NT_2019NatureMonthByMonth_NatureAlmanac_CoverNeonWhat are you up to this half term? Hopefully you are outdoors, enjoying the crisp, cold, golden days, kicking up the leaves, riding your bike and enjoying what Nature has to offer.

When writing Nature Month-by-Month I found myself constantly going back to my own childhood for ideas. I lived in a small market town in Kent and all my close friends were within walking or cycling distance. In the holidays we would meet up on our bikes and only come home for meals. I also have lovely memories of time at my grandparents’ house where my grandmother taught me to cook and sew and how to make things. So it’s not hard to come up with my Top Ten things to do in Nature! Will you be doing any of these thing this half term?

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Swimming in the sea

When I was a child I lived an hour from the coast and there were plenty of beaches to choose from. Camber Sands was my favourite as most of the other beaches were pebbly. I learned to swim in the sea when I was four. We lived in Australia then, so the sea was pretty warm! My lessons were in a “pool” in the sea, surrounded by shark-proof nets! I have loved swimming in the sea ever since and particularly love it when the water is cold. I have even been known to plunge in on New Year’s Day in Cornwall. I love the way it makes me feel: alive and wild and free.

Playing in scrubland

My childhood home was in suburbia, so I wasn’t exactly running through fields and forests with my friends. However, Nature is never far away, even in the town. At the bottom of the cul-de-sac where I lived was a patch of scrubland – it was basically a building site and is now the smarter end of that little housing estate. Between the ages of eight and ten my friends and I would spend entire days playing in this area which was overgrown with brambles and nettles. We called it, rather grandly, The Woods and felt that we owned it. We built dens and played games of cops and robbers, cowboys – even aliens landed in those woods, I’m sure of it! Building dens is still a favourite activity of mine, although now my kids are teens I haven’t done it for a while.

Riding bikes with friends

The best thing about where I lived was that all my friends were within a five minute walk of my house. At weekends and in the holidays all I had to do was to run down the road or round the corner and knock on someone’s door and I’d have someone to play with. In the summer we would spend all day outside, mainly riding our bikes to and from The Woods. There were very few cars on the roads in those days so we had the streets to ourselves most of the time. We dared each other to ride “no hands” and sped down hills wearing our anoraks by the hood, pretending we were superheroes in capes. I am still friends with my superhero buddies!

IMG_0156Making mini gardens

My grandmother was the best person to spend time with when I was bored. There was never “nothing to do” at her house. My favourite activity was to make miniature gardens on a rainy day. My sister and I would run outside and collect as many wildflowers and nuts and twigs as we could before we got soaked, then we’d come in and lay our finds out on the kitchen table. Grandma would give us each a biscuit tin lid and some scoops of soil. She would then let us climb out on to the flat roof over her kitchen to collect gravel and moss. We would spend a happy afternoon “planting” our gardens. Sometimes she would give us a small mirror to use as a pond. We would tell each other stories about who lived in the gardens. I made these gardens with my own kids and have done this as a creative workshop with children in schools and libraries.

Making “potions”

Another thing my sister and I enjoyed doing at Grandma’s was making potions. We would be given a jam jar each which we filled with rose petals and lavender and rosemary – anything we could find outdoors which smelt good. Then we’d fill the jars with tap water and screw on the lids. The next day we’d open the lid and take a good sniff. We were convinced we’d made our own magic potion or priceless perfume! As with the mini gardens above, this is a fun thing to do on a rainy day.

Blackberry picking

Grandma and Mum were both excellent cooks. Every September we would go to the bottom of Grandma’s garden where there was a little lane lined with brambles which would be overflowing with plump juicy blackberries. We would happily spend a long time filling old ice cream tubs with the berries – and eating them as we went along, of course. We’d then take them back to make blackberry and apple crumble or pie or even jam. When I left home, Grandma would send me a jar of her blackberry and apple jam every year until she got too old to make it any more. It is very easy to make. I might include the recipe in my next book!

Kayaking

My Dad loved the river. He grew up near the Thames and learned to row when he was very young. He passed on his love to me and my sister and took us out on the Medway river in Kent. Later in life he learned how to canoe and kayak and he taught us too. We would go out with him on a Sunday morning and he’d point out kingfishers and water voles, ducks and moorhens and cormorants. I still love the river today, but although I do have two kayaks, I am more likely to be found swimming in the river than paddling on it!

