The past year has been a tough one, but I feel lucky to have been able to carry on working as I always do, from home. I miss visiting schools and collaborating with teachers and librarians, and I’m not all that comfortable chatting on Zoom. So I have just quietly worked away at a few book projects (to be published next spring) and have filled the evenings with loads of Netflix and National Theatre Online. Recently I decided on a whim to buy myself a stationary bike, and as it turned out, the timing was perfect! The day after it was delivered, we got word that a member of the family had most likely been exposed to Covid-19, and we had met them for a walk in the park around the time they were contagious. This meant my entire household had to quarantine for ten days, so we all took turns going for a stationary spin!

My husband wasn’t keen on having the bike in the living room, but how else were we going to go the extra mile (or should I say kilometre) while watching the latest episode of Superstore? The bike has settled in well between the big rubber tree and an armchair, and we all use it so often that it’s now just part of the furniture. It tells us how far we have ridden, how fast we are pedalling, and even how many calories we are burning (always disappointingly few!) It was the best impulse purchase I have ever made.

During the first lockdown we went through a phase of doing jigsaw puzzles. My daughter had decided to join us from London and stayed from March until July. I made the mistake of buying two puzzles with 1,000 pieces, and the first one nearly killed us! I thought American Gothic would be a good image to work with, but as it turned out, the circles on her apron, the endless black of his blazer and the wide expanse of blue sky were very challenging. The second puzzle was a lovely Angela Harding print, but I must admit it remains unopened…

In September, my daughter and her partner moved back to Scotland permanently, and stayed with us for a couple of months. This meant we were five in the house, and we spent our evenings playing games like Jenga, Cluedo (the Sherlock version) and Uno. I introduced a game that I had loved as a teenager in the 1970s, and had finally managed to find on eBay after much fruitless searching. I was thrilled to have an original copy of Masterpiece, in which players bid against each other at auction for paintings whose value is hidden (ranging from a forgery to £1 million). The best part about this game is that you can add extra paintings, so I have greatly extended the collection of postcards. It’s a great pleasure to buy beautiful art, even if your favourite painting turns out to be a forgery!

Just before the second lockdown, the three young people in our household decided to get their ears pierced. After waiting five weeks for their ears to heal, they finally had a chance to change their earrings, and what followed was a flurry of creativity. We started with FIMO clay, making colourful pendant earrings of various shapes and sizes. Silver hooks and special jewellery pliers were soon ordered, and then my sister sent us a big box of beads! This place has been a bit of an earring factory ever since, as you can see. We have just run out of hooks, so we are taking a bit of a break until more arrive.

With all the snow that has fallen recently, the rest of my family was keen to get out and slide down some hills on a sledge. Having grown up in Canada, snow doesn’t have the same wow factor for me, so I stayed in to do some painting instead. I used to work in watercolours, but lately I’ve discovered that acrylics are very versatile as well. I had a brilliant black-and-white photo of my husband (taken by one of the young folk) and it was perfect for a portrait. The image below doesn’t quite capture the midnight blue I used. I hope you can imagine a rich, dark blue instead! I’m very pleased with the way the portrait turned out, and it now hangs in the hall outside our kitchen. Time to think of the next creative project!

Photo ©David Russell

I sometimes forget how lucky I am to live in Scotland. Not only do I have a brilliant city life in a handsome Victorian neighbourhood, but the beauty of wild natural landscapes can be reached in a matter of minutes. Scotland may be a small country, but the variety of landscapes, from mountains and moors to white sand beaches and ancient woodlands, is quite stunning!

Recently I discovered a talented photographer whose work reflects his passion for Scotland and all its natural beauty. David Russell lives in the Cairngorms National Park and is a qualified wilderness guide and outdoor instructor. I love this photo of him as a young boy first trying to capture the beauty around him:

Photo ©John Russell

David spends long hours tramping though forests at dawn to catch the morning light through the trees. The key to success as a nature photographer is patience, and clearly in David’s case it pays off!

Photo ©David Russell

In addition to producing these beautiful images, David has recorded several video tutorials on nature photography, and some stunning drone videos of Harris in the Outer Hebrides and the Ardnamurchan Peninsula.

