Underwater Worlds

coral atoll from the air

Thirty five years ago, almost in another world, another life, I went to the Maldives to take part in a WWFN funded study on blue and sperm whales. I flew in over the scattered dots of coral atolls, shaped like turquoise cats’ eyes in the deep indigo of the tropical sea. There was a boat ride from the airport to the marina where the boat was moored and as I stepped over the gap between the dock and the boat, a cloud of sergeant major fish, little zebra striped diamond shapes, swirled under my feet. Even though by then I’d spent two summer studying humpbacked whales, living on board small boats and camping on uninhabited islands it had all been in Northern sea, dark opaque, impenetrable. This glimpse through gin clear water into the underwater world of a typical reef was instantly entrancing.

I was desperate to see more. So I snorkelled off the marina where the water was filmed with engine oil. Corals were surviving on the sea-ward edge of the harbour wall- pale branches tipped with pastel green, yellow, pink, mauve; blue surgeon fish and parrot fish tootled about. Even with the floating turds and sunken rubbish, it was amazing. It was like being given a key to a fairy kingdom or being able to walk around at will in your best dreams.

When I finally snorkelled on a clean, un-polluted fringing reef a few weeks later I thought my soul was going to expand beyond the limits of my skin and burn me up. I let the wash of the waves waft me back and forth over the reef crest to experience to hallucinogenic, addictive vertigo of crossing over the drop off, where the atoll edge plunged three thousand metres to the sea bed. I hung in the water gazing at fish, flying between the coral heads, completely ignoring my presence. The sensation was one of having left my physical body behind and just being let lose to drink in the loveliness around me. The tiniest details were ravishing. I remember being mesmerised by a shoal of little fish fussing around some floating sea grass leaves. The green of the leaves was dappled with shell pink of algae, the fish, tiny silvers of life,were electric orange and the ripples above them fragmented and pattered the light as it struck them through the water. Still, half a lifetime later I can call up that image and its sheer beauty fills me with sunlight.

In the years that followed I got the chance to make brief visits to that dream world of underwater and enter into that out of body state – snorkelling in the Seychelles and the Caribbean even off the coasts of Devon and Cornwall. Then life got in the way and the only time I entered that world was through the dissolving wardrobe-back of my sleeping life.

But this February I flew to Indonesia, to the long skinny tip of Sulawesi, to learn to scuba dive, to do the underwater world properly. I chose Sulawesi as it’s the dead centre of marine biodiversity for the whole of the Indo pacific. I was nervous. I’m not a brave person and I wondered if the whole tanks / face mask / breathing through a regulator would freak me out.

It didn’t. Underwater my heart rate dropped. My breathing slowed. I felt, sort of at home.

And what I saw was so, so, so much more than I’d seen snorkelling in the top few brightly lit metres of under water.

me underwater with my wonderful instructor

My first open water dive was on a wall, part of the Bunaken Underwater nature reserve. We dropped into the water from the back of the boat, that deep indigo sea and grass green island on the horizon- a simple bright picture. But one of the most fabulous things about entering the underwater world is that the porthole to it is so simple: blue sea reflects the light, open sky. You have no clue that the very second you put your face mask through the surface, everything is different. You enter a three dimensional existence. In normal life we can go forwards and backwards and sideways. We live in two dimensions. Underwater, you live in three and it feels profoundly different.

On my first dive there had been rain and wind. The water was full of suspended sand and plankton. So as I passed through the surface the visual change was simply that the indigo grew depth instead of just being surface. But as we sank the reef came up towards us, and we dropped over its edge and began to go down alongside the wall.

This was nothing like the ordered garden of the reef crest – the neat heads of branching and brain corals, like the pruned trees in an arboretum. This deeper part of the reef was like entering the subconscious mind, full of unfettered shapes and ideas, strange and marvellous. Huge sponges, massive fans of soft corals, blooms of basket stars, washes of fish shoals and the punctuated details of pairs or little groups of fish attending to their particular niche on the reef.

Like the orange fish on the pink and green sea grass, so many of the details of that first dive are printed on my mind: a sleeping turtle the size of my garden barrow resting pale and serene on a ledge- above it a bed head of brain coral, at the end of the ledge a pink fan of soft coral, like a tiffany lamp; triangular bat masked banner fish staring down the chasm of a huge sponge, with a look of existential gloom on their faces; emperor angel fish, impossibly striped in deep glowing neon blue and yellow.

But the truly astonishing thing was the big picture. At 18 m or so we stopped and looked back up the wall. this is a view films and photos don’t show because its hard for cameras to see through several meters of water. Pictures of reefs show sunlight details, or artificially lit close ups of tiny wonders, not the big scale landscape.

Here’s what I saw looking up.

Imagine looking up at a wall six stories high, a wall that extends in both directions for as far as you can see. Below you are six more storeys disappearing into darkness. The wall is covered with huge three dimensional shapes – columns, vases, tendrils, laminate petal formations – each one between the size of a human and a small car. They are coloured in dull pink. duck egg blue, forest green, olive and ochre, accented by electric yellow, black, white. Its as if Grayson Perrys maddest pots had been duplicated and assembled here in some huge fiesta of the mind. Among the pots, between and in and out swim fish – striped, spotted, splashed – yellow, blue, pink, mauve. In the crannies and nooks of the pots, in the tiny details of their surface finishes, are yet more creatures – tiny shrimps shaped like pom moms, little fish that dart over the glazes as if attached by strings. Creatures so camouflaged, so like part of the pots themselves, that only when they move, do you realise they are alive.

After two weeks of dives like that, I had a lot to process: a night dive when we sat on the bottom, turned off our lights and watched the bioluminescence blossom round us like galaxies being born; a huge puffer fish buzzing around the reef like a mafioso collecting protection money; clouds of red toothed surgeon fish with their trailing tails describing balletic patterns in blue neon. I came home realising I had to find a whole new language to describe what I’d seen and experienced. I haven’t found that language yet. I’m working on it, thinking of fiction and non fiction that could communicate that largely unseen, unsuspected and undervalued universe of beauty and wonder. Because we need to know about it. We need to cherish it, for itself and for us- the oxygen in three out of your last four breaths came from the ocean.

But perhaps I don’t need to think too hard. Perhaps just telling it like it was is enough. Just after getting back I described my first dive to an audience of year 5 and 6 children in a school. When I’d finished, a hand shot up
“How old do I have to be to learn to dive?”

I don’t very often think ‘job done’, but I did then.

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A Home For Lots of Languages

‘Lot’s’ new Picture book about biodiversity, demonstrating another kind of diversity!

I’ve been a writer for a long time now, more than 20 years. I pootle along OK, though nobody knows who I am and movies have not been made of my books. There is no merchandise. I have a mortgage, no time to dust away the cobwebs and my car is mostly held together by mud. But I have written a lot of books and thanks to the wonderful foreign rights department of my publishers, they have been published in a LOT of languages. I have boxes of my books in my loft in Finnish, French, German, Russian, Spanish,Italian, Portuguese, Swedish. My favourites are the Japanese, Chinese and Korean ones. The text looks so beautiful, more pattern than print. Some editions have entirely different covers, that I like better than the originals. I love to think of children in all these countries reading my books. It makes me feel that I’ve done something ok.

