The first chair by Jackie Morris

The first chair by Jackie Morris

In an ideal world there wouldn’t be children without parents. In an ideal world hospitals wouldn’t be bombed because they looked a bit like something else. In an ideal world everything would be sweet and smooth and we could all afford to be as selfish as we liked and it wouldn’t matter.

But it isn’t. Its messy and unpredictable, and no matter how much time we spend moaning about how bloody inconvenient that is it won’t change. We can’t change the cards we are dealt, but we can change how we play them.

The 3000 children, alone with no one, who have fled from all manner of ghastliness that it’s hard to even imagine, have been dealt some pretty bad cards by the world. We don’t have to go into who dealt them and if we have some role in how the deck was shuffled. No. It’s much more simple than that. Three thousand kids with no one looking out for them. So somebody has to. Who is it going to be?

Our government this week decided on our behalf that it definitely wouldn’t be us. Because if we did that, then every parent across the world would be putting their child in an envelope and sending them to the UK. (Presumably the Tories think the same of the NHS that curing people only encourages people to be ill.)

So who will take on the task of taking care of these three thousand children with nothing and noone, who have had everything taken from them, and now risk having their futures taken too? There is a queue of child traffickers eager to take on the job.

The sickening shamefulness of this got to me so much on Thursday that I put aside all the other things I was supposed to be doing and wrote in the genre I can do best, a picture book text – though obviously without the pictures. It ends with a child being turned away from a school because there’s no chair for her to sit on.

I Skyped my friend Jackie Morris cos the words were burning me and I had to read them to someone.

In the middle of a million things she has to do she said she’d draw a chair. Then I sent it to Emily Drabble at the Guardian and by Thursday evening it was up on the internet.

Yesterday afternoon talking to my friend Petr Horacek, I told him about the story and he offered to do a chair too.

Somehow the idea of 3000 empty chairs, one each for those lone, rejected children seemed like a good one. A chair, so shaped for a human, so strange and purposeless without body to sit on it.

And now, less than 24 hours later, illustrators, writers, readers, parents, children are sending chairs…drawn, painted, even and embroidered House of commons one from Karen Celestine.


Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could gather three thousand chairs ready to parade across the internet and make the people who voted to shrug their shoulders and throw those kids to the traffickers hang their heads in shame.

If you want to add a chair…it doesn’t matter if you can’t draw for toffee, just have a go

Emily Sutton's studio chair

Emily Sutton’s studio chair

e mail it to me or tweet it with the hashtag #3000chairs and include Emily Drabble’s twitter handle @EmilyDrabs so your chairs wont get lost in the internet cracks and we can add it to the guardian gallery of empty chairs,








Here’s what I wrote

The Day War Came

The day war came there were flowers on the windowsill
and my father sang my baby brother back to sleep.
My mother made my breakfast, kissed my nose
and walked with me to school

That morning I learned about volcanos,
I sang a song about how tadpoles turn at last to frogs
I made a picture of myself with wings.

Then, just after lunch,
while I watched a cloud shaped like a dolphin,
war came.
At first, just like a spattering of hail
a voice of thunder…
then all smoke and fire and noise, that I didn’t understand.

It came across the playground.
It came into my teacher’s face.
It brought the roof down.
and turned my town to rubble.

I can’t say the words that tell you
about the blackened hole that had been my home.

All I can say is this:

war took everything

war took everyone

I was ragged, bloody, all alone.

I ran. Rode on the back of trucks, in buses;
walked over fields and roads and mountains,
in the cold and mud and rain;
on a boat that leaked and almost sank
and up a beach where babies lay face down in the sand.

I ran until I couldn’t run
until I reached a row of huts
and found a corner with a dirty blanket
and a door that rattled in the wind

But war had followed me.
It was underneath my skin,
behind my eyes,
and in my dreams.
It had taken possession of my heart.

I walked and walked to try and drive war out of myself,
to try and find a place it hadn’t reached.
But war was in the way that doors shut when I came down the street
It was in the way the people didn’t smile, and turned away.

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.

The first chair by Jackie Morris

The first chair by Jackie Morris

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Perfect, the story of a story

OGBQ3614I’m no sportswoman. In fact I could be the world’s most uncoordinated writer. So to use a tennis analogy seems a bit of a cheek, but it really is the only one that will do. I’m hopeless at tennis – of course- but my very sweet and long suffering son gave me a tennis lesson and, just once, I managed to hit the ball properly. It felt amazing; completely different from all the other times I’d ever ineptly whacked a tennis ball. The sound it made was wonderful, as if the ball and racket were resonant parts of a musical instrument. I  knew instantly that I’d got it right.

