‘Have you heard about the Toad?’

Helen Mortimer, commissioning editor at Oxford Children’s Books takes us behind the scenes of a brand new edition of the classic The Wind in the Willows, retold by Tom Moorhouse, author of The River Singers and illustrated by the brilliant David Roberts.

toad cover image

‘Have you heard about the Toad?’

toad 1With these words, Kenneth Grahame first introduced his enduring character in a letter written to his son, Alastair, on May 10th, 1907. During that summer Grahame, who was staying away from his son, continued to send Alastair instalments of the story by letter. The following year Grahame polished the material into a manuscript and the book was published in October 1908 as The Wind in the Willows.

At 55,000 words The Wind in the Willows is normally read to children over many bedtimes. But, for parents and children alike, it is well worth investing the time as it’s a wonderful story with friendship and adventure at its heart. The language is vivid and evocative and is remembered far beyond childhood. Here at Oxford Children’s Books we were delighted when we approached David Roberts to illustrate a glorious new gift edition of the original story and discovered that he shared our enthusiasm for the book.

 

toad 2

 

We published a sumptuous gift edition in 2012, packed with over 150 stunning illustrations from David.

willows cover image

David’s illustrations are so bright, appealing, and accessible that we wanted them to reach children even younger than those who would enjoy sharing The Wind in the Willows. We wanted to condense Kenneth Grahame’s original story into a 32-page picture book and focus on the character who started it all back in 1907: Toad himself.

toad 3

There can be few characters in the world of children’s books more entertaining than Toad and even fewer illustrators who have captured his every mood and moment with the verve and panache of David Roberts. So we commissioned acclaimed author Tom Moorhouse to retell the story for a picture book audience. Essentially, Tom has taken Toad’s best bits from The Wind in the Willows to create The Adventures of Mr Toad, in Toad’s own words and songs.

toad 4.

It’s a really engaging picture book that will introduce the youngest children to four of the most lovable characters of children’s literature: Mole, Ratty, Badger, and, of course, Mr Toad!

 The Adventures of Mr Toad is out now.

toad cover image

You can also read the original Oxford Children’s Classic of Wind in the Willows, which now has a gorgeous new cover look and includes the unabridged text, as well as extra material to help you get the most from the story and lots of recommendations for other things you might enjoy.

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Water Vole Watching

Tom Moorhouse, an ecologist at the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology and author of the brilliant debut The River Singers (out now in paperback) shares his tips on finding and seeing water voles in their real habitat.

The River SingersWhen I talk to classes of children in schools, I always ask them the same question: “How many of you have seen a water vole?”. Usually a few hands go up – perhaps one in ten children, excited to describe their wildlife encounters. And that’s great. The thing is, though, that if I had asked a class that question in the 1980s (the parents of the current generation), perhaps a third of them would have raised their hands. And if I’d asked a class in the 1950s (the grandparents) the vast majority of hands would have gone up. Indeed, for children living in the 1950s seeing water voles was “normal”, a part of going for a walk by a river or canal. It’s difficult not to think that our children are missing out in some ways. The small joy of seeing water voles swimming in a river, doing their determined “doggy paddle”, is now a real rarity, not what it used to be: a common oh-that’s-lovely before carrying on with your day.

The good news is that there are still places you can go to watch wild water voles. Your local Wildlife Trust should be able to point you in the right direction. And if you find a suitable river try to get there early in the morning, or late as the sun is setting, and take an apple with you. Locate a pile of feeding sign or a latrine (chopped up piles of reeds or other stems, about 10cm long, or piles of droppings that look like black tictacs, both hidden at the base of the plants at the water’s edge) and leave ¼ of the apple nearby. If you’re lucky, and sit very patiently and still, a water vole will steal up to the apple and sniff it for a bit. Then it will either eat it, or grab it and scarper. Either way, the sighting will be worth it, I promise. And, of course, you’ll be helping to restore, in some small way, what was once a common experience.

 

The Rising, the sequel to The River Singers will be published in October.

The Rising

Tom MoorhouseTom Moorhouse lives in Oxford, where he enjoys the refreshing and perpetual rain. He is somewhere in his mid-thirties. This, he has discovered, means that small white hairs now grow out of his earlobes when he’s not looking.

He spends a lot of time climbing rocks. He used to play the trombone, but doesn’t any more. He is, without the slightest fear of contradiction, the world’s worst snowboarder. Ever. Tom also happens to be an ecologist, working at the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology. As a child he devoured – not literally – just about any fantasy book going.