But sitting on my shelves, shoring up my self belief these books are really not doing much.
So, I do periodically try and find a good home for them: I’m delighted when my friends tell me of foreign relatives with children; I once sent all my Danish editions to Sandy Torsvig.

Last Summer I spent a day in the Evalina Children’s hospital school. The Evalina is a truly wonderful institution and the school – with classrooms under the great glass roof on the side of the building is a bright, inspiring place. Children come from all over the world and from all over our multicultural capital for treatment. Finally, I’d found a great home for my non English books. The staff at the school said they’d love to have them. I went home intending to send them. But books are heavy and I have an awful lot of them. The cost of posting is prohibitive. I resolved to drive them up next time I drive to London.

In the meantime, quite a big meantime, I came across another good home for ‘foreign’ editions. The Hackney Empire started a children’s books swap, and said they’d  love books for kids with English as a second language, at Hackney empire. Hooray.

This weekend I was going to drive to London ( to work in the three schools in Hackney where I have been working regularly for the last three years ) with boxes of books for Hackney’s lovely rainbow population and for the Evalina.

BUT I have a misbehaving shoulder. Lifting heavy boxes and driving to London are impossible this weekend.

So was lying awake at 5.30 this morning fretting about this when I thought, maybe I can find a solution. Maybe some courier company like DHL whose vans I see zooming about the lanes round my home, would take my books to London for me, as part of their work for their charitable foundation. Then I thought, if that were possible, perhaps it could be a bigger thing. All over London shelves in publishers offices are groaning with the weight of foreign language editions. The foreign rights department at Walker periodically put out boxes of them in the canteen and beg staff to take them home. Could all these books find their way to good homes, like the Evalina, like HackneyBook Swap, or schools with lots of kids from other countries, or libraries in multicultural Burroughs? Surely it can’t be hard to get  publishers courier companies, or Uber, or London cabbies-( who already have a track record of work for children.)

two boxes of my books in lots of languages, waiting to be taken to London

So I’m putting this out there. Publishers, can you gather up your foreign language editions? Couriers and cabbies can you offer your services? Schools, libraries, hopsital schools can you say if books in other langurs would be welcome??
Can we make this all fit together and do something small and good so that a child living in a new language, or having medical treatment far from home can have the comfort of a story in their mother tongue? This is a small way to remind ourselves of the joy and richness that people from other cultures have brought to the UK, and how we still need to remember to extend a kind and courteous welcome

Lovely German edition of A First Book Of Animals with Petr Horacek’s GORGEOUS pictures

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…and another thing about Non Fiction…

Had there been the option to dance until dawn I would have taken it, but as there wasn’t, I spent New Year’s Eve with my fire and two films. The first was one I’d frankly been putting off, as I knew it would be harrowing. ‘Beasts of No Nation’ follows the story of a child forced to become a soldier in a brutal W. African civil war. It’s an astonishing film, and its young star, Abraham Attah, gives an utterly convincing performance as a little boy ripped from his home, who watches his family killed and then is forced to fight and kill, by the charismatic monster, his commander ( brilliantly played by Idris Elba – another shocking oversight that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination).

It is every bit as ghastly and disturbing as you might imagine not least because of the invisibility of the unrest in West Africa that sparked the book by Uzodinma Iweale on which it’s based. I realised just how good and how close to reality it was when I watched the second film, Virunga, a documentary about the eponymous national park in Rwanda, last refuge of mountain gorillas. At the time the film was made, the government of Rwanda had sold its soul to the devil by giving a UK oil company (SOCA – famous for despicable deeds around the world – a real Voldemort of an organisation ) the right to process and then drill for oil in the Virunga national park. That’s completely illegal as its a World Heritage site. The park rangers and their leader were then in the position of having to defend the park and the gorillas against their own government. SOCA, realising that a nice bit of unrest and fighting would serve them well, encouraged rebel forces from over the border in Congo ( men who looked like they just stepped off the set of Beasts of No Nation) to overrun the park and solve the problem of the pesky wildlife and its human protectors. The level of greed, ignorance and corruption displayed by the SOCA official – a slick young French man, by SOCA’s security chief, a British mercenary so unpleasant no one could have made him up, and the leader of the rebel forces, who made Beasts look like the factual prequel, was depressingly predictable.

But in this darkness were incredible lights: the people who live in the park and who gathered en mass to bury and honour gorillas murdered by poachers; the Rangers, Andre Bauma and Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, who spoke inspiringly about their love for the gorillas and about the hope the park represented for their ravaged nation; the ranger’s leader, Emmanuel de Merode, whose calm quiet resolve in the face of violence and disaster was heart stopping and the french journalist Melanie Gouby, who documented the story. Gouby was amazing; a young woman who looked like she should be having coffee on the left bank talking about Satre, she befriended the SOCA official, filmed him secretly making remarks that would have been at home in the mouth of a 19th century slaver, and had dinner with his vile security chief. Can you imagine the bravery it took for all of those people to stand up for what is right, to continue to speak about it, in the face of the kind of violent threat that will slit your throat and leave you in a ditch without hesitation? (Merode was shot and almost killed in 2014 by forces many believe were allied to SOCA). These are the real super-heroes of the world, role models for young people to aspire to.

The film ends before the decision by SOCA to pull out – the coverage of the story turned up the international heat so much they had to get out of the kitchen. WWF hailed it as a great victory (I find their coverage saying We Won, a bit sick making) but there is no doubt SOCA or some other Multinational vampire, is waiting in the wings, and the gorillas are not safe and neither are the people who share their forest habitat. Neighbouring Uganda is allowing oil and mineral prospecting in Lake Edward which borders the park.

These two films, together with my experiences this year with The World Land Trust (documented in an earlier blog) confirmed a lot of things for me. One, that the development promised by big multinational companies is simply rape by another name. They take what they want, create unrest to be able to do it and then leave, blaming the backward nature of the indigenous population for the chaos they have created. The second is that conservation offers real development, the chance to improve human lives at a human scale while maintaining an environment that still provides water, food, and a place to live well

And the third is that the documenting and the telling of real stories like this, stories that the big voices of the world want to drown out with their shouting, is why kids need to read and to write non fiction. They need to learn the skills of curiosity, observation and the determined gathering of information; they need to learn how to turn information into story and they need to practice having a voice and making it heard. The telling of true stories is subversive, it has a power to change the world. Big voices hold the stage because they have the skill and the confidence to use words, but little voices can gain that skill and confidence and then, big voices- watch out.

and if you’d like a novel for young people that tells some of this story beautifully read Gill Lewis ‘Gorilla Dawn’

and you might like this by me, about refugee children on a W. African rubbish dump Rubbish Town Hero

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Review Of My 2016

Museum of Anthropology Vancouver


I’ve just been listening to lovely John Simpson, the emperor of foreign correspondents, saying that in spite of what current news may tell us, the world is a better place than 20 years ago. There are fewer wars and dictatorships, more democracies, more negotiations than armed conflicts. So, although 2016 has been a year whose passing no one is going to mourn, here, in the spirit of  ‘Always Look on the Bright Side Of Life’ are some nice things that happened in my personal corner this year. You’ll find links to lots of  people. Do click and explore and see just how incredibly lucky I am to work with such fabulous artists of all kinds. Thank you Universe for lining me up with such delightful collaborators.