Just three times in my life I’ve got that feeling, instantly, from a story, that resonant thwack of knowing you’ve hit the narrative sweet spot. One of those times was early 2014. I wrote a picture book text  – ‘Perfect’ – that connected swifts and the birth of a baby, written from the perspective of the baby’s older brother. (you can read some of the back ground to the story in an earlier blog post) It addresses the negative feelings that sometimes surround the birth of any sibling, but is specifically about a disabled sibling. I hate to use that word ‘disabled’, as if that’s all there is to say about a person. But that’s kind of the point of the book – you learn that the word, the label, doesn’t matter; that a person is a person and that’s all.  Having had some contact with families with ‘disabled’ children I knew that initially it can be hard to see through the word to the person, and that there can be a period of pain, confusion, disappointment, before the person shines through and love does its magic. I wanted to give a space for those negative feelings, a way to say its normal to feel this stuff but it will pass and something good will come.

From publisher’s perspectives this is a PC minefield. All the same, I thought it was an important topic to air, and I felt I’d done it well. So I was sad (disappointed, gutted, depressed etc) when it was rejected by everyone, from my main publisher through every other major publishing house in the land.

Rejection usually puts me into a spiral of self doubt, but for some reason this just made me cross and determined. Luckily for me a small but perfectly formed publishing house in Wales, Graffeg, who had published my great friend Jackie Morris’ work, took it on. Initially I hoped to find a student illustrator to illustrate the text, but carrying a narrative is a big burden for a first outing as an illustrator so instead – quite by chance – I found Cathy Fisher. One look at a single image of hers told me that here was the person with the skill, the insight and the life experience to carry this story. I am still pinching myself that the universe dealt me such a fine card. Cathy’s images for ‘Perfect’ are stunning. Everyone who I’ve shown them to just gasps.

The book will be published in the Spring 2016, but it already has friends – people to whom I’ve read the story, and now, people who have been enchanted by Cathy’s illustrations. You can see some of their comments below. And from the 30th of December 2015 you can see some of Cathy’s images too as lovely LOVELY Emily Drabble at the Guardian is putting them up on the website. You can read the text at the end of this blog.HCRQ7425

Closer to publication I’ll post a reading of the story on line and of course you can always pre-order your copy. But for now, look at the Guardian Children’s books website and share the link with as many people as you can, so that the bravery of Graffeg – small and VERY perfect – can be rewarded.


Here’s what Cathy Fisher says about the experience of illustrating Perfect.

When I first met Nicola, by chance (because she had seen one my pictures on my friend’s wall) I was so exited. I felt like a child who had just found a new friend! She read “Perfect” to me in a cafe and my mind instantly filled with tender images. I was so touched. It is such an honest story. I drove home hoping she would ask me to illustrate it for her. I was thrilled when she asked me and felt blessed to have the excuse to spend summer watching swifts.It was hard to find them at first, which perturbed me. I remember so many swifts in summers when I was young. They really have dwindled.

In August I found them. That’s when I really started to understand them. At the same time I found the Boy, Baby and (although they hardly appear) Mother and Father.

The characters come to life through research, drawing and constantly thinking about them. I trawl the internet for images, study other artist’s work, take photos, read, write down thoughts, watch people, draw a lot and obsess!

I collaged my cuttings and drawings into a sketchbook, then worked out the illustrations for each page in a story board and made a dummy book.

Before I began the final artwork I presented it all to Nicola and Graffeg. From the beginning I have always felt that Nicola and I understood each other so it has felt very easy to exchange and interpret thoughts and ideas with her.

I have eight siblings and four of my own children. One of my sisters has had many years experience of fostering, so complex family stories have been intertwined in mine over the years. Experiences in my life have made me feel empathy for all the characters in “Perfect”.

All the time I was working on the final artwork I was thinking of the baby, the boy and imagining I was flying with swifts. I have been dreaming about the pictures. With each illustration I imagined I was the character while I worked.

I work with mixed media, painting and drawing, on heavy weight, handmade watercolour paper. Throughout the whole process I listened to Max Richter’s eight hour lullaby, “Sleep”. A beautiful continuous piece of music, which I am sure influenced the flow and the mood of the illustrations.