The Rising, the follow-up to his critically-acclaimed debut novel The River Singers, will be published in October 2014.

 

 

Islands and imagination

Julia Green, author of Sylvie and Star and Tilly’s Moonlight Fox gives us an insight into the inspiration behind her brand new book for younger readers, Seal Island.

I’ve loved islands as long as I can remember: I like the smaller, more intimate scale of an island, the way you can get to know it on foot, the sense of community found there, and the relationship with the weather, the sea and the rhythm of the tides. Recently I’ve re-visited the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland, and this is the setting for my new book for children, Seal Island.

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My island is imaginary but based on these real places. I drew a map to show where everything happens in my story (I loved maps in books as a child).

 

mapThrough Grace’s story, I hope to bring a sense of this beautiful place to my readers, to share the pleasure of beachcombing, spotting seals, making friends and experiencing the freedom to play and explore. I researched real seals, but also read the old tales about Selkies – half seal and half person – and wove these into my story.

deer on allotment and North Uist 031

Grace learns about the island, about life and loss – there are some dramatic events after a storm – but I have tried overall to capture the summery feel of life on an island, the warmth of family and friendship, the rhythm of the sea and the wide starry skies.

Seal Island is out now.

Seal Island

Copyright Kim Green

Copyright Kim Green

 

Julia Green lives in Bath. She has two sons.  She writes fiction for children and young adults. She is the Course Director for the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. Julia leads creative writing workshops for children and adults in a variety of settings, including festivals and schools and for the Arvon foundation. She has worked as an English teacher in school, as a lecturer in FE, Higher and Adult Education, as a tutor for young people not in mainstream school; she has also been a publicity officer, a sub editor for a publishing company and a library assistant at a medical school in London.

Spawning a Little Frog

Tatyana Feeney is author and illustrator of a brilliant series of books that tackle everyday toddler troubles. From losing a favourite blanket (Small Bunny’s Blue Blanket) to likes and dislikes (Little Owl’s Orange Scarf), her simple story and minimalist artwork speaks volumes. Where did the idea for her new book Little Frog’s Tadpole Trouble which deals with a new baby in the family come from?

9780192735546_LITTLE_FROGS_TADPOLE_TROUBLE_CVR_APR14I have quite a young family still – my oldest is seven, so inspiration for stories about young children is fairly abundant in my daily  life!

Little Frog’s Tadpole Trouble, which is my latest book, developed from having my own children and seeing the effect of a new sibling on the first child. I am sure there are some children who are delighted with new children arriving in the family, but many feel threatened or upset by the change in the family dynamic. My intention, by having nine new brothers and sisters was just an exaggeration of how the change feels to the first child. Of course, most families don’t go from one to ten overnight – but it could feel that way when a new baby arrives…

A regret I have is that I didn’t make Mommy and Daddy look a bit more stressed once the tadpoles arrived – they are quite relaxed for parents of 10!

Some things Little Frog likes to do

Some things Little Frog likes to do

When I start working on a new story, drawing the characters (a lot!), is the best way for me to get to know them. I think  about what they might do, or  wear, what they like, what they DO NOT like. I need to know lots of things about their personality to help get the story started. I have a few samples of drawings I did when I was working on Little Frog’s Tadpole Trouble. Some of the pictures are just Little Frog doing things he likes, including listening to music and trying gymnastics. Not all of these ultimately went into the book, but they still give me an idea of who he is.

Little Frog was very upset about the new tadpoles and he ran away...

Little Frog was very upset about the new tadpoles and he ran away…

I have included a few other sketches. One is Little Frog running away from home…

 

...luckily he didn't get too far...

…luckily he didn’t get too far…

(well, to under the kitchen table) when he heard about the new siblings.

Some things Little Frog likes to do with the tadpoles - teaching them to skip

Some things Little Frog likes to do with the tadpoles – teaching them to skip

There are also some ideas of things he could do with the tadpoles once they got a bit bigger.

Playing leapfrog!

Playing leapfrog!

It is always  nice to play around with the characters like this, even when not all of the ideas make it into the finished book – it seems to give them more personality somehow.

 

Little Frog’s Tadpole Trouble is out now.

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feeney0062kpo2011_bwTatyana Feeney grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She studied History of Art at the University of North Carolina and Design at the Art Institute of Atlanta before getting a BA in Illustration for Children’s Publishing from NEWI in Wales.

