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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.

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I will let you in on a little secret. That photo I use at the top of my blog was taken some years ago on the isle of Iona. It’s a beautiful place which I have visited several times, and each visit is special.

Lynne and Anna IonaNow you can see the whole picture, including my daughter who was about eight at the time. She is now almost twenty and a few inches taller than I am!

I use another photo of Iona on my Twitter account. This one shows my son (now seventeen) walking along the road across the island to a big beach on the western side.

Cam on IonaRecently I was invited to come back to Iona as part of the Summer Gala Fun Day on the island. Apparently my puffin picture books are very popular there, so the people who run the Martyrs Bay Shop kindly asked me to do some storytelling and book signing for them. Naturally I had to accept!

Photo ©Lindsey Fraser

Photo ©Lindsey Fraser

In the run-up to the event I was delighted to see a poster up in the shop window, kindly supplied by my publisher, Floris Books. The shop has a special puffin corner, and this was where my three puffin books were prominently displayed!

Photo ©Lindsey Fraser

Photo ©Lindsey Fraser

On Saturday I read stories with a lovely little girl from Cork, Ireland. She was full of story ideas of her own, too! Then I spoke to a number of tourists from England, Australia and America, and signed books for all their grandchildren.

Iona book signingOn Sunday I had a very enthusiastic crowd of small children, parents, grandparents and a few dogs! We read all three books and then the children were each allowed to choose one. It was interesting to see which book appealed to which child. Some already had Harris the Hero at home, and many were surprised to hear that Lewis Clowns Around was the first book.

I had a lovely time meeting people from all over the world, and I think the children enjoyed it too. The warm and friendly staff at Martyrs Bay Shop made the whole experience a great pleasure, so many thanks to all of them!

Iona rowboatIn between storytelling sessions, my husband and I wandered around the island taking photos of the beautiful scenery. We walked the same road as my son to the other side of the island, and my husband actually went swimming in that clear but c-c-c-cold water!

Iona footpathI preferred to stay on dry land, and while I was sitting on the beach I saw a long black animal run past across the sand. (I thought it was a weasel or a stoat or something, but then I heard a woman say, “Did you see that mink?”) I’m always spotting weird wildlife when I go on holiday…

Iona east beachThe beach was beautiful, and almost deserted. When we got back to our hotel (the Argyll) we enjoyed relaxing in the sunshine out in their garden. It looks out on the water between Iona and Mull and has lots of wooden benches bleached by the sun.

Iona boatsSuch a lovely view to look out on! It’s hard to imagine a more relaxing holiday. I do hope they’ll invite us back next year!

Iona LandM

 

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!

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…

The 8th of October is National Poetry Day, and this year’s theme is Light. The first thing that came to my mind was Shel Silverstein’s poetry collection, A Light in the Attic.

Copyright ©1981 by Evil Eye Music Inc.

Copyright ©1981 by Evil Eye Music Inc.

Shel is one of my favourite poets, and he was a brilliant artist too. His crazy pen-and-ink cartoons complement the humour and quirkiness of his poetry perfectly. This particular collection has quite a few poems that use light imagery, including a fanciful one about catching the moon in a net:

Copyright ©1981 by Evil Eye Music Inc.

Copyright ©1981 by Evil Eye Music Inc.

Another of his more thoughtful poems is from an earlier collection called Where the Sidewalk Ends. It features a “lovely silver prince of fishes” that you can imagine sparkling in the sunshine:

Copyright ©1974 by Evil Eye Music Inc.

Copyright ©1974 by Evil Eye Music Inc.

Poetry plays a big part in my life as I write a lot of rhyming stories. It must be thanks to the influence of my favourite children’s books when I was a child, including all the Dr Seuss stories and the poems of AA Milne. I have been working on a new collection of poems following the lives of children around the world from first waking, through the day and ending at bedtime when the light goes out. Here is the second-last poem which features bedtime stories with Dad:

Copyright ©2015 Lynne Rickards.

Copyright ©2015 Lynne Rickards.

My two puffin picture books (Lewis Clowns Around and Harris the Hero) are about to become a trilogy! These are my best-loved rhyming stories about brothers Lewis and Harris, two puffins who couldn’t be more different. The third in the series, published by Floris Books, is all about the fluffy little baby puffin you can see on the last page of Harris the Hero. Her name is Skye and she has some pretty hair-raising adventures herself!

Skye cover

This third book has a new illustrator, Jon Mitchell, and I am delighted with the way he captures the fluffy little puffling and her parents Harris and Isla. Watch out for Skye the Puffling in bookshops this spring!

There are lots of ways to get involved in this year’s National Poetry Day. BBC Radio 4 is featuring poets and actors reading and talking about poetry all day, and the Guardian is calling for people to dedicate a poem to someone they love. Get poetic and get involved!