Climbing trees

I have always loved getting up high and looking down on the world. As a child I was lucky enough to be able to climb apples trees which were not high enough to be dangerous, but were exciting to sit in, hiding in the leaves. You get a different view of the world, sitting in the branches of a tree. Things which seem worrying when you are on the ground suddenly become much smaller problems when seen from on high. It’s also a great place to read!

Pressing leaves

I have always loved autumn. The colours of the leaves cheer me up on even the greyest wettest day. It is raining as I write this, but I am looking out at a stunning copper beech tree which is turning from coppery green to russet, gold and bronze. As a child I would collect leaves which I found on a walk, then bring them home to press between sheets of newspaper which I would put inside a heavy book. I would leave them there for a few days – or longer if I was patient enough – then use them to make greetings cards or pictures. I used to enjoy doing this with my own children when they were small too. It made any blustery autumn walk instantly a lot more interesting.

Making leaf “castles”

This is another activity I loved to do on a dark autumn day when my parents were trying to get me and my sister to help in the garden. We would rake up piles of leaves and then jump into the middle of them to make a little hollow or “nest”. Then we’d sit down in the nest and push the leaves into “walls” around ourselves and pretend we were kings and queens in our leaf castles. I think we probably ended up making quite a mess, but it kept us quiet and meant we got lots of fresh air without getting bored while Mum and Dad worked!

[This blog originally appeared on this fab book blog –  https://librarygirlandbookboy.wordpress.com/]

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It’s been a long time since I have written a post. That’s because it’s been a rollercoaster of a year. It started with a huge dip as my mum died at the end of January – never my favourite month, as it is, and it was made a lot worse by this sad news. It would have been very easy for me to curl up in a ball and close the door firmly on the outside world.

Since then there have been at least as many highs as lows, and as has happened so many times before in my life, it was writing which came to my rescue – and writing which has supplied many of the highs.

One of the biggest highs was when I was asked by the fantastic publisher Nosy Crow to write a book for the National Trust called Nature Month-by Month: a children’s almanac. This was the perfect project for me as I love activities such as going out for walks, going swimming in rivers, lakes and seas and going foraging for wild food that I can cook with. I was excited to get going on the book, but when Mum passed away I wondered how I was going to get the words written.

I quickly realised, however, that getting out and looking up is the best way to deal with feeling sad. The days on which I needed to go outside to get ideas for the book were the days I found my sadness easiest to bear. There is nothing like getting absorbed in watching a heron standing on the riverbank, patiently looking for fish, or running alongside the canal, feeling the fresh air on your face, or standing under a huge beech tree in the park, listening to birdsong – all these things take you out of your thoughts and make you feel connected to something bigger and better than your own worries. I also realised that even in January there are signs of new life: flowers such as snowdrops and even some daffodils come out early in the year and you can already spot the tiny shoots of other plants appearing in the ground. Trees may not yet have any leaves, but there are soft yellow hazel catkins to see, and some evergreens have brightly coloured berries. It is not all doom and gloom out there in the winter.

There is a lot of talk about the healing power of nature. People with anxiety and depression are encouraged to get outside more and to try and take regular exercise in the fresh air. It is also a well-known fact that getting involved in a creative project such as baking or drawing or doing some craft can help to make you feel happier.

The other thing that has made me happier this year is the arrival of my new puppy, Nala! Her cuddles, her enthusiasm for life and the fact that I have to walk her, rain or shine, have all added up to one massive new high on the rollercoaster of 2018.

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Last night I had a party to celebrate the publication of Nature Month-by-Month. I decided to have it The Glove Factory in Holt in Wiltshire near where I live because this is a place that has given me a lot of inspiration and has helped me on the days when I have felt sad. I have spent a lot of time at The Glove Factory over the past year as there is a beautiful lake there where I go swimming all year round. There is also a lovely cafe where I can get a hot chocolate to warm up after a chilly winter swim! The people there are super friendly and have been very supportive of this new book. We had a fantastic evening, making miniature gardens and drinking tea. Here are some of the gardens that were made:

The almanac will be published on 4th October. I hope that you might take a look at it in your local bookshop and that it might inspire you to get out and go wild in 2019! And remember, if ever you are feeling sad, get out and look up – it’s better than staying in and feeling down.