When I was drawing the illustration of Baby in the cot, I wanted to express the boys confusion to his reaction to his new baby sister. I wanted to express a gentle, soft silence, a reverence, but also his inner turmoil. The ‘scribble’ above her cot, which tumbles down and spills over into the next page, is to represent the boys own angry frustrated scribble. I was shocked at my own reaction when I drew it – I felt such anger, I cried. Expressing feelings through drawing and painting can be quite cathartic!

Nicola’s story needs to be read, listened to and talked about. I feel honoured that she asked me to illustrate it.

Almost the first person to hear Perfect was Laura Carlin, my collaborator on ‘The Promise’. Talking to Laura in the WorldLand Trust Gallery in Halesworth where we had an exhibition of Laura’s artwork for ‘The Promise’ was actually the start of ‘Perfect’

Nicola knows how to tell a story without putting on a voice for children – something you still see too much of in children’s publishing. Children aren’t stupid, they see and feel when things haven’t turned out as planned. So, as important it is to not talk down to them, we should also involve them in the not-so rosy side of life. ‘Perfect’ is beautifully written – and it does tend to make you cry – but it also tells a very truthful and real story. It made me breathe a sigh of relief to remember that words and pictures can help widen and explain the world for children. It intrigues, involves and soothes it’s reader – all at the same time.

I read ‘Perfect’ to Jackie Morris just after it was hitting its first round of rejections. She helped keep up my spirits and encouraged me to keep trying to find a publisher.

”Perfect” is a story about disappointment, and the emotions that go along with all the whirl of feelings that swirl around this. The first time Nicola read this to me it made me cry. People talk so much about diversity in books. What this has taught me is something about my painting. Every piece of work I do is a disappointment because it is never ‘perfect’. But it is what it is. And if I can see it and appreciate it for itself, then that is so much better.

It’s more than that, so much more. The pictures are gems, each one. They sing off the page. I know this text travelled through a few publishers and Nic almost gave up on ever seeing it in print. It’s so discouraging, to have such faith in a piece of work and be knocked back. I am so glad it found a home with Graffeg. It will shine. One of the best picture books I have ever read.

Nikki Gamble visionary force behind children’s literacy consultancy ‘Imagine’ let me read Perfect to her at the FCBG in Spring 2015. I should have thought to supply tissues. 

When I first heard this story, it was one of those precious moments when silence is the best response – silence to allow the beautifully wrought prose to resonate. Because stories as deeply felt, and as exquisitely crafted as ‘Perfect’ are the food that nourish the soul and help us to become better versions of ourselves. I will be reading this and putting it into the hands of as many teachers, students and children as I can.


I loved the little bedroom on the top floor of our pointy house. 
In Summer, swifts nested in the roof above it and I watched their fledglings first flights from its window. They were perfect from the very start, soaring high to slice the sky with crescent wings.
All Winter, I waited for them to return. And I waited for the baby who would sleep in the tiny, rooftop room.
The day she came was the same day that the swifts came back. They raced and chased each other, screaming over rooftops with the joy of being home
I watched them from the window.  That’s how it will be I thought, me and my sister, racing and chasing, screaming with laughter and delight.
But when my sister came home from the hospital, I could see that she would never race or chase. She didn’t even scream. Her dark eyes looked at me and she lay quite still.
 I didn’t want to hold her so I ran into the garden. I lay there, on my back, to watch the swifts, and let my tears run down into the grass, where nobody would see them.
All Summer long I played outside, alone.
When people asked about my sister, I turned my head away.
 I didn’t want to feel the way I felt. But I couldn’t love my sister, no matter how I tried.
 Every night I watched the swifts fly up and up into the dusk. They disappeared into the blue.  Sometimes I wished that I could vanish with them.
Every morning they’d be back, snipping at the air between the rooftops with their scissory wings. Their screams as sharp as arrows pointing to the stillness in my sisters room.
From outside in the garden, I’d watch them, visiting their nests in the roof above her quiet window.
Then one August dawn, I saw something on the grass, like a sooty piece of half burned paper from a garden bonfire: a fledgling swift had crashed onto the lawn. 
Down on the ground it looked all wrong, its puny legs too small, its crumpled wings too long.But when I gently stretched its crescent wings, they were quite perfect.
 Its dark eye looked at me as it lay quiet in my hands.
Perhaps, I thought, it only needs a little help
I went inside, and carried it upstairs, right up to the little bedroom on the top floor of our pointy house. 
I opened up the window and held the swift out on my hands, so it could see the sky and feel the air.
Its small feet gripped my finger for a moment, and its body trembled.
Then, its wings flickered, fast as thinking and it was gone! Scissor-slicing through the morning air until it was a black dot, high above the rooftops.
I turned around and stood beside my sister’s cot.
Her dark eyes opened and her tiny fingers curled tightly onto mine.
She smiled at me, a perfect, perfect, perfect smile.
 Perhaps, I thought, she only needs a little help.
 I picked her up. So small and warm and soft inside my arms.
I took her out into the garden and we watched the swifts together.
And I told her how it was going to be, the two of us together,
racing, chasing, screaming with delight and laughter. 