She has illustrated several books with Irish publishers, including 3 in the Irish language. She has also done illustrations for websites and cards.

She lives in Trim, County Meath with her husband, two children and small dog.

 

 

The inspiration behind Scarlet…

Gill Lewis, author of the award-winning Sky Hawk and White Dolphin tells us about the inspiration behind her extraordinarily moving new book Scarlet Ibis.

What’s the story behind a book? Where does the inspiration come from?

For Sky Hawk, White Dolphin and Moon Bear, I have a clear idea where the stories came from and what inspired them. With Scarlet Ibis, I’m left scratching my head. I don’t really know, is the initial answer.

The story gathered itself together from the deep recesses of my mind. After much research including many interviews and reading, it formed on the pages to become the story of Scarlet Ibis.

Scarlet IbisIt began as a seed of an idea, as many of my stories do, with a character walking into my head, with a story to be told. In walked Scarlet Ibis. She introduced herself before I even knew what the story was going to be about. I sketched her and made notes…swirling ideas in my head, and then she told me her dream…a dream she tells her brother Red, every night…

I pull the duvet cover up around him so only his red hair and eyes peep out. “So what story is it to be tonight?” I say.

“Caroni Swamp,” he says.

I smile because there is only ever one story. I dim his side-lamp and begin. “One day,” I say, “we’ll find ourselves an aeroplane and fly up into the big blue sky. We’ll be like birds. We’ll fly above the roads and houses, above Big Ben and The Eye and London Zoo. We’ll fly across the whole Atlantic Ocean, all the way to Trinidad.”

“What then?” says Red.

“We’ll take a little boat out on the Caroni Swamp,” I say.

“Just you and me?” says Red.

“Just you and me,” I say.

Red smiles. His eyes are seeing the deep green waters and tangle of the mangrove trees.

“And we’ll wait,” I say. “We’ll wait for the sun to sink, turning the mountains of the Northern Range deep blue.”

“Just you and me?” says Red.

“Just you and me,” I say. “And as the light is leaving the sky, we’ll watch them coming in their hundreds and thousands. We’ll watch them settle in the trees like bright red lanterns as darkness falls.”

Red pulls his duvet tighter around him. “And we’ll always be together?”

“Always,” I say. “Just you and me in that little boat, as evening falls, watching the scarlet ibis flying back to the Caroni Swamp.”

For Scarlet, this dream is an elusive place where her mother can find happiness again. For Red, this dream is a place where he and Scarlet can always be together.

So where did Scarlet come from? How did she just walk into my head? What ideas did she form from?

When I think back to the time I was exploring the story and playing with ideas, I had just been reading a book called Between Two Worlds, the story of Alan Goffe, a brilliant black British scientist. My mother had known his wife and had met Alan Goffe on several occasions. She remembered him to be a charismatic, intelligent man. Sadly, he was only 46 when he died in a sailing accident in 1965. He had made huge contributions to the development of polio and measles vaccines and it was said that his untimely death probably set back vaccine development by many years. Alan Goffe’s story is an interesting one. His mother was from the Isle of Wight. A young white woman, she trained to become a doctor in the early part of the twentieth century. This was a huge achievement in itself, as women had only just won the right to join men to study medicine. (Women had previously been judged to be inferior in intelligence to men!) She then travelled to the Caribbean, where she met her husband to-be, a black doctor from a well-respected middle-class Jamaican family. Together, they set up practice in Kingston, London, at a time when most doctors were Caucasian males, and racism and sexism were rife. Both Goffe’s parents had been fortunate to grow up in supportive families where education and freedom of thought had been valued.

Goffe became a scientist at the forefront of research in the development of vaccines. He also fought for many altruistic causes, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Freedom from Hunger.

His story made me ponder about all sorts of things; prejudice and discrimination, migration of people, what we mean by home, belonging and family, and above all the importance of education to enable individuals to take control of their future, and in turn be able to change the world around us.

At about the same time, I watched a documentary about young carers in the UK. Many children across the country are forced to grow up early because they care for family members who are disabled, chronically ill or misusing drugs or alcohol. These children support their families, both practically and emotionally, often taking on the adult role. As a result, many miss out on their education and struggle against stigma, prejudice and discrimination. They are invisible children, desperately trying to keep their families together. Scarlet walked onto my page from such a situation; a girl caring for her mother and brother, a girl desperately trying to keep her world together, a girl in need of love and support to allow her a childhood, an education and space to think and grow. Like all children, she deserves these opportunities.