PAD-StoryOfMovie-Novel-9780008254469-C.inddThis summer I was offered a wonderful opportunity: to write the novelisation of the second Paddington film. As Paddington and his creator, Michael Bond, are both close to my heart, it was very exciting to be involved in such a project.

The schedule was the tightest I have ever had to work to: the script was sent to me at the end of June and I had to deliver a first rough draft in a fortnight. Of course, I didn’t have to make up a plot as the scriptwriters, Paul King and Simon Farnaby, had already done that. And I didn’t have to think too hard about how to flesh out the characters as I already knew the Browns, Mrs Bird and Paddington from years of reading their adventures and watching them on TV.

The hardest part about the novelisation was the structure. When you watch the film (which I highly recommend you do), you are hardly aware that there are three plot-lines running concurrently. The camera hops seamlessly between the Browns’ home in Windsor Gardens and Paddington’s plight elsewhere (no plot spoilers) to the shenanigans of the baddie (played brilliantly by Hugh Grant) in yet another location. The action whizzes along and you are caught up in the flow of the adventure. We know immediately where we are because of visual clues, so the dialogue does not need to tell us “now we are at Number 32 Windsor Gardens” or “now we are in Mr Gruber’s antiques shop on the Portobello Road”.

A novel works in a very different way, however. Unless the writer is going to fall into the trap of using “and then and then and then”, different tricks need to be used to show how fast the action is moving from one scene to another. An adaption of a film script can otherwise so easily become heavily reliant on “telling” rather than “showing” what is happening. So I couldn’t merely copy and paste chunks of stage direction to fill in the gaps between the dialogue.

The biggest challenge was in writing action scenes that had no dialogue at all. In one scene Paddington gets into a tangle at the barber’s. As a visual gag it is hilarious and full of tension and jeopardy. Writing it with no images to fall back on was a very tricky experience! That scene went through many, many drafts before we were all happy with it. At one point, in despair that we would never be able to visualise what was happening from reading the script, my editor and I asked to watch a rough-cut of the film. It was an odd experience seeing the film at this unfinished stage. The CGI and green-screen scenes had not been finished: Paddington was a brown blob on the screen and the actors were often jumping out of trailers rather than out of moving trains, for example. But it helped to be able to see how quickly Paddington could get himself tied in knots and made rewriting the scene a little easier.

Another challenge in writing the novelisation was how many last minute changes were being made to the film. Whole chunks of the script were being cut or moved around in the editing suite to make sure that the film flowed perfectly. This meant that I was then tasked with cutting and rewriting chunks of the book, too.

The hard work on everyone’s part was very much worth it in the end. I went to see the finished movie at the premiere at the Southbank in London a few weeks ago. The film is fast-paced, funny, heart-warming and tear-jerking in equal measure. And my behind-the-scenes experience made me appreciate all the more just how much work had gone into making it the gorgeous film that it is.

If you are looking for a pre-Christmas treat for all the family, do go and see Paddington 2! I guarantee you’ll leave the cinema feeling lighter and happier as a result.

I have always loved Halloween for two reasons – the parties and the DRESSING-UP!When I was young we didn’t celebrate Halloween in the UK. The first time I ever saw what fun it could be was when I saw the American film “E.T.”IMG_0086By the time I’d left home and had my own place, Halloween had become a major event in the UK. Children would come knocking on the door shouting “Trick or Treat!” I learnt that I had to have a stash of sweets at the ready, otherwise I might get flour thrown in my face. Sometimes, if the tricksters were of the mean-teen variety, I got flour thrown in my face anyway. I didn’t like that aspect of Halloween – I still don’t – so one year I decided I would be prepared for the pranksters.

I invited some friends around for a Halloween party and insisted that everyone come in costume. I dressed as a vampire (of course!), complete with fake blood dripping from my fake fangs. One friend arrived dressed as an enormous pumpkin which he had fashioned from chicken wire and crepe paper. He barely fit through the door! Another came as Frankenstein’s monster. Another as a wizard. Another as a skeleton. You get the picture.