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Some of My Year In Random Pictures

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Me and LarryWhen I was 17 I bought an album that wasn’t anything like the LPs that my friends talked about on the bus to school. Rather than moody, unsmiling, adolescent boys, its cover featured an artwork of a breaching whale. I played it for the first time on my father’s radiogram, at night, lying flat on the floor and staring into the darkness. High sweeping moans, bubbling rumbles, whoops and squeaks came from the record, sounds unlike those made by any human instrument, and yet this was quite obviously music. It spoke straight to my heart and I was instantly besotted. Over the next three years ‘The Song of the Humpback Whale’ recorded by American biologist, Roger Payne, became the soundtrack of my journey from school girl to fledgling biologist.


But in 1970s Britain whales were impossibly distant, away in the realm of dragons or unicorns. Something to campaign about – whaling was still alive, well and legal back then- or dream about, but not, I thought, creatures I could ever really see or study. Then, quite by chance, in my second year at university, I met Hal Whitehead. In whaley-circles nowadays that name is legendary, but back then, Hal wasn’t Professor Whitehead, the most eminent whale biologist of his generation, but a scruffy post doc, looking for a research assistant – and that turned out to be me.



davies9So, in June 1979 I stood on a cliff in Newfoundland and looked down to see three humpback whales in the water below, their fins showing turquoise through the jade-coloured ocean. I spent two summers there, studying humpback feeding behaviour, as they hoovered up the shoals of spawning capelin that lay just under the surface, like heaped hoards of silver doubloons. They breached, just like the whale on the album cover, sometimes multiple times. One whale did 47 breaches in a row, although by the time it did the last one, it wasn’t getting very far out of the water. When the sea mist rolled in and brimmed to the cliff top like milk, I’d listen to their blows and snorts carrying up from the water below.

At the end of the first of my two Summers in Newfoundland, and almost as exciting as seeing real live humpbacks, I met Roger Payne and his musicologist partner Katy, who did much of the work on humpback song. I spent an afternoon – entirely overawed and star struck – at their ‘lab’ outside Boston. I remember a light filled loft, surrounded by trees; green, leafy-light streaming in and falling on huge worktops, covered in sonograms of whale song; intense grad students arguing about what humpbacks did and didn’t do in the warm tropical waters where they courted and had their calves.


The research that Katy and Roger began has now grown into decades of recordings of humpback song from around the world. It’s shown that humpback song is the most complicated display created by any animal. But unlike bird song or courtship display, it changes, sometimes quite radically, not because of genetic change but because whales learn from and react to each other. All male humpbacks in one place sing the same song each year but by the following year, perhaps a new ‘verse’ or a different ‘chorus’ has been added. Gradually some of these changes spread across oceans from one population to another, usually in a predictable direction and at a steady speed. And once in a few years there is a huge song-shift and another, very different , song takes over, completely replacing the original song. As if the all whales suddenly decide to stop singing Beyonce and switch to Adele, or even Beethoven. In other words humpback song can change not because of evolution but because of revolution – a change is as much cultural as human changes in musical tastes.

Throughout my two summer studying humpbacks I dreamed longing dreams about tropical oceans, filled with whale song and I wanted more than anything in the world to see and hear humpbacks living their other, more beautiful, romantic life. But humpbacks only sing on their winter breeding grounds, and I had to wait thirty years before I was finally heard humpbacks sing.

