Archives for posts with tag: childhood

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.


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!


Kohinoor watercolours

For her 18th birthday this year, my daughter received a Koh-i-noor watercolour set of a very clever design. It has four round discs, each with six colours and a depression in the middle for mixing. The discs screw together, one on top of the other, so that the whole set is about the size of a can of tuna when closed.

The gift was a surprise from her Dad, who got it in London on the advice of an artist friend. When she opened it I think I was even more thrilled than she was, because it was just like a paint set I had at her age! Mine was green rather than black, but otherwise it was exactly the same. I loved that set and used it for years, and until now I had never seen another one like it.

In senior school I loved working with watercolours, and the art teacher was happy to let me get on with painting what I wanted to with my own stackable watercolour set. I had a special Chinese paintbrush too, dark red with soft bristles that came to a perfect point.

Chinese brushes

These Chinese brushes are designed for calligraphy, and the bristles are made from weasel tails or goat hair. The top brush in this photo has soft goat hair, and the bottom one is a mixture of goat and the coarser weasel hair. I think my brush was a mixture too, though it was a long time ago and the brush is long lost. When I was 17 I used a photograph from the National Geographic magazine to paint this Inuit child:


The rich colours of my special paint set made it possible to get those warm skin tones and deep black of the shadows. My Chinese brush with its fine point allowed me to capture the loose hair on the child’s forehead.

There is nothing like working with real paint on real paper. But more and more these days, artists are turning to computers to produce very similar results that can be shared electronically and reproduced countless times. Many children’s books that were once illustrated the “old fashioned” way with pen and ink or other traditional media are now being brought to life digitally instead.

A good example of this trend is the work of my friend and illustrator Margaret Chamberlain. She has been illustrating children’s books for over 20 years, and when she first illustrated one of my books (Pink! in 2008) it was a departure for her into a new technique and simpler style. Her earlier books had always been done with richly detailed ink and watercolour artwork. An excellent example of this is The Enchanted Flute by Angela McAllister:

©Margaret Chamberlain 1990

©Margaret Chamberlain 1990

The central character of this story is an impossibly demanding monarch, Queen Pernickity, who wants only the very best of everything. You can see from the illustration above that Margaret has created texture and lots of detail with a fine ink outline and rich colour using watercolours.

In her later work, Margaret used computer programmes and a tablet to create effects that look just like watercolours and ink. She says it takes much less time working on a computer, and it’s easy to correct mistakes. The finished illustration is very similar to real paint on paper, and it can be sent directly to publishers and printers to produce a finished book.

So is there any future for real paint and paper?

Another recent invention, the WaterColorBot, has reversed this relationship between art and computers. Instead of computer art replacing paint and paper, this machine translates art drawn on a computer into “real” art through a mechanised process similar to an Etch-a-Sketch:

©Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories 2013

©Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories 2013

The paintbrush moves around an x and y axis (two metal rods) powered by pulleys and wire cables. In this way a drawing made on a computer can be reproduced multiple times, and the WaterColorBot becomes a type of printer. The idea began with a 12-year-old girl called Sylvia who wanted to make a robot for a science fair. She has her own website, Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show, where she demonstrates fun creative projects. When she took her idea of a painting robot to the people at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories they were happy to help out!

My daughter is still keen to experiment with real ink and watercolours, and has done a few sketches with her new paint set:

©Anna Rickards 2014

©Anna Rickards 2014

©Anna Rickards 2014

©Anna Rickards 2014

Even though technology seems to have made real paint and paper somewhat obsolete, I’m quite tempted to buy myself a little Koh-i-noor paint set too…

©Lynne Rickards 2002

©Lynne Rickards 2002

Who can resist a troll? Photo ©Andrew Dunsmore/Rex

Who can resist a troll? Photo ©Andrew Dunsmore/Rex

The P2 classes at my Patron of Reading school, Comely Park Primary, are looking at the 1960s (“When Gran was a girl”) this term, and it just so happens that I am a 1960s baby. It’s a bit scary to think that I could be a grandmother, since my own kids are just teenagers, but I am looking forward to visiting the school in April to share my memories of those Olden Days!

I was thinking back to my favourite toys when I was very young, and thanks to Google Images I was able to find all sorts of them to show you! I couldn’t resist that troll picture above. Trolls were hugely popular in the early ’60s and I remain a big fan. Who could resist such a face? In researching this topic I have just learned that the first troll doll was carved from wood by a Danish man called Thomas Dam. He made the doll for his daughter but soon everyone wanted one, so he made more and more until he had to set up a factory!

One of my earliest memories from my childhood was a trip my parents went on when I was about six and my little sister was four. We stayed with our grandparents for a week, and when our parents came to collect us, they brought us each a very special present!