 

 

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Soon the trick-or-treaters arrived. They rattled the letter box and yelled. They were definitely the prankster kind rather than the cute-little-witch kind. Quickly we turned out the lights, grabbed torches and scuttled to the door. The letter box rattled again and the kids shouted, “Trick or Treat!” Checking my friends were ready, I yanked open the door. “TRICK!” we yelled, torches held below our monstrous chins. The mean-teens on the doorstep screamed and ran off and we were never bothered by flour-throwers again!

Years later my own children wanted to go trick-or-treating, but we live in the country down a dark lane with no street lights. I didn’t like the thought of them wandering around on their own, and they didn’t want me to come with them, so my husband and I came up with a compromise. We would have a party. Parents would come too; there would be games and fireworks and food. And everyone had to come in fancy dress.

These parties have gone down in family folklore as amongst the best things we did when the kids were young. The costumes people wore were elaborate and scary – there was lots of fake blood and green hair! We did apple-bobbing and eating pancakes off string and finding chocolate squares in a plate of flour and I made a “Yucky Dip” from layers of jelly. You had to plunge your hand in to pull out sweets, but it quickly became a lot messier than that, with kids sticking their faces in and finding the sweets with their teeth. I also told a Spooky Story, turning out all the lights and handing round peeled grapes and plates of spaghetti while I described in detail how someone’s eye ball had been found rolling down the street, or how a body had spilled its guts all over the road.

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I miss those parties. My kids are grown-up now. Maybe that’s why I have written about little Vlad Impaler and his ghoulish family. It takes me back to the days when we had fun dressing up and being spooked on Halloween. Whatever you are doing this Halloween, I hope you have lots of fun. And remember to be safe out there when you are trick or treating – and be kind to the treaters!

With thanks to MinervaReads for first posting this on her amazing book blog.

http://www.minervareads.com

IMG_2323This week the world has lost an incredible man. Michael Bond, who passed away yesterday, at the majestic age of 91, will be sorely missed by many. I will miss him as a wonderful writer – who was still writing new stories until very recently – and also as a friend.

In the late 1990s I joined HarperCollins as an editor and was incredibly fortunate to be given the job of “looking after” Michael. I will never forget the first time I had to call him. I was, of course, thrilled at the idea of speaking to this great author. I had been brought up on his warm, funny stories both in print and on the small screen. (As a child of the 1970s, “my” version of Paddington was the animation narrated by Michael Hordern – I still find it difficult to read the stories without his voice reading them to me in my head.)

When I picked up the phone to call and introduce myself to Michael and heard him answer in his inimitable gentle tones, I panicked. What should I call him? “Michael”? “Mr Bond” seemed more appropriate. But maybe he would think I was being over-formal? In the end, I coughed, said, “Hello,” and plunged into an awkward explanation of who I was. Michael immediately put me at my ease. He was extremely gracious – as the cliché goes, a real gentleman – and I could tell even from that first conversation that much of his own temperament and mannerisms had gone into his well-loved creation.

We met for the first time at London Zoo for a celebration of Paddington’s 40th birthday. I had not expected to get anywhere near Michael on such an important occasion, but he sought me out and once again put me at my ease.

Over the twenty years which followed, I was lucky enough to be invited to Michael’s house to meet his wife, Sue, and also his guinea pigs: two incarnations of Olga da Polga, Vladimir (an unexpected son!) and more recently Oksana.

I have many fond memories of meetings with Michael. It is thanks to him that I really understood how to craft and hone a story. His manuscripts were the cleanest and sharpest I have ever seen. They were delivered, typed on cream paper, with no errors of spelling, punctuation or grammar. The stories were honed to perfection. I also learned the importance for a writer of knowing one’s characters inside out and back to front. If I ever dared to challenge Paddington’s motives or actions, Michael would gently say, “But that’s how Paddington is, you see.”

Michael was not only one of the best children’s writers this nation has ever seen. He was a bon viveur who loved fine wines, champagne and good food. He adored France and loved to talk about how “the French know how to live”. He was a raconteur with many an amusing anecdote about the varied people he had come across in his life. But most of all, he was a gentle, generous man.

As the Browns said, it’s been “nice having a bear about the house”. This, at least, will still continue to be the case. RIP Michael Bond. Long live Paddington.

