybe someone you know would like a HeroRat too!

HeroRat

friendly puffins

I can’t remember now what first inspired me, about ten years ago, to write about a puffin. Perhaps it was a tin of oatcakes we had in the kitchen, with a charming image of two nuzzling puffins. Somehow a character emerged in my mind and a story started to develop. As it did, I decided to do some drawings so I could share the story with my children.

I imagined a puffin who was unhappy living by the sea, and who dreamed of doing something more exciting. What else might a puffin do for a living?

Lewis in goal

The puffin’s name was Lewis, and he came up with a few ideas. What about a football goalie?

puffin cowboy

Or a cowboy singing songs out on the range?

puffin driver

Lewis thought it would be fun to drive a bus. Or perhaps he could be an acrobat, or a mechanic, or a postman?

puffin plans

 

Lewis had a brother called Harris who was not very sympathetic. He was perfectly happy being a puffin on the open sea, and couldn’t understand why Lewis wanted a change. When Lewis thought up his best idea yet, Harris just laughed.

Harris laughing

 

“A circus clown?” squawked Harris. “You’re right – you would be perfect! You’re always tripping on your big feet and everyone laughs at you already.”

sad puffin

It was true that the other puffins made fun of Lewis. He really didn’t belong. But when he finally got to the circus…

pufin juggling

 

…he fit right in!

This was the kernel of my first puffin book, Lewis Clowns Around. If you know the book, you’ll know that a lot more happens to Lewis once he starts work as a circus clown.  It was the first children’s story I wrote, and for that reason it took a good deal of honing and reworking before it could be shared with publishers. Even then, it was another four years before it finally found a home at Floris Books. That’s why the most important quality a children’s author must have is patience!

It was all worth it in the end, as Lewis has since inspired two sequels, Harris the Hero and Skye the Puffling. And this year Lewis Clowns Around is getting a lovely new cover. Although I enjoyed doing the original line drawings of Lewis and Harris, I am very pleased that Gabby Grant and Jon Mitchell were chosen to illustrate the finished books.

And now I think it’s time I rummaged in the kitchen for more inspiration…

GlendaruelA little while back I received a wonderful package of letters from Kilmodan Primary School, a two-classroom schoolhouse in a tiny rural community in Argyll, Scotland. There are only thirteen pupils in the school, and the surrounding countryside is very beautiful. The river above winds through Glendaruel quite close to the school, and the harbour below is Colintraive where some of the pupils live.

Photo ©www.dive-firth-of-clyde.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

Photo ©www.dive-firth-of-clyde.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

The eight P1-4 pupils and their teacher Ms Hawkins had been reading my two puffin books, Lewis Clowns Around and Harris the Hero in class, and they each wrote a lovely invitation to Lewis the puffin to come and visit their school tearoom in September. Along with the letters, they enclosed photos of their impressive classroom display of puffin drawings and a fantastic seabird scene. Sadly, Lewis was on tour with the circus in Canada in September, so he couldn’t manage a visit. Instead, he sent each of the children a postcard from Toronto and told them all about his adventures. Since then, Ms Hawkins has been tweeting about Lewis and Harris on her school Twitter account, and she gave me an idea…

puffin holiday planLewis and Harris are back together now, as the circus is taking a little break. On Sunday the two brothers decided to fly off to Ayrshire to visit Blairquhan Castle, as it was a lovely sunny autumn day. They found a picture of the castle in a book and thought it would be great fun to go exploring there.

arrival castleWhen they arrived, it looked just as impressive as the picture! The enormous wooden door stood open in welcome, so Lewis and Harris hopped up the steps and went inside. They were very impressed by the big, beautiful rooms and all the paintings on the walls. One painting showed a rather large family playing out in the countryside:

big paintingAnother painting was of a little girl holding a pet rabbit. Lewis and Harris got up near the painting to get a closer look. They thought the rabbit looked a bit worried.

puffins and rabbitNext they visited the library. They had never seen so many books in one place! The little spaces in between felt just like a puffin’s burrow in the cliff.

libraryNext they wandered into the dining room, where they found a strange bird. It was a pheasant, but for some reason it refused to talk to them. Eventually they gave up and left him alone. What a rude fellow, they thought.