Seeing the finished art work by Emily Sutton for ‘Lots’ a picture book about biodiversity

Cover of Lots Walker Books 2017

– and seeing the dedication in print.

Being greeted by children in the three primary schools in Hackney that I’ve been visiting for a few years now. So great that they know me and look forward to working with me.

Moving here, to a house in a village in the Brecon Beacons. Dark, dark starry skies and owls calling in the night.

 

 

 

 
Publication of Perfect. So proud of this picture book and of the response to it.Here’s me talking about it  Published against all the odds, having been turned down by a list of publishers long as your arm. Huge thanks to Graffeg Books for giving it a home.

And so lucky to have found Cathy Fisher 

Hackney kids loved it and it opened up a great dialogue about their own experiences within their families. Now, extra special as Cathy Fisher has been nominated for a Greenaway for her illustration for it.

More wonderful books from Graffeg Books. These rhyming texts were illustrated by new talent Abbie Cameron. We had a ball working with them in schools. Kids so love rhyme.

 

 

 

 

Bologna Childrens Book Fair. Always amazing but especially so this year as Laura Carlin’s illustrations were everywhere – hers was the cover design for the Fair brochure. It was like walking into the Tate and finding your friend’s pictures all over the walls.

Walker Stand at Bologna book fair

 

 

Also the wonderful foreign rights department at Walker Books had organised a dinner so I could meet some of the many publisher around the world who have published my books over the years. I heard stories about readers in China, Japan, Germany, France. I was bathed in warmth and welcome; people thanked me for writing when all I wanted to do was thank them all again and again for valuing what I do and bringing it to audiences in so many countries.

 

Rehearsals for the new production of King of the Sky, supported again by the fabulous Angie Dickinson from Pontadawe Arts. Wonderful cast, wonderful director, Derek Cobley and amazing musical director John Quirk, making my words sound like a West End musical. The production went on a tour of Wales – I just wished I could go too!

Tessa Bide,Huw Novelli,David Prince, Louise Collins

Huw, Louise, Tessa and Sonya Beck

It was great to be back at Hay with King of the Sky for the second year.

Hay Festival 2016

The UK government’s rejection of 5000 unaccompanied child refugees pushed me to finish the text about the impact of war from a child’s perspective, the Day War Came. Written by noon and, thanks to Emily Drabble, was up on the Guardian children’s website by tea time.

Jackie Morris did a beautiful little chair to accompany the piece…

The first chair by Jackie Morris

 

and it inspired a chair tsunami, from artists and illustrators, children, teachers. Every chair a small act of solidarity with dispossessed children…You can see some of the chairs here, do look, it’s beautiful and I’m hoping to revive it next year 3000 chairs.  A great tragedy that the Guardian Children’s Books website is no more.



 

I’ve been finding time to do pictures…I wanted to be a painter so much when I was young but I’ve done almost nothing for decades. Loving getting back to it.

Graphite stick, forest in the Sierra Gorda

Time off. In the Abruzzi mountains leaning new songs with the Unthanks. Singing dawn over the mountains.

carvings from 15th C church in the Abruzzi

…and on North Uist. This has become a tradition for me and my wonderful friend Julia Green,whose great new book Wilderness War came out this year.

 

A summer of writing in my new writing shed – the the door open on the hills. Sitting outside practicing guitar one evening and a grass snake popped its head through the decking and told me to shut up.

So great having a veg garden again…

Teaching at Ty Newydd with my friend Jackie Morris. What a fabulous and inspirational week that was. Stunning weather too…breakfast out every morning and lots of time writing in the wild.

Our lovely students

I’ve worked in lots of International schools around the world, but the Danube and Vienna International schools in Vienna were special treats.

A park in Vienna

My favourite moment in a class of 11 year olds was finding that all of the children in the class could speak at least three languages. Two girls piped up, saying that they had taught each other their native tongues, Italian and Russian.

Publication of the first two books in the Shadows and Light Series for Graffeg. I’ve loved writing these stories whose roots are in myth and folk tale. They’re vehicles to showcase the talents of new illustrators like the brilliant Anja Uhren and Anastasia Izlesou
An Indian Summer of literary festivals – Edinburgh Crickhowell, Cheltenham, Totness Turn the Page and all with LOVELY Petr Horacek to publicise our new book A First Book Of Animals- my poems his art – all to inspire a love of animals in a new generation of readers. It’s been a delight from start to finish working with Petr and his pictures for this book are making everyone gasp with wonder.


We also made other friends….(I totally fell in love with this barn owl)

At Turn the Page Festival in Totnes

I’m lucky enough to be a Trustee for the World Land Trust. (I try to connect my readers with nature and conservation – here’s a speech I made about that at WLT a while back ) WLT works with other conservation organisations around the world, helping them to do community based conservation that works for people as well as biodiversity. I was ‘fasciliator’ for their international symposium in The Sierra Gorda Biosphere reserve in Mexico in October. Amazing inspiring work showing that we don’t have to chose between people and nature – we can do the best for both. Also humming birds, and mind blowing forest diversity…

Wild epiphytic orchids in the Sierra Gorda

end of the day walking in the Sierra Gorda

…and quite a lot of dancing.(be glad I don’t have pictures of THAT)

A week in Vancouver…(saw a bald eagle, Barrows golden eye and buffleheads on my first day)

A view from Stanley Park, Vancouver

Museum Of Anthropology Vancouver

I was working in the most beautiful community – Crofton House girl school. To be honest, private schools can be a bit of a trial, but the Crofton House girls were an absolute delight to be with, bright, kind, insightful and endlessly curious and welcoming. Lots of highlights in that week, but one was being shown round the Unicorn Wood – part of the garden around the school – by two older girls who leave ‘unicorn messages’ in the trees for the younger ones.heir comments at the farewell assembly had me wishing I hadn’t worn mascara).

The start of a great collaboration with Herefod art college to find two more young illustrators for the next in the Shadows and Light Series (5 and 6 – 3 and 4 already sorted thanks to Fran Shun and Claire Jenkins from Swansea Met). We’re also going to collaborate to create a theatre production from The Day War came, working with Open Sky productions’ director Claire Coache.

Hereford college of Art is a gem and I got a bonus on my second visit to see Claire Coache’s production Hairy Fairy‘s as one its two stars is Tessa Bide, who did such a beautiful job as Mum and puppet director on King Of The Sky.
My last visit to Hackney of 2016. Three days of working with young writers who were as focussed and hardworking as adult MA students. This is the stuff that reminds me why I do what I do.

Putting finishing touches to a big non fiction book for Hodder. Illustrated with great charm and humour by Lorna Scobie it’s a tour through the many different species that we seem to have only one word for…duck (134 species) beetle (3-400,000 species), bear (8 species).