Skipper dolls

Everyone knows about Barbie, but have you heard about her little sister Skipper? My sister and I got identical Skipper dolls with bendable knees and long auburn hair. I really wish I had kept mine, but sadly she is lost now.

Easy Bake oven

Another thing I remember very well was my Easy Bake Oven! It came with little packets of cake mix which I would put in that red bowl and mix up with a bit of water. I’d pour the mixture into the steel baking tray and then slide it into the side of the oven. Amazingly, the little cake would bake with only the heat of two incandescent light bulbs! It was like making one fairy cake, but it really did seem like magic!

tiny rubber dolls

Another toy I used to love playing with was a tiny rubber doll, only 3 inches (8cm) high. She had jointed arms and legs, was very bendy and could fit in the palm of my hand. She looked just like the ones in the picture above, with her painted face and hair, and little painted shoes and socks. Apparently these were made in Germany back in the 1960s. Can you still buy them today?

Silly Putty

I also remember a little plastic egg that broke open to reveal some strange pinkish goo that was stretchy and soft (a bit like blu-tack). It was called Silly Putty and if you rolled it into a ball it would bounce! You could also flatten it out and press it down on a newspaper or comic and it would pick up the ink, creating a picture on the Silly Putty that you could stretch out of shape. Once you’d done that it got a bit dirty, though!

fancy rat

When I think of it now I’m amazed that my Mum allowed Silly Putty in the house. Even more surprising is the fact that I was allowed to have a pet rat! Her name was Whiskers and I think we rescued her from a science lab. Whiskers was very clever and she loved to run through the mazes I used to make for her out of a cardboard box. I let her wander all around the house, and she was easy to pick up and play with. The only time she ever bit me was when I stuck my finger in her cage with some peanut butter on it. “Ouch!” I yelled, pulling my finger away. And then for some reason I tried again, and this time she licked the peanut butter very carefully!


Another fun thing we had was a Slinky. I think you can still get those, so maybe you have one too. In the 1960s they were always made of metal and were quite heavy. This made them perfect for sending down the stairs, because the weight of the coiled metal would hold the “foot” of the slinky in place as the top flipped over to the next step. The only problem with a Slinky is that it is easily bent and even more easily tangled. Once that happens it is sadly never the same.


When I was young I loved watching cartoons on a Saturday morning. I watched Bugs Bunny and the Roadrunner and lots of other shows, but my favourite one of all wasn’t a cartoon – it was a comedy show about a boy band called The Monkees! They were always doing silly things and getting in trouble, and of course on every show they would sing a song. To this day I still think Daydream Believer is the best song they did, but perhaps I’m a bit biased because Davey was my favourite of the four.

Gabrielle cover

I’ve already written about my favourite book I read as a child. You can see more about Gabrielle and Selena HERE. I still have my copy of the book (rather old and battered now) and I am looking forward to reading it to a new generation of children who are learning about life in the 1960s!

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!

It hasn’t felt much like summer with all the rain we’ve been having in the UK lately. As June ticks away, the sun has finally come out where I live, so I’ve got my fingers crossed that this year’s Sports Day will dawn bright and warm.

I have noticed on my website that lots of people are looking for Sports Day poems. It seems to be a favourite topic (or maybe one that teachers suggest) so I thought you might like to read my poem here, now that the sporting season is upon us.

When I was young I was not very good at racing, so I really dreaded Sports Day every summer. Some of my friends were excellent runners and jumpers, and they always ended the day festooned with First ribbons, while I had nothing. I secretly wished there could be an Art Day or a Story Day when I could win all the prizes!

In my poem I imagine what it’s like for both types of people, sporty and not so sporty. Which one are you?

Sports Day

Just four more days                    Four days to go!

so long to wait                             I count with dread

till egg-and-spoon                      each night

and ball-and-plate,                    as I get into bed.

till starting guns                         I’ve got to go,

and lightning starts                   there’s no way out,

and pumping legs                       find something else

and pounding hearts,                to think about

the thrilling chase                      before a nightmare

of every race,                                starts to hatch,

the cooling breeze                      with flying balls

upon my face,                              I cannot catch,

the final push                              and tripping shoes

so well rehearsed,                      with tangled laces,

the burning drive                        pointing fingers,

to come in first!                           laughing faces,

And there it is,                            hoops and beanbags

the finish line!                            zooming past,

I’m almost through –                always, always

the prize is mine!                        coming last.

To top it all,                                  No amount of

the races done,                             sporting fun

it’s time for ice cream,                will make this day

games and fun.                             a better one.

Another year                                 If only I

of work and play                          could sneak away

ends with a bang –                     and read a book –

I love Sports Day!                        I hate Sports Day!

Celebrating a winning race!