Archives for category: poetry
Photo ©Simpson and Brown Architects

Photo ©Simpson and Brown Architects

One beautiful sunny Sunday recently I made my first visit to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in the Ayrshire village of Alloway. As National Poetry Day is fast approaching, it seemed a perfect time to learn more about the life and work of Scotland’s most famous poet.

The Museum is made up of several buildings, including the thatched cottage where Robert Burns was born, a handsome stone monument, a huge exhibition building (whose entrance is shown above) and a Poet’s Path dotted with outdoor sculpture. The map below is given to visitors so they can find their way around:

Burns museum map

We started in the modern green-roofed building which holds the main exhibition about Robert Burns and his very eventful and productive life. The building was designed by Simpson and Brown Architects and is made of locally-sourced natural materials (Douglas fir timber and a dry stone wall at the entrance). The space inside is light and airy, with a shop, education room and cafe:

Photo ©Simpson and Brown Architects

Photo ©Simpson and Brown Architects

The exhibition itself is in a huge open-plan area kept very dark in order to preserve the original artefacts (as ink on paper fades very quickly in natural light). There are many hand-penned poems and letters, furniture, clothing and even pistols owned by Robert Burns. (He needed to be armed when he worked as a tax collector!)

Photo ©Conservation By Design

Photo ©Conservation By Design

The exhibition is full of information about the poet who was born in 1759 in a tiny farmhouse in Alloway. Although he only lived to be 37 years old, he wrote hundreds of poems and song lyrics and fathered 13 children! He also worked as a farmer, a collector of folk music and an Excise officer (collecting taxes for the government). He is best known for writing in the Scots language, and his poems are full of great character and richness because of this.

My favourite Burns poem is “To a Mouse” which he wrote after disturbing a little mouse’s nest with his plough. (If you click on that link above you can read the poem and hear it performed by actor Brian Cox.) In honour of the “wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie” of that poem, a giant bronze mouse sculpture stands at the entrance to the Poet’s Path:

Burns mouse

It stands over two metres high and looks quite confident, so visitors look more like the cowering beasties in comparison! Another animal sculpture stands at the end of the path; it is a fox representing liberty cast in iron by Hargreaves Foundry based on a model by Kenny Hunter:

Burns fox

At the end of the path we arrive at the 18th-century cottage where Robert Burns and his brother Gilbert and two sisters Agnes and Anabella were born. The cottage is a long, low building which housed not only the Burnes family (the original spelling of their surname). Also under the same roof was a byre where the cows, horse and chickens were kept!

Burns cottage

Robert’s mother sold milk from the family cows, and grew vegetables like kale, carrots, onions and potatoes in the garden. The family of six lived in two small rooms, and the house was heated by one hearth in the kitchen:

Burns hearth

Opposite the fire was the box bed where all four children were born. Their names and birth dates are embroidered on little white nightdresses suspended over the bed:

Burns bed

Snippets of Burns poems are painted on the cottage walls and these give a flavour of his work and the language he spoke with his family:

Burns inspiration

Some of the words are quite surprising, and often they are very expressive:

Burns words

Wandering around this impressive collection of buildings in Alloway gives a real sense of Robert Burns the poet and the man. This National Trust for Scotland site is a great place to discover Scotland’s most famous poet.

Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Patrick for invoice

The best thing about being a picture book writer is seeing your ideas come alive in the hands of a talented illustrator. Two of my stories are in the process of being illustrated just now, and it’s very exciting for me to see the way they are going to look!

Most of my stories start with a central character, and that was certainly true of Pink! which was illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain. She cleverly captured the personality of a little penguin called Patrick who woke up one morning to discover he had turned bright pink.

Patrick and pals

Margaret has also illustrated another of my picture books, I Do Not Eat the Colour Green. In that story I imagined a determined little girl called Marlene with curly red hair (I’m not sure why) and this is what Margaret came up with:

Marlene McKean

She does look very stroppy, doesn’t she? Luckily the story ends with a smile as she discovers she does like green things after all.