Sneak preview of Lorna Scobie’s work for our book for Hodder

Great meeting with Cathy Fisher (the same little bit of a cafe in Monmouth is our conference room). She’s already working on our next book, The Pond.

Cathy Fisher’s stunning endpapers for The Pond Graffeg Books 2017

It’s about how a grieving family heal through the wildlife on their back garden pond. Cathy’s work for this is already astounding. It will be published next year…one of the great things to look forward to in 2017…

Coming up in 20 17….

Publications

The King of The Sky’ -Walker Books Spring 2017

its been a theatre production already and now will be a stunning picture book. Laura Carlin’s work is unique and insightful. Delighted that Amnesty International think that this book helps give a positive view of refugees.

One of Laura Carlins images from King of the Sky

Laura’s illustration from King of the Sky

(Having done two rather serious books together, we have decided that our next book needs to be about something VERY silly)

‘Lots’ – Walker Books Spring 2017

boy was this hard to write! The whole of the concept of biodevrsity in a picture book. But Emily Sutton’s illustrations have nailed it and are ravishingly beautiful. Together with A First Book of Animals and the upcoming one from Hodder I have three books that will let me communicate about biodiversity to a wide range of children and adults.

the third and fourth books in the Shadows and Light Series, Graffeg Books.
Elias Martin – a story about the harsh environment of the Canadian north, and the magic that lives there.
The Selkie’s Mate – an adaptation of a tradition Scottish folk tale about the love between a crofter and a selkie – a seal-woman.

Naughty Animals Walker Books – a book to make children laugh while they learn about creatures that get the better of humans.

The Pond – Graffeg Books Spring 2017

my second picture book with Cathy Fisher – another real and difficult subject presented for young readers.

Ongoing work

Back to my lovely Hackney schools and Highly Primary in Shropshire early in the New Year.

Work begins on the Illustrations for the Day War Came and on the production that we hope to have ready for Hay 2017!

Two new stories for Shadows and Light and two new illustrators to be found…

A big book all about Trees for Hodder.

A picture book about hummingbirds and the meaning they hold for the people who encounter them on their migration North from Mexico to Canada …this will be a long awaited collaboration with Jane Ray, whose work I’ve adored all my adult life.

I’ve got two novels that need editing – goodness knows when I’ll find time for those, a story about an albatross I want to write, and one about bowhead whales and Inuit, that’s been cooking since I wrote ‘The Whale Who Saved Us’ . Plus, having taught almost every audience I’ve worked with for the last 20 years how to ‘sing like a humpback’ its about time I wrote a book about humpback song….Oh yeah and then there’s the sorry about the parrots and the war veterans….and the travelling tailor and his box of dark magic…

Celebrations

My first picture book Big Blue Whale will be 20 years old in June

and my 50th book will be published…not quite sure of the timings but looks like it will be , appropriately enough , ‘Lots’!

…and I’m finally going to learn to dive. Off to Indonesia for two weeks in Feb. Counting the sleeps.

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New Stories, New Heroes

Four years ago when I was researching Manatee Baby in the Colombian Amazon, I stayed with a remarkable woman, Sarita Kendal, founder of the conservation organisation Natutama. Sarita and her co workers had changed a community from one that was increasingly exploiting the resources of the river without thought, to one behaving sustainably. Fisherman who had hunted manatees for years, stopped, aware that the animals were declining and that they wanted their grandchildren to be able to see the river as it had been in their youth. And once they had begun to see their small, remote village on the river, as part of a bigger world, where nature was besieged, they began thinking about other species too, from the big, slow growing fish to the trees along the banks.

All of that was achieved through stories, telling and listening. Sarita’s weapons in her struggle to save the endangered Amazonian manatee, were coffee, biscuits and a big homely kitchen table where people could sit and talk. She listened to the fishermen talk about their lives, and about the manatees, and in exchange, she told them the stories she knew about how slowly the manatees breed, how they had entirely disappeared from other stretches of the river. There were no accusations or recriminations, but the two story streams blended, and the fisherman came up with a new narrative on their own and a new identity for themselves, as guardians of the river’s biodiversity. They began to tell older stories too, the traditional stories of the indigenous people of that part of the Amazon, that encourage sustainable use of natural resources and connect humans to animal and plant species, as fellow beings.

The stories we tell shape us. They shape what we do and how we think of ourselves. And what we do and how we think of ourselves, need to change. The natural world is not an optional add on to our getting and spending world, it is our world, our life support system and our spirit sustaining system. Nature isn’t other, but everything. Biodiversity isn’t some obscure scientific concept but the miraculous net that holds us, and all life above the abyss of oblivion.

How do we change our stories? One way is to change the kinds of characters that take centre stage. The wonderful Grayson Perry suggests in his book The Descent Of Man that our concept of masculinity, that of the archetypal alpha male solving everything with force, is wrecking the world and men with it. Not a lot to be said about that except ‘yes, that’s right.’ I’m not suggesting we replace strong characters with limp ones who can’t make a decision to save their own, or anyone else life. What I’m suggesting is a different kind of strength – the strength to beat force with guile and intelligence, the strength to turn from a path that leads to conflict before it gets to fisticuffs, to win through communication. Some people would label this type of hero as heroine. But that kind of ‘men do this and women do that’ thinking is a part of what got us into this mess. Hero should be a gender free word.

We need heroes of  all different kinds, and heroes who collaborate, who build strength cooperatively. We are too used to stories of ‘one man against the odds’ , too used to dividing the world with unhelpful duality, male /female, strong /weak, clever /stupid. Real heroes, real humans are a mixture, each one a unique cocktail of attributes and failings, defying any kind of simple label.

Plots too are stuck in a simplistic a rut…sad to happy, everything wrong to everything right, the chosen one with special powers triumphing over all.The real world is more complex and more compromising. There is no happy every after, and happiness is a transient state anyway. What there is, is growth and change and the confidence to delight in those things, to share them and snatch happiness while we can. The real joy of being human, the real core of our nature, is more complicated, more subtle and more wonderful than the plot of an action movie can encompass!

Nature is complex, species are infinitely connected and interdependent, growth and change are integral to all natural systems. Let’s tell some stories that reflect that and our place in it And if intelligence and communication are the attributes of our new protagonists, then perhaps the best 21st century super heroes are storytellers?

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Tales from The Woods

end of the day walking in the Sierra Gorda

end of the day walking in the Sierra Gorda

I’m fresh back from a week in Mexico attending the World Land Trust Symposium and meeting the partner organisations with which it works. What a fabulous week. What a wonderful country and what incredible people (only a very special group of people react to the cry ‘rattlesnake’ by trying to elbow each other out of the way to get a better look). There are so many stories I heard last week, so many thoughts to share…but these are just a few. Do please click on the links and explore these wonderful places and conservation organisations :

The self deluding wraiths of climate change denial are still stalking the corridors of power in Washington and Westminster, muting the message that we need urgent change. It’s depressing. But its not the whole story. Around the world, people are just getting on with what needs to be done. Last week at the World Land Trust symposium in the Sierra Gorda Biosphere reserve, conservationists from around the world show cased projects that conserve biodiversity, lock up carbon and improve people’s lives.