puffins and grouseLewis and Harris ventured up some very grand stairs and found a big four-poster bed with tartan drapery. Next to the bed was a lamp with another animal – this time a handsome stag made of metal. The puffins flew up to the bedside table to take a closer look.

stag lampIt was clear this one was not going to talk, but they thought he made a lovely lamp. Blairquhan Castle was a great place to visit, but it was getting late and Lewis and Harris needed to get home. On their way out they stopped in the grand ballroom and spotted a very special ice cream cart. What a funny thing to find in a castle!

ice cream cartThey asked the man what he was doing there, and he explained that this was an open day for people who wanted to have their wedding at the castle. He offered a free taste of his special wedding ice cream, and Lewis and Harris couldn’t say no!

ice cream choicesLewis liked the look of Rhubarb and Ginger, and Harris went for Yummy Watermelon. They were delicious! Ice cream was a perfect end to a great day out, and it gave them lots of energy for the long flight home. I wonder where Lewis and Harris will go next?

pumpkin tableWith Halloween approaching, we thought it would be fun to have a pumpkin-carving party. Thirteen Chinese students came to our house, where I had carefully covered our dining room table with newspaper and gathered a collection of paring knives and big spoons. Luckily they brought a few knives of their own, as well as a nice assortment of pumpkins.

There isn’t a tradition of Halloween in China, so I tried to explain the origins of this pagan festival. I think it began in Ireland hundreds of years ago, when people celebrated the Celtic festival of Samhain. This was long before electric lights, so as winter approached at the end of October only fires could fend off the cold and dark. On the last night of October the Celts believed that the souls of the dead could join the living, and to keep these spirits happy they left food and drink for them outside their houses. There was feasting and celebration, and to avoid being tricked by the mischievous spirits, people disguised themselves in masks and costumes when they went out after dark.

It wasn’t until the 20th century, when Irish immigrants who had settled in America began reviving this autumn festival, that the Halloween we know today began to develop. In time, Halloween became a big part of all North American children’s childhoods (including my own!) I remember dressing up to go out “trick-or-treating” and coming home to count the hoard of sweets I had collected. When we moved to England in 1971 I was very disappointed to discover on October 31st that Halloween was quite unheard of there!

Now, over forty years later, Halloween has really taken off in the UK thanks to its huge popularity in North America. Witches and vampires and black cats are everywhere, and costume shops are doing a roaring trade just now! The supermarkets are heaving with pumpkins, although apparently it’s been a bad crop in England this year, thanks to too much rain. Here in Scotland we have plenty, and so we got carving!

pumpkin guttingThe first step in carving a pumpkin is to cut a hole in the top to make a lid. The stem of the pumpkin makes a perfect handle, and if you cut an irregular-shaped opening it will be easier to fit the lid back on. Star shapes were very popular with our Chinese guests, so this pumpkin has a nice star lid. It’s important to cut the lid on a slight angle towards the stem. That way the lid will sit on the top rather than falling into the hole. Next you have to dig out all the “guts” which is a messy, slimy business! Make sure you have lots of newspaper underneath before you start.

pumpkin gutsIf you want to, it’s possible to separate and wash the pumpkin seeds and toast them in the oven. The familiar green pumpkin seeds you can get in the supermarket are inside those white husks. For a recipe for toasted pumpkin seeds, click HERE.

tiger face 1The next step is to draw your pumpkin’s face with a pencil. Choose the smoothest, cleanest side to work on. The pumpkin above was getting a tiger face, including whiskers and a Chinese symbol on its forehead meaning “king of the world”!

tiger face 2You can see this tiger pumpkin is coming along nicely. Other students consulted their iPhones for ideas on what sort of face to carve. There were some amazing results, like this very toothy character:

toothy pumpkinHere is another one with a starry-eyed grin:

big pumpkinWhen all the pumpkins were finished, we got out the little tea light candles and turned out the lights. Having a box of very long matches is crucial, as the only way to light the candle inside is to reach in through the mouth. It was a challenge, but we got them all lit, with dramatic results!

jackolanternsAnd here is the tiger, burning bright!

tiger burningHappy Halloween, everyone!

toothy grins

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 102 other followers