Scarlet’s story became intertwined with scarlet ibis, London pigeons, her brother Red and Madame Popescu. I realise now, they have their own stories to tell behind the inspiration to include them in the story…but maybe that is for another blog post!

Scarlet Ibis is out now.

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GillLewisHeadshotWEBfriendlyBefore she could walk, Gill Lewis was discovered force-feeding bread to a sick hedgehog under the rose bushes. Now her stories reflect her passion for wild animals in wild places. She draws inspiration from many of the people she has had the fortune to meet during her work as a vet, both at home and abroad. Gill Lewis has a Masters degree in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University and won the 2009 course prize for most promising writer. Her first novel, Sky Hawk, was snapped up for publication within hours of being offered to publishers. She lives in Somerset with her young family and a motley crew of pets. She writes from a treehouse in the garden, in the company of spiders.

 

 

Being Boris

Tim Warnes on the joy of illustrating the Boris books and his inspiration behind some of the characters.

© Tim Warnes 2013

© Tim Warnes 2013

I love working on the Boris books! They’re such great, warm-hearted stories, that working on Boris Gets Spots was like going back to an old pair of cosy slippers – comfy and relaxing! And I have to say I think Boris is rather an inspirational character. He’s gentle, kind and helpful. He gets his chance to really shine in Boris Saves the Show, when he’s the one who is fast enough and strong enough to rescue the preschool class, who have got stuck in the mud on their way to the summer performance.

_MG_0785One of the things that’s refreshing about the Boris books for me as an illustrator is having to create an authentic classroom setting, where much of the stories take place. At first this was quite daunting since I struggle with seeing, let alone drawing, perspective. (Is there such a condition where your brain can’t discern whether a line in a room is going up or down? If there is, I think I have it.) As a result much of the scenes are quite flat, almost like stage sets, with the characters coming on from the wings. Anyway, I took masses of photos of my sons’ primary school for the first book, and I’ve used these consistently for reference ever since to create a genuinely chaotic classroom feel, with lots of details. My best find had to be the drawings stuck onto the tadpole tank at school of a shark and puffer fish – you can spot them on the goldfish tank in Miss Cluck’s classroom in Boris Gets Spots.

© Tim Warnes 2013

© Tim Warnes 2013

In Boris Gets Spots we are introduced to Farmer Gander (who I modeled on a Chinese goose). He’s visiting Miss Cluck’s class with some of his produce – like a miniature mobile farmer’s market, obligingly pulled by Buttercup the cow! Does it seem odd to you that the cow retains her natural bovine qualities, whilst everyone else gets to wear clothes? Actually, now I think about it, all Miss Cluck usually wears is a pair of spectacles, although in this story she sensibly dons an apron and oven gloves when she bakes some treats for her poorly class, who have come down, one by one, with chicken pox! (I told my editor, Helen, that my youngest son called it ‘chitten pops’ when he caught it. She must have told Carrie because this phrase ended up in the final text!)

It's tricky painting mice this tiny, and children at readings always comment on how SMALL they are. The smallest brush I use is a 2/0 which is really, really thin.

It’s tricky painting mice this tiny, and children at readings always comment on how SMALL they are. The smallest brush I use is a 2/0 which is really, really thin.

 

Tim Warnes photoAward-winning illustrator Tim Warnes shares a studio at his home in the Dorset countryside with his wife, illustrator Jane Chapman. They have two young sons. Tim spends a lot of time helping at the village school and his careful observations can be seen in all the authentic details of an infant classroom and also in the way he has successfully captured the solicitous, motherly demeanour of Miss Cluck and the mannerisms of the little pupils in her care. Tim is best known for illustrating the Little Tiger and Santa books for Little Tiger Press. I Don’t Want to go to Bed! won the Nottinghamshire Children’s Book Award in 1996 and I Don’t want to have a Bath! won in 1997.

Find out more about Tim and his work at www.chapmanandwarnes.com

See more behind-the-scenes Boris stuff in the Boris photo album!

Boris Gets Spots is out now.

Boris Gets Spots

Horsing around: editing our bbbrilliant new pony series

Life-long pony enthusiast and OUP Children’s Books Editorial Assistant Helen Bray joins us to talk about the experience of editing Che Golden’s brand new series for pony-mad children, The Meadow Vale Ponies.