Conservation is often seen as the enemy of development. How can we provide electric power, housing, jobs, education to growing human populations and still hang on to biodiversity? The answer is, more easily than you might imagine

For the last twenty years and more the Pedraza family, mum Pati Ruiz Corzo, dad Roberto
Pedraza Munoz and sons Roberto and Mario have devoted their lives to saving the forests of the Sierra Gorda, in Queretaro State in central Mexico, through their organisation Grupo

The Sierra Gorda forest are a biodiversity hot spot

The Sierra Gorda forest are a biodiversity hot spot

Ecologico Sierra Gorda GESG. The range of projects that GESG has instigated is amazing, and all of them have resulted in direct benefits for the people who live in the forests. Here are just a few: offsetting the CO2 outputs from municipal vehicles by safeguarding areas of forest; setting up the only locally run recycling network in Mexico; supporting over 200 organic vegetable growers to supply local markets with healthy food; using 20 million pesos generated from a local carbon and environmental tax to pay ranchers to keep cattle out of the forests plus constant projects in education, education, education for children, farmers, eco tourism operators. Jobs are being created, lifestyles improved, and the forests and all they provide – clean water, clean air and climate change mitigation- are protected. It is what Roberto junior describes as ‘ the conservation economy’.

One of the reasons – apart from sheer bloody minded determination and two decades of hard graft – that the concept of the conservation economy has taken root in the Sierra Gorda is that climate change is beginning to bite. Seasons are very clearly changing, with unfamiliar rainfall patterns and ever more severe droughts. There is a general sense that there is greater change

Wild epiphytic orchids in the Sierra Gorda

Wild epiphytic orchids in the Sierra Gorda

around the corner and the people and the land must be ready for it. One of the ways that GESG is building defences against the effects of drought is through its education programme for farmers. Using holistic land and animal management techniques drawn from tried and tested experts from all over the world farmers and ranchers in the Sierra Gorda have improved soil fertility and water holding, whilst reducing the inputs from expensive chemical fertilisers. Yields of corn have risen from 800kg/HA to 2000kg/HA and the same grass that once supported 800 cows now supports almost 3000.
Increasing the productivity of existing farmland takes the pressure off the forests, and in the forests, left undisturbed in turn help the farmers by providing clean water, and helping to keep rising temperatures under control. This faming model has proved so successful in Sierra Gorda that famers and ranchers all over Mexico are starting to get interested, including ranchers with holdings the size of British counties.

Time and again at the Symposium last week I heard about conservation projects that directly benefited people by providing jobs and creating sustainable businesses. In the Garo Hill’s in

The Garo Hills where forests hold citrus biodiversity

The Garo Hills where forests hold citrus biodiversity

NE India WLT partner, Wildlife Trusts of India, is helping local farmers changes from slash and burn agriculture to sustainably managed terraced plots and taking the heat off the forest by supporting new ways of making a living by rearing small livestock. Biofuel planting and organic growing in Armenia supported by WLT partner FPWC stems the needs for villagers to

 

Armenian Mountains

Armenian Mountains

use vulnerable diverse mountain pastures and cut old growth trees for fuel, while creating jobs and boosting the local economy. In the Garo Hills, in Venezuela and along the Kinabatangan River in Sabah,Borneo, funds raised for conservation and through carbon offsets create local jobs in tree nurseries, planting and forest restoration.

 

 

Much of this kind of progress depends on local

Kinabatangan River

Kinabatangan River

habitants and local governments seeing the natural environment around them in a different way, not as an obstacle to ‘development’ but as an invaluable resource providing the essentials of life – ‘ecosystem services’ – such as clean water. If a forest is proving your only water supply then isn’t it sensible to pay to make sure you keep your forest, especially when more frequent droughts threaten.

 

In Ecuador water quality and supply are big issues, especially so as the effects of climate change are being felt, and municipal authorities are under pressure from their electorate to keep supplies clean and constant. So WLT partner NC Ecuador saw an opportunity. They identified the watersheds – mountain forests whose rain gathering powers fed streams and rivers – providing water to 5 municipalities. Each municipality then passed a law to protect its water-giving forests and instituted a water fee on residents that can be used to purchase and protect forests, reforest damaged areas and protect soil. Renzo Paladines of NC Ecuador reported to the Symposium how 300,000HA of forest in Ecuador are now protected under this scheme. Soon, there will be 39 municipalities paying to keep their forests and their water supply and Renzo is looking for new partners in the mining industry as one tonne of extracted mineral requires 20 tonnes of water and without sustainable watersheds their business is done for. Over the border in Peru, Alex More of NC Peru is talking to farmers about their irrigation schemes and how to safeguard them by safeguarding forest.

Of course its not all good news. Small scale, people centred development offered by the conservation economy – or REAL development as I’d like it to be known – is not what makes big money for the people at the top of the economic tree. They still want their road-building-dam-erecting-forest-clearing-mega-bucks, and they are hard to resist. After 20 years of

Pro Bridge Poster in Kinabtangan

Pro Bridge Poster in Kinabtangan

working very successfully with local people in Borneo, Isabelle Lackman of HUTAN found locals turning on her organisation when it opposed the building of a huge new road bridge. The bridge will split the forest in two and fragment already vulnerable primate populations. Its impact could undo all the careful work in forest maintenance and reconstruction that Isabel and her team have done, and from which local people have benefited. The politician who is behind the bridge promises all sorts of fictional delights – but the truth is the bridge is to make life easier for oil palm producers, so they can plunder yet more of Borneo’s natural heritage, with no lasting benefit to the people who will be left with the big concrete monster on their doorsteps.

Luckily Isobel and people like her are determined and dedicated, not just to the forests and the wildlife but to the people who live there. Rodrigo Karate of Guyra Paraguay told me one last story before we went our different ways in Mexico city. Using funding from the Darwin Initiative, Guyra Paraguay are establishing plots of a native plant, yerba mate, the source of a health giving and highly prized tea. It will only grow under the shade of the rainforest and using the traditional expertise of the Mbya Guarani people who tend and harvest the crops.

Rodrigo explained that fifty years ago these people were being hunted by the government like animals. Now their isolated communities are very poor, with no access to education health care or even sanitation or a reliable food supply. The forest in which they live – 72,000 HA of the San Rafael reserve – is one of the most biodiverse on earth. The Guarani love their forest but poverty has forced them to clear plots of agriculture and for timber. The new project gives them a way to make a proper income from keeping their forest; it provides access to international markets for their tea already popular in the US and all over South America. The income this new trade will give both the Guarani and their forest,   a brighter, more secure future, whilst also locking up a lot of carbon for the sake of the rest of us.

Bonkers wild orchid in the Sierra Gorda

Bonkers wild orchid in the Sierra Gorda

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AUTUMN BOOK FRENZY

This time of year is always crazily busy. It’s literary festival season and the start of the new school year so children’s authors are dashing about the countryside. At least I had had a bit of a calm before the storm, as I had most of August at home writing two novels for Walker Books, designed to inspire ocean-love in their readers (more about these soon). But once I hit the road everything was more than usually busy.