This week The Family Fiasco hits the shelves. It is the sequel to The Parent Problem and continues the story of The Mortifying Life of Skye Green, a permanently cringing thirteen-year-old who finds her family a daily trial. Embarrassing parents have always been with us and thus are not a new theme in children’s books. But they give a writer so much material! Just take a look at this article I wrote for the Guardian, listing my Top Ten favourite embarrassing parents in children’s books (click on the link).

I should warn you, though, if you think your mum or dad or guardian is embarrassing now, wait until YOU become a parent or guardian yourself. You know what they say: what goes around, comes around. You have been warned….

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Last week I was asked to speak at a Careers Forum for the Arts at Sevenoaks School, which is where I did my A Levels nearly *mumbles* years ago. It was a great honour to be asked, and a delight to meet the other panellists who were all old girls as well. Sixth formers interested in the Arts came along to hear us speak briefly about our careers and then ask questions. I was there to represent the world of children’s literature, but also to talk about publishing and the study of creative writing at university. The others were Stina Richardson, who designs jewellery, the journalist and award-winning poet Olivia Cole and the podcaster and comedy writer Helen Zaltzman.

There has been a significant decline in take-up of Arts subjects at GCSE level, which of course means fewer pupils are going on to study them at A level and Higher Education, and this in turn will have a detrimental effect on the future for the Arts in our country. So, it was heartening to see a room full of sixth formers interested in creative subjects and fantastic to see that the school was encouraging this.

All of the speakers came from very different areas in the Arts and we had come to our present careers by varying means. However, the more we were questioned about our careers, the more it became clear that we had two things in common:

  1. At sixth form level, we had NO IDEA WHAT WE WANTED TO DO WITH OUR LIVES.
  2. We have found ourselves where we are today by remaining flexible and open to new opportunities.

And yet, the over-riding concern of all the pupils was, ‘Which subject should I study and which university should I go to if I want a job like yours?’

It was clear from the questions we were asked that the sixth formers were anxious that they had to know RIGHT NOW what it was they were going to do as a career and they wanted us to tell them EXACTLY HOW they should be going about it.

As Philip Ardagh, author of the Eddie Dickens series of children’s books, said in a recent article for The Bookseller:

“I think students nowadays are more geared towards the job market and, although the Arts generate millions of pounds for the UK economy they somehow seem less tangible – their specific jobs less definable – than a career in, say, science or accountancy. Gone are the days when knowledge for knowledge’s sake was seen as a way of enriching people’s lives. Students are ‘taught to the test’ and schools themselves are monitored and graded. A truly rounded education doesn’t even seem to be a goal in the 21st Century.”

This is a real problem. Not only are we dissuading children from taking up the Arts in the first place, attaching unhelpful words such as ‘soft skills’ to subjects such as Drama, English, Art and Music, but we are also making them paranoid about studying the ‘right’ courses at the ‘right’ universities. (Of course the fact that a university education is no longer provided free of charge does nothing to help this.)

My experience of being an Arts student was very similar to that of my fellow speakers, even though they were all about ten years younger than I am and all are in different fields.

Stina, for example, started out as a model. She soon realised this was not going to be a career she was likely to be able to continue with throughout her life and also said that ‘much of the time I was bored – hanging around, waiting to be told what to do next’. She noticed someone making jewellery one day and asked them to teach her how to do it. Before long she was spotted wearing something she had made, and she had her first customer. That customer was seen in a magazine wearing the jewellery and was asked who had made it, and Stina had more sales off the back of that. She said that at school she enjoyed spending her days in the art room, but could never have predicted she would end up as a designer.

Olivia and Helen both described themselves as being a ‘bit of a nerd’ at school. They both loved English and went on to read that subject at university, but neither of them made that decision as a conscious career move. They just ‘loved words’.

I was the same. I loved languages, loved words and had only a vague idea that I wanted to write. I studied French and German at university and most of the literature I read was ancient stuff, from Mediaeval to nineteenth century – hardly a career move, unless I was going to stay in academia. But the point was, I LOVED IT. Getting an Arts degree was about following my passion, not about ticking a box.

I hope that if the sixth formers took anything away from the Careers Forum, it was this: that the Arts will only survive in this country if we have new blood coming from our schools and universities and that if you are passionate about something, be it making things, writing things, painting things or drawing things, JUST DO IT! You never know where it might lead.