If someone had told me when I was a child that a job existed which satisfied both a love of books and a love of horses, I would’ve thought they were thinking of a wild dream they’d had of a library filled with ponies hoof-deep in picture books . . . with themselves as Head Librarian – giving away carrots as bookmarks.

And although that actually sounds quite appealing (note the ‘mad’ in ‘pony mad’) there is a real job where you can celebrate a love of stories AND a love of all things equine—it’s MY job!

It was Che Golden’s new book Mulberry and the Summer Show that proved this to be true.

Meadow Vale Ponies logo

Che’s new series is called The Meadow Vale Ponies, and stars a girl called Sam and the beautiful, Black-Beauty-esque, mare, Mulberry. Unfortunately, Mulberry is also the grumpiest little pony at the Meadow Vale Stables. In that way, she reminds me of a pony I used to know. Tinkerbell was almost pure white and barely bigger than a Great Dane. Sounds adorable, right? WRONG. Let’s just say she bore more similarity to Hook than Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell!

 Tinkerbell – who, if you look closely, is eyeing up my fingers wondering if she can get away with the excuse that she thought they were carrots...

Tinkerbell – who, if you look closely, is eyeing up my fingers wondering if she can get away with the excuse that she thought they were carrots…

Sam is quite nervous about learning to ride—ponies are big, powerful animals after all. Sam’s nerves get the better of her in her first lesson, when she’s unceremoniously dumped at the feet of her stern riding instructor by an overexcited pony.

It’s easy for me to sympathize with poor Sam here, as the first hack I went on with my favourite pony, Cobweb, ended in me being dumped on a grass verge next to a bemused gardener after a hair-(and mane!)raising gallop.

Me and Cobweb before the excitement

Me and Cobweb before the excitement

As Sam is trying to console herself, she hears a strange little voice saying the most bizarre things . . . but it’s only her and the Shetland ponies in the barn—surely it’s not the little Shetland, Apricot, speaking to her?!

Illustrations (c) Thomas Docherty

Illustrations (c) Thomas Docherty

Sam can talk to ponies because she listens to what they have to say. And any pony-mad rider will know that there’s a lot of truth in this—horses have as many opinions, likes, and dislikes as their riders. The horse I ride at the moment, Beau, is no exception: every time it rains she tells me she doesn’t like it by galloping around the field until I let her take shelter in her stable; every time I pick out her rear hoofs she tells me she doesn’t like it by farting on my head; and every time we jump she tells me she loves it by charging at the fences and clearing them as if they were the Puissance Wall at Olympia!

Mulberry tells Sam she doesn’t like her nervous riding by performing her famous Sliding Stop:

Illustrations (c) Thomas Docherty

Illustrations (c) Thomas Docherty

Thankfully, Beau seems unaware of the tricks that Mulberry delights in playing on Sam, such as the classic hold-your-breath-while-the-girth-is-done-up-so-the-saddle-slips-when-your-rider-tries-to-mount. I did used to ride a horse called Dolly who did exactly that, though. And a pony called Laddie who had a Sliding Stop even more impressive than Mulberry’s. And there was Pepé, whose party trick was trotting backwards . . . quite amazing really, but a bit embarrassing when the rest of the lesson are going the other direction! Holly was perhaps the most terrifying of all—she could do 60 bucks a minute—although that might’ve just been in response to the sparkly hoof polish I insisted on putting on her . . .

Despite all of this, for some reason that is surely only madness or love, these mishaps never seem to put us pony-mad riders off. Perhaps it’s because when things go right, it’s the best feeling in the world? Or perhaps it’s because through getting to know each other—however turbulent it might be, you and your pony become the very best of friends? For Sam, it’s because when she rides Mulberry well, it feels like flying. Learning to ride Mulberry teaches Sam that she has to trust her pony, and trust herself.

Illustrations (c) Thomas Docherty

Illustrations (c) Thomas Docherty

Working on Mulberry and the Summer Show has been such a joy for me. The story is funny and heart-warming, and it’s just so easy to become completely immersed in the world of The Meadow Vale Stables. The realism Che does so well is perhaps unsurprising when you learn that she is as pony-mad as they come, and her lead characters are, in fact, based on her own daughter and the first pony she really loved, Brie. When Che asked her daughter why she insisted on riding Brie even though she kept throwing her off, her response was ‘because I love her!’. And you can’t argue with that now, can you!