Another illustrator whose work has been the perfect complement to my stories is Gabby Grant, who illustrated my two puffin books, Lewis Clowns Around and Harris the Hero. She is brilliant at drawing animals, so she was the right choice for these two books!

cute acrobats.jpg

Lewis and Harris are puffin brothers, but Lewis decides he belongs in the circus. Here you can see him performing with his fellow clown Karla the Koala. When Lewis flies off to town, his brother Harris is left all alone. Feeling lonely without a friend, Harris decides to go on his own adventure, which of course ends happily!

Harris on his own

Gabby has managed to show Harris looking sad here, which is no mean feat when it’s a stripy-beaked puffin! She is also very good at painting water and clouds, and I especially like her bird’s-eye-view angles.

Another book whose illustrations I was very pleased with is Jacob O’Reilly Wants a Pet. I didn’t really have an idea of what Jacob should look like, but this story was also full of animals (a whole range of pets) which illustrator Lee Wildish has drawn with lots of humour.

Jacob O'Reilly

The publisher decided the cover should have a walrus in the bathtub (one of the pets Jacob asks for) and it’s quite a good choice I think!

Authors don’t often get a say in who the illustrator will be. Sometimes if we’re lucky we get to see a few sample drawings and say which style we prefer. As the book is being illustrated, we can usually see the rough pencil sketches of each page and help check the text to make sure no mistakes have crept in. Later we get to see the colour “proofs” and at that point it’s pretty much too late to make any changes.

Last week I was sent rough sketches for two of my books, which was very exciting! The first is a book all about healthy eating which is called Never Bite a Tiger on the Nose. The illustrator is Eilidh Muldoon and she has done some lovely things with all my characters who are trying to eat tigers and alligators and elephants!

Abigail and Crocodile

I love the way Eilidh creates sweeping curves in her illustrations. Here we have a little girl called Abigail who wants to eat an alligator’s tail. There are also children called Emmylou, Humperdink, Lola Rose and Leopold.

veg and fruit baskets

As you can see, Eilidh has done some charming sketches of all the healthy food these children should be eating, and I think the book is going to look great when it’s done! Take a look at this clever little monkey:

monkey with banana

Once the book is finished it will be given out to preschool children across Scotland as part of the Scottish Book Trust’s Bookbug scheme. I can’t wait!

The other book that’s in the works is called One Potato. This was inspired both by the healthy eating theme and by a special request from a boy in P4 at Comely Park Primary School where I am Patron of Reading. One afternoon when I was visiting the school, Kofi put up his hand and told me that he and his friend Adam were writing a story about a runaway potato and an eagle. He asked me to write one too, and I agreed, thinking it would be a good exercise.

When I finally got down to writing my potato story, I decided to start with the rhyme, One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato, Four. When the story was finished I sent it to Kofi’s teacher and the whole P4 year group spent some time doing illustrations for me!

One potato, two potato, three potato, four. Nice and cosy underground, they don't know what's in store...

One potato, two potato, three potato, four.
Nice and cosy underground, they don’t know what’s in store…

Suddenly a farmer's fork comes down to dig them out. They roll around upon the ground - what can this be about?

Suddenly a farmer’s fork comes down to dig them out.
They roll around upon the ground – what can this be about?

Then one by one they're tossed inside a bucket made of tin. Clatter, clang, bump and bang, we hear them going in.

Then one by one they’re tossed inside a bucket made of tin.
Clatter, clang, bump and bang, we hear them going in.

Thanks to Willow Reed, Olivia Kinloch and Abby Reid for providing those three illustrations. (There were lots more, so I’m sorry not to have room for them all here. I keep them all in my special Comely Park Primary folder).

The potato decides he does not want to go into the soup pot, and he rolls into the garden and tells the farmer’s wife she should put some other vegetables in her soup instead. She chases him all around the garden but he is too quick for her, and as he rolls down the road he says, “Nobody’s cooking me!”

I was delighted when my potato story was picked up for the Collins Big Cat series, so I have Kofi and Adam to thank for that! The preliminary sketches for One Potato are looking great, so I’ll let you know when that one comes out. The illustrator they have chosen is brilliant, but more about that later…

There are so many wonderful children’s illustrators out there that I could write about it all day! Maybe the next blog post will be about all the artists I would like to illustrate my stories. Seeing these two books come alive has certainly inspired me to get writing more!