Photo ©David Russell

David ventures out in all seasons, showing Scotland in autumn mist and dusted with snow:

Photo ©David Russell

Photo ©David Russell

He also produces high quality prints of his work which are available for sale on his website, Highland Wildscapes.

Photo ©David Russell

Inspired by the beauty of nature, David has put together collections of his photos with evocative poems and short pieces of writing. It’s a glimpse into the thoughts and feelings that these landscapes inspire in the photographer.

It’s good to be reminded now and then of the natural beauty right on my doorstep. Thanks, David!

Photo ©David Russell

art gallery copy

My daughter Anna is an artist. Her early work showed a lot of flair, and her medium of choice was a fine black pen with added splashes of bright colour. She adopted a cartoon style from the start, so it’s not entirely surprising that she ended up studying animation.

Jester cat

She loves to come up with wild, expressive characters drawn from careful observation. Sketching faces from every angle and with all sorts of emotions, she brings them to life in a way that is quirky and surprising:

cool faces

expressions 2 copy

Sometimes you can get a hint of her current preoccupations and deep desires:

Anna dachshunds

Other times you get a weird window into the things her clients are looking for, like this commissioned piece entitled Timberlake Noodle Bar (your guess is as good as mine):

noodle hair

Anna has graduated with an MA in Animation from Central Saint Martin’s in London. Sadly, due to the pandemic, there was no graduation ceremony or Gala Screening of the final films in a plush cinema. Her final project is now on Vimeo. Here are some background images and character sketches to give a flavour of the piece, which is entitled Unusually Gifted:

Anna antique shop copy

Gifted characters

Living_Room_

Blackboards

The film features an endearing science geek called Herb who is inspired to help others. He takes a methodical approach in order to isolate a problem and work out the perfect solution. Unfortunately, he sometimes gets the wrong end of the stick.

Watch Unusually Gifted on Vimeo HERE.

Lately, Anna has been approached to create unique family portraits for a special occasion (like a landmark birthday). So far they have been very well received, so she’s happy to do more!

family portrait

Williams fam portrait

motorcycle pair

She is also creating unique profile pictures for social media, like these:

lemon-lady  Anna in stripes

It’s now possible to print Anna’s designs on a wide range of items, like mugs, notebooks, t-shirts and tote bags. Just visit her Redbubble shop!

Anna’s future career as a freelance artist and animator has begun in a very uncertain time. I hope there will be even more need for animators now, as we work increasingly online and use educational graphics and short films to explain public health issues. Perhaps art will come into its own in the brave new world that emerges.

Contact Anna Rickards

Anna’s website

Anna on Twitter (follow to DM)

Anna on LinkedIn

Anna on Instagram

Comely Park Primary School in Falkirk, Scotland, where I am a proud Patron of Reading, has a special mascot bear called Parker. As you can imagine, Parker has been very lonely in school since the lockdown, and he is looking forward to the day when the children will return. In the meantime, he has painted a rainbow for his window, and he’s been thinking about how to help everyone feel more positive about the future.

Parker is quite a creative bear, and he has been writing some poetry. It made him feel better to think about the colours of the rainbow and all the things he is looking forward to doing with the children when they come back to school. You can read his poem here:

Parker was so pleased with his poem that he thought he would challenge all his Comely Park friends to write one too! And that’s where I come in. As Comely Park Patron of Reading, it’s my job to launch this exciting new writing challenge: Parker’s Positive Poetry.

So what can you write about, I hear you ask. Well, Parker has provided a few ideas to get you started. You can write about all the things you like about being at home instead of at school. You can talk about all the things you are looking forward to once school starts again. You can describe how the world has changed, like the cleaner air and all the animals and birds coming out of hiding. You can imagine what the future will be like – will we all just go back to the way we were, or will things change for the better?

Your poem can be in any form and any length, from a short haiku to a kenning or acrostic poem. It can rhyme or not rhyme – it’s entirely up to you!

Every poem submitted to your teacher will be posted on this page. I’m hoping there will be lots of brilliant work added here over the next few weeks! Good luck and happy writing!