Che’s daughter with Brie – the inspiration for Mulberry’s character

The first book in The Meadow Vale Ponies series, Mulberry and the Summer Show, is out in July, with further titles in 2014.

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Photograph (c) Lou Abercrombie

Photograph (c) Lou Abercrombie

Che Golden is a graduate of the Masters course in Creative Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University and her two great passions are writing and horses. Che’s first horse was Velvet, a huge, black Irish cob who not only taught Che how to ride, but taught her two little girls as well. Now, they own Charlie Brown, a rather neurotic New Forest pony, and Robbie, a very laid-back Highland pony.

Visit Che’s website

Helen Bray is Editorial Assistant at OUP Children’s Books

Helen and Beau

Too Small For My Big Bed – behind the scenes with Layn Marlow

Layn Marlow

I love the comparison that’s often made between picture books and theatre.  I’ve always felt shy about being on stage, but in illustrating picture books, I discovered I could be director, stage designer and a whole cast of actors, all from behind the scenes.  For my latest book, this analogy even helped me discover a new way of working.

A change of scenery

I’d already collaborated on six picture books with Amber Stewart as author.

Books by Amber Stewart and Layn Marlow

Books by Amber Stewart and Layn Marlow

                  

Each one saw a cast of small woodland animals, sensitively tackling subjects significant to young children: a duckling starting school, a rabbit losing her security blanket, a little mole learning to try new foods.

In each case, I approached the illustrations in the same way; using a dip pen, then fine brushes, to apply thin layers of acrylic paint onto smooth board.

Layn Marlow artwork

© Layn Marlow

I gave the rural scenes some botanical detail, which I hoped would draw the reader into the animal’s world.  It was all very green and pastoral – like the best bits of my early childhood.  But our seventh book left that familiar landscape behind…

New actors

Too Small For My Big Bed portrays a mother tiger’s tender relationship with her growing cub, Piper, as he struggles to overcome his nightly fear of being alone.

Too Small For My Big Bed UK hardback

Suddenly, I had an even smaller cast to work with, (two!), although of course, the actors were much bigger.

When developing any animal character, I usually start by sketching real animals. Then I try to modify and infuse their bodies with the more human expressions of the character in the story. (This often involves some acting in front of the mirror!)

© Layn Marlow

© Layn Marlow

Tigers are not easy to observe in real life, even in captivity, so I’m greatly indebted to the marvellous John Downer film, Tiger – Spy in the Jungle.

Tiger: Spy in the Jungle DVD cover

Tiger Spy in the Jungle. Director, John Downer. Narrator, David Attenborough. BBC, 2008. DVD

The narrator, David Attenborough, has described it as “the most intimate portrait of tigers ever seen”, which made it the perfect way for me to research mother and cub behaviour.

Setting the stage

The film also enabled me to see what the ‘jungle’ looks like. It was made in India’s Pench National Park, home to Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.  Having never travelled to India myself, I was surprised to see only limited greenery. In fact much of the Pench landscape looked just as Amber Stewart’s text describes – Golden Grasslands and Red Rock Ridges – colours more evocative of a tiger’s fiery coat.  I realized these warm hues would contrast well with the deep ultramarine blue of a night sky, and so my new palette was chosen.

 Too Small For My Big Bed palette

In the spotlight

In Too Small for my Big Bed, the close relationship between mother and cub takes centre stage.  This is what gives Piper the feeling of security he ultimately needs to find independence. I tried to echo this intimacy in the gestures of the tigers, but I also wanted to strengthen their presence in the compositions.  So, rather like applying stage make-up, I intensified the outlines of my pencil drawings by printing them with black ink onto watercolour paper.

© Layn Marlow

© Layn Marlow

Previously I’d dismissed watercolour as a pale and unforgiving medium. Now I found deep, rich inks to use, and learned to be slightly less respectful of the high quality paper.  I worked over the ink areas with coloured pencil, acrylic paint and even collage.

With the spotlight on the tigers, I really began to treat the landscape more like a stage set. I enjoyed creating rubbings of various textures and seeking out other collage materials from which to build the ‘scenery’.

Too Small For My Big Bed collage materials copy

Even though I’d long been aware of the theatrical analogy, somehow this time it felt to me like a real liberation.

A star performance

My favourite phrase in Amber Stewart’s text comes when we first see Piper fall asleep in his mum’s bed, ‘spread out like a small star’.