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In the last few weeks I’ve run a writing course and signed books with my friend Jackie Morris (her new ones The Quiet Music of the Gently Falling Snow  and White Fox are  STUNNING)

done several  different literary festivalsimg_1762, Crickhowell, Cheltenham, and Turn the Page in Totnes. And, as I’ve had a lot of different books to tell people about, it’s been a slightly schizophrenic existence.

 

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The first are three books published by Graffeg and illustrated by an extraordinarily talented young illustrator called Abbie Cameron. All three are about animals (durr, of course they are they’re by me) but they are also about playing with words, because they are all in rhyme. I love writing in rhyme; you can use the aural echo rhyme creates to punch home a point, you can make new information fun 9781910862438_lrand accessible and rhyme immediately makes everyone happy, and ready to join in. I’m not usually allowed to work in rhyme as the perception is that it gives translators a problem and makes foreign r9781910862445_lrights sales difficult for publishers (though I’m not sure how much of an obstacle to success this has been for Julia Donaldson and Axel Shaffer). Having these rhyming texts to work with in schools and at literary festivals gives me something that is instantly an interactive performance. I’ve already had lots of fun with them and look forward to using them for years to come (and Abbie and I will be doing three more books together). You can see a video about these here 

 

 

The next two, The White Hare and Mother Carys Butterknife are also published by Graffeg and also use the talents of new illustratorsimg_1483
and Anastasia Izlesou,  Anja Uhren respectively. These short stories are the first in a series of six folk tales – invented by me or retold and adapted from traditional stories. They have that fairy tale feel and a touch of darkness, enhanced by the illustration.

 

Anyone can read them – I wrote them to be accessible for any age- and imagined that they could be books to slip into a coat pocket and read in one sitting on a journey. Graffeg have done a beautiful job and the books look wonderful, and very distinctive. I can’t wait for the next two to be published and to have some space in my life to write the
last two stories in the series. In truth I hope they aren’t the last, I could write these stories forever. They are wonderful to tell and live audiences seem to love them.

 

Last and very definitely not least ‘A First Book of Animals’ was published on October 6th and is now out in the world. I was so lucky to img_1733be able to work with author and illustrator Petr Horacek on this book. It’s a collection of poems and prose poems, each one about a particular animal and each one embodying some aspect of its appearance, behaviour or ecology.

I wanted each poem to be a fresh and clear as possible – so that readers would be captivated by creatures they’d never heard of before and see familiar animals in a new way. And I wanted everything about the writing of this book to be enjoyable, so I didn’t worry about making choices about which animals to include. I chose my favourites, and animals that I remembered getting excited about when I was little. As a child,I was lit up by the blackbirds and frogs and hedgehogs in our back garden; animals far away, that I read about or saw on the TV, gleamed and glittered in my imagination. The wonderful thing about Petr’s illustrations, is that they all glow with that heart-shine – they aren’t simply beautiful images they are full of emotion and reflect what animals look like inside me where they are the stars of my heart.

Petr and I have been doing events together and its worked so well – it’s great fun being on stage together and the audiences get to see Petr painting live which is incredibly exciting.

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The bigger message of A First Book of Animals is to communicate the wonder and value of nature’s variety. I have two more books
coming out in the next year that do this job (more about this soon too) but each one will work for a different sort of audience, which means I’ll have a way of talking to almost anyone about the most important subject there is BIODIVERSITY and how to save it. I’ll be going to the World Land Trust symposium in Mexico all next week and meeting conservationists from all over the world. I’ll be sharing with them some of the pages of these books and showing one of the ways in which we can create the conservationists of the future.

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PERFECT BABIES

Last night I watched an amazing documentary, ‘A World Without Down’s Syndrome?‘on BBC iplayer, made by the actor Sally Phillips. It was about her experience of having her son Ollie, who has Down’s Syndrome. I’d recommend that you watch it, if only to see the opening sequence of Sally (who is the sort of person you instantly wish was your best mate) having a water fight with Ollie and his two brothers, who are all just gorgeous boys.

But it wasn’t a sanitised feel-good film saying that ‘every family should have a disabled child, it’s lovely.’ It raised some really difficult questions about choice, and if it’s always a good thing: do we really have the insight and intelligence necessary to make choices that modern medical technology allows us to make? Do we even have the right information to make those choices?

When I was pregnant – a very, very long time ago – I had the standard test to see how likely it was that I was carrying a child with odro3243Down’s Syndrome. I clearly remember the dread with which I waited for those results. I don’t know how I would have reacted to a result that said I was carrying a disabled baby; I’m pretty certain I would have had a termination. But what would that choice have been based on?

Firstly this: seeing Down’s syndrome adults on an outing in a local cafe when I was 10, and picking up the horror and disgust expressed by the other patrons. The default setting of our society is that disability of any kind should be seen and not heard, locked away where we ‘normal’ people shouldn’t have to look at it. The big message that society gave then, and still gives now, is that disability is just not OK. And of course that’s a vicious circle. The less visible people with disability become, the less we experience them as PEOPLE, the more we feel them to be OTHER. And who wants their child to be part of that gang?

And secondly, this: I was a working mum. Terrified, at the time, that the children that I truly, desperately wanted, would impede my progression up the career ladder. Working as TV presenter, as I was back then, required me to tell the world that I could give birth and go straight back to work. Just about possible, I felt, with a ‘normal’ baby, but what about a disabled one? I feared the unknown, and with no experience of seeing mothers with disabled kids, my ignorance coloured that space black.

Since then, I’ve had more contact with families and children living with disabilities. I’ve seen kids with miserable cocktails of multiple klft1947impairments, who really are having no fun, and their poor ragged, exhausted families who aren’t either. And I’ve seen kids with disabilities who have lit up and glued together their domestic situations and become the irreplaceable stars of their family universes. And many shades in between.( look at this wonderful book Hole in the Heart Bringing up Beth by Henny Beaumont)

The problem is, that, because of our inability, as a society, to talk about any of this openly, our perception of disability is always entirely negative. Sally’s excellent argument was, that as medical science gets better and better at predicting what
a foetus will be like, we will weed out more and more babies with any kind of disability. And then any kind of feature we don’t want – a big nose, the wrong colour eyes, a predilection for mental instability.

As a biologist I think this is risky territory. Over the next 300 years life is going to be pretty tricky as we sort out our relationship with our parent planet – who know what genes that lie hidden in the tangle of our DNA might get us out of a hole? So it seems crazy to be pruning our population to an ever narrower vision of what is normal, beautiful, sane and well.

As a human I feel that the notion that we can control our lives and what happens in them is pretty illusory. The unexpected, the unpredicted, the serendipitous is the grit in the oyster of our lives, that can cover us in pearl dust even as it cuts our flesh.

The modern world with its requirements to rush, achieve, get, get, get, leaves little space for caring, for spending a morning making sandcastles or holding someone’s hand. It is this society of ‘getting and spending’ as Auden said, that ‘lays waste our powers’, our powers as loving, insightful humans, growing from the day we are born to the day we die. It requires us to edit out of the world all that is in the way of things and stuff – people who need help, people who need care, people who don’t give a damn about poggenpol kitchens and ipods. These are the very people who might just remind us of what really matters.