DSC_0333_2In 2013 I was, at last, back on another of Hal’s research boats, ‘Baleana’, in the deep waters off the Caribbean island of Dominica. It was captained by Hal’s research partner Shane Gero, who runs the long term study of sperm whales there, so humpbacks were not really on the agenda. It was almost the last night of my two week stay and I was on watch in the wee small hours. Black water lapped around the boat, the sky was streaked with navy blue clouds and veiled stars. A hydrophone over the side allowed us to eavesdrop on what was going on in the ocean beneath us and part of my job on watch was to listen out for sperm whale clicks, at regular intervals. I put on the headphones and shut my eyes. There were the familiar noises – dolphin whistles, thin high wisps of sound and the frantic clock ticking noises that announced that a pod of sperm whales was hunting somewhere a thousand meters under our keel. But then a new sound, one I hadn’t heard at all before but instantly recoginized, an ascending keening-curve of sound, a rumble, a running series of short whoops and long, low note, off the lowest register of an oboe. Humpback song! Almost as soon as I heard the first, there was a second. The song soaked into me and I knew that somewhere inside, I had been hungry for this sound for every second of those thirty years. I felt as if it was entering every cell and settling into my DNA like a new bit of code.

Ever since, I’ve been planning to write something about humpback song and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to go back to a tropical ocean somewhere to hear it again. But a davies20unique  collaboration between musicologists and biologists sciences, initiated by Dr Alexis Kirke senior research fellow at the School Of Humanites and Performing Arts at Plymouth University could give me an opportunity to hear it, closer to home.

Back in 2010 Alexis got interested in blue whale songs and the very precise pitching of their sounds Reading the paper got him thinking “Shortly after” Alexis says, “I was sitting in a meeting and the director of Peninsula Arts said she wanted to commission a piece of music.I pitched the idea of the Saxophone and Blue Whales performance and got the gig.” As Alexis dived deeper into whale biology as part of his research for the piece he met biologist Simon Ingram who told him about humpback song, and introduced him to the whale science team at St Andrew’s University, lead by Dr Luke Rendel (Hal’s collaborator). The first result was a performance, ‘Fast Travel’ , that combined live saxophone performance with the singing of virtual whales, whose songs were programmed to react to the saxophone and to each other The second result is a much larger, evolving collaboration between Alexis, Simon, Luke and their Phd Students. The plan is, Alexis explained, to “use the modelling of humpback whales as a way both to investigate their marine science and to develop tools for multi-robot system communication”

For the time being the focus is very much on the whales. The team aim to unravel some of the mysteries of humpback song, which have resisted almost four decades of scientific study: why and how does the song change over time and what exactly is the role it plays in the lives of humpback whales?  Using models developed by Alexis’ team in  Plymouth, computer programmes will mimic humpback songs, as described by hundred of hours of field studies and recordings. These programmes will create twenty, virtual whales  – referred to in the study as ‘agents’ – who will sing in the virtual ocean of cyberspace and react to each others songs. The ‘agents’ can be imbued with different characteristics – a liking for new sounds or an aversion to them, for example- and the number of whales singing, their volume and spacing can also be varied.  Six months worth of humpback singing can happen in cyberspace in just two minutes, so it will be possible for Luke and his collaborators to run hundreds of different virtual scenarios with the agents in their virtual ocean. “We hope” Luke told me” that we can generate a model that exactly mirrors the patterns of song evolution we see in real whale populations”.

As I talked with the team in Plymouth back in October we began to think about some possible spin offs from the project, things not strictly speaking part of the research… Could the virtual whale song be part of Plymouths annual festival of contemporary music? Could the whale song model be made into an app allowing people to run different whale song scenarios for themselves, and generate new kinds of songs? Could the songs be visually represented, like animated sonograms?

IMG_0374The ideas that got me most excited were, off course, the ones related to children. For years I’ve been ending almost every school visit or literary festival performance by teaching audiences of children a potted version off humpback song that they can reproduce easily. Of course, children love the opportunity to make loud noises – especially ones like farts – so this always goes down a storm. But could this be combined with Luke’s project in a more sophisticated way? One possibility would be to design an interactive app that allowed children to make their own whale songs using their own voices and then include them in a virtual song scene with other virtual whales, and see how those whales reacted to their song. Can you lure a whale closer with your song? How must you change your song composition to do this? Can you invent and sing a song, so popular it brings about a whale cultural revolution?  This could be something that schools could run on a computer in class, as part of a science or a music lesson, or something that could run in a ‘Whale Song Booth ‘ at a cultural festival.