© Layn Marlow

© Layn Marlow

I’ve already found that children love to identify with Piper as a character. They feel rightly proud of how they’ve grown and of all they’ve learned to do.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process of bringing Amber Stewart’s little tiger to life, and in doing so; I think I may have grown a bit myself!

Children wearing tiger masks

Layn Marlow

Photo © Tom Greenwood

Born in Essex, Layn Marlow studied Art History at Reading University. She then worked in libraries, and lived in Belgium for some years with her young family, before returning to university to gain a first class degree in Illustration. She has been writing and illustrating picture books ever since.  Her books have won a number of awards, sold over a million copies worldwide and been translated into more than 20 languages. Layn is particularly inspired by the natural world, and now lives in Hampshire, where daily walks with her dog, Rufus, are essential.

Visit Layn’s website and Facebook page.

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Too Small for my Big Bed is out now in hardback. The paperback edition is out in August.

Can carrots really help you to see in the dark?

Our lovely marketing manager Nicola Gray celebrates the publication of the paperback edition of Chickens Can’t See in the Dark by sharing a whole host of weird and wonderful chicken and carrot facts.

9780192756800_CHICKENS_CANT_SEE_DARK_CVR_JAN13This month we are celebrating the publication of Chickens Can’t See in the Dark in paperback, a fun story with the added bonus of encouraging kids to eat their carrots! It’s the tale of a plucky young chicken called Pippa and her quest to find the truth behind the Old Hens’ tale that chickens cannot see in the dark. Pippa stumbles upon the theory that carrots are the answer to her chicken conundrum and that a feast of carrots is all that is needed for night vision.

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 But can carrots help you to see in the dark?

It’s not just chickens who have believed that munching carrots have this beneficial side effect. During the Second World War, Britain’s Air Ministry spread the rumour that eating carrots helped their pilots to see Nazi bombers attacking at night. Although experiments had been conducted into carotene contained in carrots and night blindness, no enhancement of night vision was found. In fact, this rumour was used to cover the Royal Air Force’s latest radar equipment to prevent the Germans from finding out about their new technology.

The lie was so convincing that it spread amongst the English public who began to grow and eat more carrots to help them to navigate more easily during blackouts. So there we have it, it’s a myth.

Or is it? Carrots are known to contain lots of Vitamin A, an important vitamin for healthy vision, so there is an element of truth in Pippa’s carrot theory.

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Crazy carrot factoids

While we’re on the topic of carrots, I’ve got a few more facts up my sleeve to astonish and amaze:

  • Did you know that the world’s longest carrot measured 5.841 m (19 ft 1.96 in) and was grown by Joe Atherton, for the UK National Giant Vegetable Championship in Somerset?
  • Eating three carrots can give you enough energy to walk three miles. I’m not personally volunteering to try this one, if anyone else does please do let me know if it’s true.
  • Carrots can be found in colours other than orange. There are varieties in purple, white, yellow, and red.
  • The record for the largest amount of carrots peeled chopped in one minute is held by James Martin. He peeled and chopped 515 grams of carrots for a Children in Need special of Ready Steady Cook.
  • Off on a slight tangent, did you know that the fastest marathon dressed as a vegetable is 3 hr 09 min 21 sec and was achieved by Michael Neville dressed as a carrot at the Virgin London Marathon on 25 April 2010?

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Feathery facts

And for those of you who would like some enlightenment on our feathered friends, fear not, I also have a selection of top chicken facts:

  • The scientific name for a chicken is Gallus domesticus. The word chicken is of Germanic origin.
  • Believe it or not, according to one article, the chicken is the closest living relative of the Tyrannosaurus rex.
  • Chickens are not capable of sustained flight. Rubber chickens however are! A group of students in California sent a rubber chicken to an altitude of 120,000 ft to test the levels of radiation it would be exposed to.

It’s all well and good sharing these facts with you, but I now have an intense craving for carrot cake. I’m consoling myself that it must count as one of my five fruit and vegetable portions for the day. Or at least might help me see in the dark.

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Nicola picNicola Gray is Marketing Manager at OUP Children’s Books

 

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Chickens Can’t See in the Dark is out now in paperback, hardback and eBook format.

The Heart of the Ocean: White Dolphin and Saving our Seas

The wonderful Gill Lewis shares her thoughts on a matter close to her heart, and central to her fantastic novel White Dolphin: the protection of our oceans and sea life.

