Archives for category: about writing

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.

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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.

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!

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

 

The Old English Beowulf manuscript is believed to date from the 11th century, making it 1,000 years old.

The Old English Beowulf manuscript is believed to date from the 11th century, making it 1,000 years old.

I learned a new word today: kenning. This is an ancient Anglo-Saxon poetic device that describes an object or person in a round-about way which sometimes takes the form of a puzzle. The epic poem Beowulf is one source of these intriguing word-pairs that describe something quite simple in a clever way. For example, a ship is described as a “wave floater” while the sea is a “whale road.” The word body becomes “bone house” and a sword is a “battle light.” Each of these paired images is far more evocative than the simple noun they replace. I particularly like “battle light” as I instantly imagine the flash of sun on a metal blade.

At my Patron of Reading school, Comely Park Primary, the P2 classes have been writing kenning poems. Today Miss Lucas sent me eight of them, and I thought they were so good I wanted to share them here. Instead of telling you what they are about, I think in the true tradition of a kenning poem, you must puzzle it out for yourselves:

Kenning 123Have you figured it out yet? I particularly like the images of a “web dangler” and a “banana hider.” Enough to give one nightmares! Here are three more poems to give you further clues:

Kenning 456Clearly Mr Colvin and Miss Meyrick are not fans of this particular creature! I can quite understand, as I’m getting the jitters thinking about a “carpet crawler” and a “house scamperer“! I quite like the image of the “bath slider” too, as you can picture the helpless beastie slipping down the shiny porcelain…

Kenning 78I like Ava’s “web weaver” and Tegan’s dramatic “people poisoner“! I think by now you must have guessed that these kenning poems are all about a spider. I wish they had sent me some drawings to go with the poems, but instead I will provide this failed banana hider:

banana spider

Comely Park Primary class P3/10 have sent me a new kenning poem they wrote together, inspired by the P2 spider poems and by a particular film trailer. See if you can guess what the film might be:

BFG kenning poemIt sounds like a pretty scary film! Here’s a link to the trailer on YouTube: The BFG trailer

Did you guess?

End of Term 2016

On the last day of school, the pupils of P3/10 presented Mrs Roy with a special poem they had written for her. It’s another kenning poem and celebrates all the wonderful things she did for them during her time as Support for Learning Assistant at Comely Park Primary:

Mrs Roy poem