©2005 Lynne Rickards

©2005 Lynne Rickards

Spring has returned at last, and all sorts of weird and wonderful minibeasts are waking up. Not everyone likes playing with bugs, but if you look closely they can be very interesting. When I was nine I had a little plastic cylinder with a magnifying glass at one end and a removable cap at the other. If I was quick enough I could catch beetles and grasshoppers in the cylinder, pop the lid back on and then look through the glass at the amazing creature I had captured. Of course I would always set them free again!

Cam n worm

When my son was little he loved worms and snails. Anything slimy had great appeal, and he would forget all about racing if he found a worm on Sports Day! For some reason, insects and other creatures tend to sneak into my books now and again. In Jacob O’Reilly Wants a Pet, the little boy gets a pet snail which suits him perfectly.

©Shelledy Elementary School, Colorado.

©Shelledy Elementary School, Colorado.

In another story I have a little housefly who is unhappy because he wants to be a more colourful and impressive bug. He looks at the beautiful butterfly and the bouncy grasshopper and the shiny ladybird and wishes he was like them. The story is written like a poem, and it’s called Buster the Fly:

Buster 1

Buster 2

Buster 3

Buster 4

Buster 5

In the end, Buster’s mum convinces him that he has his own special talents and that he should be proud of who he is. Buster the fly is OK!

If you’re studying minibeasts at school, I’ve found a fun BBC Minibeast video you can watch. It shows all sorts of amazing creatures, including beetles that look like an old leaf, and others that can squirt hot liquid or horrible tasting goo to keep from being eaten! Very clever.

©2002 Lynne Rickards

©2002 Lynne Rickards

I think some beetles are very beautiful. A while back I did some paintings of beetles, including the one above which was shiny and golden. It is similar to the scarab beetle which was seen by the ancient Egyptians as a symbol of their sun god Ra. In the early morning these dung beetles could be seen rolling balls of dung along the ground, just as Khepri, the morning sun god, was believed to roll the sun across the sky. Because these beetles were sacred, the ancient Egyptians made beads, amulets and small carvings of them for good luck.

This ancient Egyptian carving shows a sacred scarab beetle.

This ancient Egyptian carving shows a sacred scarab beetle.

Beetles take all sorts of interesting shapes. There are some with triangular bodies that make me think of Art Deco brooches. There are others with great horns like a deer. They come in a huge range of colours, too!

©Christopher Marley

©Christopher Marley

It’s amazing how beautiful minibeasts can be. Take a look at these fantastic stamps:

©2007 Royal Mail

©2007 Royal Mail

If you’d like to try some free minibeast activities (like crafts, puzzles and colouring) you can visit Activity Village which has lots of ideas. Get thinking about your favourite bug, and see what you can create!

After Dr Seuss, my favourite author who both writes clever rhymes and draws brilliant cartoons is Shel Silverstein. I didn’t know about him growing up, although he was writing books and silly rhymes in the 1960s when I was little. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that someone gave me a copy of A Light in the Attic to read to them. From that moment, I was hooked!

Something Missing, from A Light in the Attic ©1981

Something Missing, from A Light in the Attic ©1981

This has got to be my favourite Shel Silverstein poem, not only because it’s so funny but also because the poem is brilliantly written, leaving the reader to finish the final rhyme. I love the loose and exaggerated style of his pen and ink drawings, and it’s been really hard to choose which poems to show you here as there are so many good ones!

Me Stew from Where the Sidewalk Ends ©1974

Me Stew from Where the Sidewalk Ends ©1974

Me Stew is another brilliant example of Shel’s clever poetry, which often involves eating. From the same collection you have little Melinda Mae who takes eighty-nine years to eat a whale, Hungry Mungry who eats the whole world and then starts nibbling on himself, and Peanut-Butter Sandwich in which the king gets his mouth stuck shut and even the fire brigade can’t unstick it!