Gill LewisWhen was the last time you scrambled over rocks on the beach and probed deep into the pools of water left by the ebbing tide? We’ve all felt that sense of excitement and wonder to step barefoot into these mini other-worlds, searching for strange creatures in the swathes of seaweed and beneath rocks and pebbles; transparent bodied shrimps, snakeslocks anemones with luminous green tentacles, limpets held tight fast against the rock, small crabs and maybe even a starfish or two.

Rock-pools give us only a small glimpse of what lies beneath the waves around our British coastline. The seabed is alive with all forms of bizarre and wonderful life, in living landscapes as dramatic as those on land. There are mountains and deep valleys, towering cliffs jeweled with anemones, caves hiding sea-monsters, forests of kelp, vast underwater deserts of sand and mud. Our reefs are home to bright corals and sponges, feather stars and sea fans. All these delicate habitats provide breeding and feeding grounds for bigger fish, which in turn feed the bigger fish and birds and mammals found around our shores. We have breeding bird colonies so vast that you can hear and smell the birds a mile out to sea. We have resident pods of bottlenose dolphin, visiting whales and orca.

rockpools

It was my own chance sightings of dolphins around our shores that inspired the initial idea for White Dolphin. Yet, as I began to delve deeper into research about dolphins I began to discover the dangers they face; from capture for the meat and the entertainment trade to degradation of their habitats from overfishing, pollution and acidification of the water.

Our insatiable desire for fish has depleted our global fish stocks. All around the world, we have bigger fishing vessels going after fewer fish. These vessels have the technology to map the underwater landscape and search for shoals of fish. They can mop up every last fish, pulling dredges across the seabed, destroying the delicate sea floor. They pull nets capable of fitting three jumbo jets inside. Fish stocks are collapsing. Some have gone already. It’s not just the fish that are affected. Many mammals and birds are killed too, ensnared in nets and on long baited lines.

birds

All this paints a fairly bleak picture. Yet there is hope for the future of the seas.

And so White Dolphin became Kara’s story, about a girl fighting to save the reef in the bay of her hometown from overfishing and destruction by commercial dredgers. She knows the reef must be protected to ensure the fishing community and the oceans have a future. Kara also carries the hope that there can be a future for our seas, by belief, determination and by never giving up.

Alone, her voice goes unheard, but as she finds out, many voices can make a difference.

Kara’s story was inspired by true stories of marine conservation from around the world; the Lyme Bay Reef Project, Goat Island Bay reserve in New Zealand, protected reefs in St Lucia. In these protected areas, the ‘spillover effect’, where fish stocks are replenished and spill over to non-protected areas have positive impacts on commercial fishing and increase the health of the marine eco-system.

Currently, less than 1% of the oceans have some form of conservation status.

If 30% of the world’s oceans were protected, we could have healthy seas and sustainable fishing for now and for future generations. FOR. EVER. 

Common Dolphins

We all love to see dolphins leaping out of the water, but the problem brewing beneath our seas has been out of sight and out of mind for too many years.

So what can we do?

We can buy seafood from sustainable and well-managed fisheries. We can ask our fishmonger or look for the blue Marine Stewardship Council label on the packaging.

MSC label

But no fish stocks are truly sustainable at current levels of fishing. Ours seas are at risk of becoming devoid of fish, and filled with jellyfish and slime instead.

So we need lobby MPs and the government and fight for clean seas and marine protected areas and for intelligent laws that protect our oceans and promote sustainable fishing. We need to sign petitions such as the online Wildlife Trust Living Seas Petition Fish.

Maybe then, our voices will be heard, and maybe then, we can make a difference.

Gill Lewis

Gill Lewis spent much of her childhood in the garden where she ran a small zoo and a veterinary hospital for creepy-crawlies, mice, and birds. When she grew up she became a real vet and travelled from the Arctic to Africa in search of interesting animals and places. She worked in Cornwall for several years and spent many hours of her spare time in the cold Atlantic, learning how to fall off a surfboard.

She now writes books for children. She lives in the depths of Somerset with her husband and three children and writes from a tree house in the company of squirrels.

Visit Gill’s website

Follow Gill on Twitter

The stunning White Dolphin is out now.

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Gill’s debut novel, Sky Hawk, was published to much critical acclaim and has been translated into twenty languages.

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And look out for Gill’s forthcoming novel, Moon Bear, publishing in May.

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