So should we give up testing our unborn children? I can’t answer that. I am lucky, my kids are fine and well (touch wood). But we should certainly talk about all this and stop shutting disabled people behind doors, as if they were not part of the human race.

And here is a footnote: a really lovely thing happened this week in connection with all this. This year my story ‘Perfect’ illustrated by Cathy Fisher was published. I’ve written about this elsewhere, ( and here too) but it concerns the birth of a disabled child. Every big publisher img_3205turned it down, including those with whom I have a long track record. It was finally taken by a wonderful small (but growing) publisher here in Wales, Graffeg Books . It is now available in America and, in November,will be getting a stared reviewed in Kirkus Reviews (V V big deal for kids books in the States):

‘A fledgling swift helps a child cope with disappointment when a baby sister is different than expected. The swifts return the same day the baby comes home from the hospital. The white narrator watches from the window, imagining “racing and chasing” with the baby. But something is wrong; dark, looping scrawls suddenly mar Fisher’s eloquent, luminous pastel compositions. The baby is too still. (The baby’s condition and prognosis are unknown; the baby herself is often shrouded in mist.) The birds circle as the pensive child plays alone and confesses, “I didn’t want to feel the way I felt. But I couldn’t love my sister, no matter how I tried.” But after the child helps an injured fledgling to fly, the child wonders if the baby likewise “only needs a little help.” A close-up of the fledgling’s sharp-eyed face is mirrored by a close-up of the baby’s white, frail face—the baby’s dark eyes are sunken but gaze at readers with a similarly knowing expression. As the siblings lie in the garden, the narrator declares how it will be: the two of them, “screaming with delight and laughter.” Davies deftly addresses—and respects—a dark feeling, and though her optimistic symbolism will certainly reassure children, it will equally reassure parents struggling with their own uncertainty or grief. An emotionally vivid, hopeful illustration of unpredictability, disappointment, and acceptance—recommended for children and parents alike. (Picture book. 4 & up)’

This reviewer seemed to completely get what we were trying to do with the book.I’m not saying any more, but you can join the dots; hopefully our book will open up some much needed conversation about all of this. 

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Back In The Real World


IMG_1013Last week I was three ways high. High in the Abruzzi mountains of Italy, up in a medieval hill top village looking out on a landscape of hobbit hills and snow streaked peaks.

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High on the smell and sound of the place – awash with flowers and alive with natural music, nightingales, cuckoos,frogs.

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High on singing for three or more hours every day in places like this https://singingholidays.com IMG_1093

with 15 other keen singers and our wonderful course teachers Rachel and Becky Unthank http://www.the-unthanks.com

Actually, four ways high because the experience of being in close proximity to Rachel and Becky as they sang their beautiful harmonies was completely magical and transforming.

This week has been more mixed, as I’m back to the misunderstandings and crossed wires of the real world, that sometimes have me questioning if I can carry on writing at all.

First, was the e mail from a publisher asking me to make my proposal for a children’s natural history title more ‘non fiction-y’- ie more like a list. The stated reason for this request was that if fiction and non fiction are too combined, the booksellers and librarians don’t know where to put the book. This is like saying you can’t knit an orange jersey, because the shop only has yellow and red shelves.
It was a depressing request for a number of reasons:
1) anyone who knows my work, knows that combining nf and F is kind of what I’m all about. And with quite a lot of awards under my belt, more than 40 books and a track record of international sales, that seems to work.

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2) narrative non fiction is the new black in children’s publishing, especially as the US has now put it at the very heart of their curriculum, and finally
3) one would hope that bookshops would stock more than one copy, offering the easy solution of one on the NF shelves and one in the F shelves.

I’ve had these kind of battles all my career. I once had an editors tell me I couldn’t write about polar bears from the perspective of an Inuit because I’m not an Inuit. One priceless question in the course of that particular tussle was ‘ could you say that you had been encouraged to write this by a close personal Inuit friend?’ Presumably answering ‘yes’ would have dispelled the editor’s misgivings.

Deviate from a list of facts and some people begin to twitch. Luckily, my main publisher, Walker Books, and my wonderful long standing editor there, Caroline Royds, have pioneered narrative non fiction in the UK. They understand the magic of story space – the imaginative place created by the words and illustrations in a picture book, where the real can be combined with the imagined, to convey all manner of factual material. It is the nature of narrative that you have a narrator, and a narrative perspective – both these can be invented in non fiction and be used to contain and convey factual material.

But having to explain this again and again and again is wearing. It’s like having to constantly justify my existence. Having to fight the corner for narrative non fiction, to people who profess to want to publish it is intensely discouraging. And I’m very, very tired of it.

Happily I never have to explain to my readers, who just get it at once.

The third crossed wire was over my recent picture book Perfect
http://www.walesartsreview.org/perfect-nicola-davies-on-picture-books/

with illustrations by Cathy Fisher http://www.cathyfisher.co.uk

It was reviewed in  Book for Keeps.
http://booksforkeeps.co.uk/issue/218/childrens-books/reviews/perfect-by-nicola-davies

and the reviewer really didn’t like it, because, she claimed, it presented disability as something fearful and by telling the story from the perspective of the disabled newborn’s sibling, I was denying the disabled child self determination.

Sigh.

It’s depressing when someone totally misses the point. How could I have written the story differently so that the reviewer really understood what I wanted the book to say? That initially disability can seem scary and strange; that disability does not define a person, the person defines the person; that all of us need a little help from time to time, and that helping and relying on each other is what families – and society – are all about. And that everyone, no matter what the configuration of their minds and bodies, is perfect, and perfectly loveable.

I also felt, reading that review, that the opinions expressed were exactly the reason that I wanted to write Perfect.

http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/blog/teachers-librarians/2016/03/why-i-wanted-to-write-about-disability

The reviewer seemed to be suggesting that any negative comment about disability was un acceptable, and that only the disabled were entitled to talk about disability. I think this is a very unhelpful attitude that shuts down conversations about disability and its impact on families and society. It creates a reluctance to talk naturally about disability and ultimately reinforces the imposed silence that drives people with disabilities into the shadows, and expects them to be invisible. I have watched the impact of disability on families. I’ve seen the worry, the shock, the sheer logistical hassle that the disability of a a family member can cause – it is unhelpful to deny these negative experiences. But the message of Perfect is that those negative feelings and experiences do not have to define the whole of a life: that the personhood of a disabled family member is more important than their disability and that giving them access to autonomous life, through offering a little sensible support, should be as natural as breathing.

If I break my leg, my family have to help me. Everyone has to make adjustments, but it doesn’t stop me being myself or being loved and being able to give love in return. It’s not helpful to deny the pain and inconvenience.

I’ve been hugely moved by the response of children with disabled family members, by people with disabilities and organisations representing people with disabilities. All of which have been incredibly positive. Tracy Elliot head of research at Cerebra told me the book delivered many of the messages they strive to put over. A disabled mum told me it was her children’s favourite bedtime read. I’ll hold onto those responses in my heart.