The Farmer and the Queen from Where the Sidewalk Ends ©1974

The Farmer and the Queen from Where the Sidewalk Ends ©1974

This poem about a visit from the Queen is good fun, and I think the illustration really shows off Shel’s amazing skill at capturing the essence of both people and animals in a comical way. If you haven’t discovered the wonderful Shel Silverstein already, go and find some of his books right now!

The opening page from Anna's award-winning comic, Bea and the Marshmallow Menace ©2012

The opening page from Anna’s award-winning comic, Bea and the Marshmallow Menace ©2012

Another budding cartoonist I am very fond of is my daughter Anna, who won the Reading Zone Picture Book Competition with this charming character Bea. I am always amazed at how she can draw with just a fine-tipped black pen, without even sketching it with a pencil first!

Bea and the Marshmallow Menace ©2012

Bea and the Marshmallow Menace ©2012

As you can see, Bea is a sweet little character, but she has hidden powers…

Bea and the Marshmallow Menace ©2012

Bea and the Marshmallow Menace ©2012

Anna has always loved drawing cartoons and she is especially good at conveying emotions on her characters’ faces. If you’re a keen cartoonist like Anna then perhaps this worksheet of Bea’s facial expressions will help you perfect your technique:

©Anna Rickards 2012

©Anna Rickards 2012

I think if you click on the image it should be possible to print it, and then you can practice your own cartoons. Have fun!

Dr Seuss ABC

One of the first books I remember from my childhood is Dr Seuss’s ABC. Like millions of other North American children, I was introduced to the alphabet with the whimsical rhymes and wacky illustrations of Theodore Seuss Geisel, otherwise known as Dr Seuss. From Aunt Annie’s alligator to the Zizzer-Zazzer-Zuzz, the silly surprises on every page opened up a wonderful world of rhyme, rhythm and reading. My favourite page of all was the letter M:

nice mice

Mighty nice indeed! (I’ve always had a soft spot for mice). As I grew older and mastered reading on my own, I graduated to One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, a collection of highly engaging characters that had me hooked! Not only were the imaginary creatures and scenarios great fun, but the rhyme was a real pleasure to read aloud. I am convinced that Dr Seuss was a huge influence on my own writing, which (if you’ve read any of my books) you will know is largely written in rhyme.

fun is good page

Here’s one of my favourite pages from One Fish, Two Fish. I also love the seven-hump Wump, Ned and his little bed, the Zans for cans and the Ring the Gack game. If you haven’t read this book, do find yourself a copy and take a look! (You can “Look Inside” on the link above).


Theodore Geisel was born on March 2, 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts, USA. As a young man he worked in advertising, drawing cartoons for various commercial products, and political cartoons for newspapers and magazines. His best-known book, The Cat in the Hat, was a direct result of a discovery in the 1950s that American children were not keen to read. The problem was blamed on the boring “primers” of the day, the Dick and Jane books. (If you click on that link you can see just how boring they were!)

I remember the Dick and Jane books when I was learning to read, but luckily my parents got me The Cat in the Hat too, which was so much more fun! Dr Seuss was given a list of about 300 simple words that 6- and 7-year-olds need to learn. He honed down the list to about 240 words and wrote a brilliant rhyming story about a troublesome cat that was an instant hit! I read it over and over when I was a kid, and then when my own children were little I could recite it off by heart!

Grinch blog

Other favourites of mine from the Dr Seuss collection are How the Grinch Stole Christmas (including the cartoon version that we watched every year on TV at Christmas time) and something I discovered later and read to my kids, The Sneeches and Other Stories. I especially like the Sneeches because in it the author teaches a very valuable lesson about treating each other with respect and as equals. Here is a page from the beginning of the story, when the star-bellied sneeches are looking down their noses at the plain-bellied ones:

sneech page

The brilliant thing about Dr Seuss is that he can convey a really important message in a way that is not preachy or heavy-handed. This collection explores intolerance, cooperation and unfounded fears, and each story is charming and funny with wonderfully expressive illustrations.

Seuss Google

Because Dr Seuss is so inspirational, and his books have helped generations of children to enjoy reading, on March 2, 2009 (his birthday) a Google Doodle appeared online to celebrate his work. I hope you’ll take a moment to enjoy some of his fantastic rhyming stories, wherever you live!