And here are the first entries – some crackers already!

Lucian P7

Macy P6

Katie P1

Gregor P6

Emma P7

Ekua P7 1

Ekua P7 2

Ekua P7 3

Lilly P6

Joshua P4

Malak P4

Finlay P6

Eve P6

Wiktoria P6

Amy P3M

          Alistair P3M

Orrin P3

Amelia P6

Hannah P5

Luke P5

Aleena P7

Holly P7

Leia P7

Alexander P6

Beau P6

Lily P1

Amelia P1

Stella P5

Magnus P4

Andrew P2

Eylulnaz P6

Leo P2

Emmy P3

Mishal P3

Emma P3

Hayden P3

Madeline P7

Evie P7

Cairn P7

Coco P2

Lewis P5

Ryan P6

Daniel P7

Katie P7

Lewis P7

Louise P7

Emily P4

Alexandra P4

Finlay P4

Hamish P4

Holly P4

Imogen P4

Nina P4

Fawn P1

Eleanor P1

Tugrul P1

Luke P4

Roddy P5

Turgut P5

Ryan P6

Emme P6

Lauren P6

Charlotte P6

Logan P1

Isla P1

Eva P6

Molly P6

Fayaaz P7

Joe P6

Cara P7

Orla P7

Sophie P4

Zander P4

Penny P4

Leila P3

Raife P1

Poppy P6

Melek P3

Emma2 P3

Christopher P5

Rory P2

Ava P3

Ava P7

Josie P7

Christian P6

Lucia P5

Ryan3 P6

Bailey P5

Vinnie P5

Christopher P5

James P5

Rory P5

Amelie P5

Marcus P5

Robbie P5

Hannah P7

Olivia P7

Hollie P2

Lily P2

Ewan P2

Emma P2

Jamie P5

Rosie P1

Amy P3

Issy P2

Angus P7

Ellis P7

Ben P1

Aanya P1

April P1

Andrew P1

Alistair P4

Harris P4

Isla P4

Jack P4

Keeva P4

Lewis P4

Millie P4

Freya P4

Eva P1

Emily P6

Matthew P4

Alexander P3

Isabella P3

Eva P3

Aashif P3

Ghulam P4

Mikey P3

Jacob P3

Noah P3

Abigail P4

Georgia P2

Lucy P7

Rosa P2

Scottish wildcat

Wildcats used to wander the whole of the UK, having first come across from Europe thousands of years ago when southern England was connected by land to the Netherlands and parts of Germany. Over the centuries, through hunting and loss of habitat these cats became more rare in England, and by the early 1900s they could only be found in the sparsely populated Highlands of Scotland. Today, even here they have become an endangered species, with only about 300 animals living in the wild.

Kendra and kitten

Scottish wildcats look quite like domestic tabby cats, but their heads are broader, their tails thicker with distinctive black stripes, and they have no white on their paws or chest. The photos above were taken by Peter Trimming at the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey, which has a group of wildcats in captivity. In Scotland, the wild ones are much harder to spot, as they keep themselves hidden and only come out at dusk to hunt.

The Highland Wildlife Park is just south of Aviemore in the Cairngorms National Park. Staff there are working together with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland to build up a population of wildcats that can be released into the wild. This project is being supported by an EU LIFE grant of £3.2 million, with additional funding and support from a range of wildlife trusts. The Saving Wildcats project will work to breed a healthy community of wildcats from British and European stock over the next six years, with the aim to release some into the wild in 2022. These may be released in the Cairngorms to begin with, and then perhaps in other parts of Scotland in future.

Willow cover

After writing stories about Scottish puffins and red squirrels for the Picture Kelpies series published by Floris Books, my next book is Willow the Wildcat. Willow and her brother Corrie are full of energy and love to wrestle, but when their den is destroyed by a curious sheepdog, they have to work together to help their mum find a new home. This is no easy task, especially as they have to watch out for some scary creatures along the way.

corrie and fish

The illustrator Kirsteen Harris-Jones captures the playful kittens very well.

willow and corrie

Let’s hope Scottish wildcats will continue to live and thrive in the Highlands of Scotland for many more years to come.