But just when I’m wondering if I’m really only fit for shelf stacking or if I should run away to sea, something good happens. Yesterday it was this, Emily Sutton’s http://www.emillustrates.com first sketches for our ‘A First Book Of The Sea’

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This will be the third in a series of books of poems, following ‘A First Book Of Nature’ illustrated by Mark Hearld https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byG6w2qaWnw and ‘A First Book Of Animals’ illustrated by Petr Horacek http://www.petrhoracek.co.uk/about.htm and out this Autumn (more about this here soon).

A first Book of the Sea is a little different from the other two – it’s about humans as well as nature and about the role that the sea plays in our lives and in our hearts. I wrote the poems last Summer,
thinking about Emily’s style as I did. It was wonderful to see so many of the images I’d imagined, and many that I could never have thought of, already dancing across the pages of Emily’s sketch book. I adore artist’s first sketches – I’ve often longed to do two editions of picture books, one with the first, free pencil marks and one with the gorgeous finished full colours.

Yesterday had a second inspiration in it too. Because of my poem ‘The Day War Came’
(and another wonderful response to that here http://www.armathwaite.cumbria.sch.uk/3000-chairs-empty-chairs-for-syrian-refugees/)
I was invited to the opening of an exhibition called ‘Drawing Our Stories’ of writing and pictures by refugees and migrants, curated by Jane Ray and Sita Brahmachari.
http://www.islingtoncentre.co.uk/events/4592555857
It was simply wonderful. I couldn’t stay for the whole event (trains to South Wales wait for no one) but I heard several of the writers and artists read, and speak about, their work.

 

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Their words were very powerful, very moving, written from the crucible of some of the most difficult experiences humans can have, being forced to leave the place where you feel you belong.

On the banks of the river stands my father

A young man then

And here we are, the next generation

Catching the stories of the Ubangi before we were born

At su set in the Summer

The river changes to yellow and purple

In my counytry

In the Congo

These colours

This river

Is caught forever

In the nets of our family memory

I was reminded of my privileged position, to be living in a peaceful country, with a passport and a nationality that matches who I feel I am; and to be able to make a life of words.

So, thanks to Emily, and the courageous writers and artists of the Islington centre for refugees and migrants, I’m humbled, untangled and recharged. I’ll keep writing. I’ll keep mixing up fiction and non fiction to try to tell truths about the world, about nature, about humanity and about how they weave and twine together through our lives. And if I have to fight for my stories, then I’ll fight.IMG_0988

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KEEP DRAWING #3000CHAIRS

The first chair by Jackie Morris

The first chair by Jackie Morris

 

 

 

 

 

 

Less than two weeks ago I wrote The Day the War Came, kind of a poem but really intended

to be a picture book that will spread its message for years to come. It ends like this,

I came to a school.
I looked in through the window.
They were learning all about volcanos
And drawing birds and singing.

I went inside. My footsteps echoed in the hall
I pushed the door and faces turned towards me
but the teacher didn’t smile.
She said, there is no room for you,
you see, there is no chair for you to sit on,
you have to go away.

And then I understood that war had got here too.

I turned around and went back to the hut, the corner and the blanket
and crawled inside.
It seemed that war had taken all the world and all the people in it.

The door banged.
I thought it was the wind.
But a child’s voice spoke
“I brought you this,” she said “so you can come to school.”
It was a chair.
A chair for me to sit on and learn about volcanoes, frogs and singing
And drive the war out of my heart.

She smiled and said
“My friends have brought theirs too, so all the children here can come to school”

Out of every hut a child came and we walked together,
on a road all lined with chairs.
Pushing back the war with every step.

When it was posted on the Guardian website,

http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2016/apr/28/the-day-the-war-came-poem-about-unaccompanied-child-refugees

with a lovely empty chair from Jackie Morris, other empty chairs began to appear…on twitter, on Jackie’s Facebook, in my in box. Pretty soon I’d lost count, Pretty soon I couldn’t keep up with giving a personal thank you to every one who had drawn, painted, embroidered, felted an empty chair.

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I’ve had emails from people in other countries sending chairs, translating the story into other languages. I’ve had emails telling me about empty chair demonstrations – lining up of chairs to protest about the UK governments, and the whole worlds general indifference to refugees.

Something about this story, something about the image of an empty chair touched a deep, deep nerve.

Refugees are not new. The first people to leave African and spread human beings around the world were probably refugees of sorts – from small tribal skirmishes, from famine, from too many big predators. And as soon as there were enough of us we started creating wars.

South Wales where I live received refugees of sorts in the many Italian families who came here in the last century to set up cafes in mining towns.

(Their initial sense of loss and alienation is the subject of my story, now this wonderful theatre production
http://www.nptartsandents.co.uk/en/event-19368)

Refugees are not going to stop existing. Even if we can stop shooting and bombing each other we’ve messed up FullSizeRenderour planet so much that there will be ever more natural disasters, and so more refugees.

As I said in my last post. This is not ideal. This is not what we’d chose. But it is the way it is.
And whatever you think, the reality is that only luck stops you and me, our kids, our grandchildren from being refugees. Tomorrow we could be the ones fleeing for our lives with our babies on our backs and the wrong kind of shoes on our feet.

So we need to be kind. We need to share. Because we could be next. Because every person matters. Because that’s what makes us truly human. People talk about ‘human nature’ as a negative. War is ‘human nature’. But if that were the whole story we’d be extinct already. Human nature – the really successful bit – is compassion, is empathy. Remember we have special words for people without those qualities, medical diagnoses.

What a simple and clear symbol of sharing: getting up so someone else can sit down for a minute.
Giving up your chair for someone less able to stand. Offering the spare chair at your table for someone who needs it.

IMGP3504 (2)Please, if you haven’t drawn a chair, do it now as a small symbol of our humanity and our ability to share. Its completely irrelevant if you can draw or not. Just do it. And upload it on the guardian witness website. There are far more chairs already a part of #3000chairs than have been put on the site…so if you’ve already done a chair, put it on there. Lets see if we can really get THREE THOUSAND…but work fast.
https://witness.theguardian.com/assignment/5728a57fe4b0a2f120515071?page=2

And if you really can’t draw on (though I can’t see why not..) then log onto the site and recommend chairs…look at them all they’re so lovely…and loveliest are the ones by people who just had a go

To inspire you listen to this while you draw : The utterly wonderful Karine Polwart singing so insightfully about the dual nature of humans.

https://www.google.co.uk/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=Karine+Polwart+better+things&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&gfe_rd=cr&ei=pusxV7_wE9LS8Af2rIjQDw

here are some of Karine’s brilliant lyrics

Ten thousand years of big ideas
Distilled into a million fears
A grand design a shiny rocket
A bullet in a bully’s pocket

So mesmerised by particles
We disregard the articles
The ones we write to keep the peace
Sullied now by blood and greed and grease

Is this the best that we can do?
Oh I can think of better things cant’ you?

We can think of better things, can’t we?
Get drawing.

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