I’m also keen to explore some of the story possibilities of humpback song. Many of my own stories feature children who, in some way struggle to be heard, or whose voice, opinions, personality are at odds with those around them. So, there are some obvious parallels with humpback song. The surface of the water is an almost perfect barrier to sound so a whale can be singing in the water and inaudible in the air above. A child may be singing or crying on the inside but that emotional voice may be completely inaudible to the adults around her. A novel song may be ignored by a population of humpbacks, or bring about a revolution so that all whales sing the new song, just as a  child, very different from her piers, may be the outcast or the most popular kid in class. I’m also very interested in the image of the singing whale as an archetype – a symbol of freedom and of the beauty of the wild. I have an image in my head of a child, frightened and alone, in a dark room reaching out to find a whale swimming close in the darkness.

The weekend after I met the two teams in Plymouth, I was playing  around with a singing bowl filled with water, watching the water form a small fountain, simply with the sound waves produced by stroking the bowl around its edge. It got me thinking; humpback song is very loud and humpbacks hearing it are immersed in water. What effect does humpback song have on the water and on the whale bodies immersed in it? Could whales be perceiving their songs in a very different way from the way we choose to record and document them? Could the whales listening but not singing – the females- be conducting the sound in the way the bowl conducts the sound waves?

I’m just at the beginning of thinking about how a narrative with human meaning might be linked, counterpointed, harmonised, with the story of humpback song. Right now I have all sorts of things swimming around in my head, but I know that as always its as important to look out, as it is to look in when you search for stories. So I’m waiting to hear what Alexis, Luke and his collaborators discover when they begin to play with virtual whales, and looking forward to more cross curricular conversations between biology and music.

And I’m planning to go and hear humpback song in the wild again…I’m in need of new adventures.



‘The Cultural Lives of Whales’, By Hal Whitehead and  Luke Rendel from St Andrews University,

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The Show Went On:The King of the Sky On Stage


At Hay before going on the Starlight Stage

At Hay before going on the Starlight Stage

Generally speaking dreams don’t come true, but, over the last two weeks, one of mine has. It stepped from inside my head and came to vivid, singing life. All thanks to the talent and hard work of an extraordinary director and a group of actors, with the support of a fantastic arts centre, ‘The King of the Sky’, the picture book text I wrote more than two years ago, really is a theatre production.

It had its first performances at Pontadawe Arts Centre last week and played to a packed house in the Starlight Theatre at the Hay Festival over the weekend.

Getting ready to go on stage at Hay with the gong

Getting ready to go on stage at Hay with the gong

How did this happen? I can’t give a complete answer because some of it is alchemy that’s happened between the director Derek Cobley, the musical director Chrys Blanchard and the cast – Roger Delves-Broughton, Sonia Beck, Huw Novelli, Tessa Bide and Oliver Davies; it’s a magic that I’ve seen and can’t quite describe. But I can give you some idea of the process, the steps we took.

A page from my notebook

A page from my notebook

The first step happened in my heart. From the moment I wrote the last word of this story I knew it could have a bigger life on the stage. This is slightly crazy because my experience of theatre is very limited, confined to seeing most of Kneehigh Theatre’s productions over the last 20 years. That has given all my stories a fantasy life of music, action and performance – somehow The King of the Sky was the one where the fantasy was so powerful, that it compelled me to take step number two: sending the raw text, with no illustration to clothe it, to Derek Cobley, who I knew through his directorship of the Swansea Wordplay Festival.


All the set came out of these

All the set came out of these

Derek has a head full of theatre-sense. So when he agreed that it could work, I knew I wasn’t just going mad. His track record helped to gain the support of Angie Dickinson, director of Pontadawe Arts Centre, who got us a budget to rehearse and develop the piece, like a conjuror pulling a rabbit out of a hat. This allowed Derek to take all the next steps – working out how the story could be staged with almost no budget. He also instinctively understood how the story needed to be extended to make it intelligible to a live theatre audience. So the stage version begins in Rome not Wales and the two locations are packed and unpacked from a collection of suitcases. Everything – the streets of Rome, the South Wales village and hills, even the door of the cafe and the pigeon loft, Derek decided should come out of suitcases.


This translation from one medium to another has been fascinating for me. A picture book operates outside any time line; the reader can

Chrys getting Oliver to sing out

Chrys getting Oliver to sing out

absorb the complexity of the emotion and information delivered by the marriage of words and pictures, at their own pace – turning pages slowly, turning back, jumping, re reading. On the stage, the story plays out to a set time line, every moment of which must be understood by the audience as it happens. The set, the script, the action, the music must do the job, in the moment, that words and illustrations do in their own story-time, delivering back story, character and plot. Although I didn’t really know how this translation would work, I felt that music was going to be really important so the other vital step was getting Chrys Blanchard on board. Her experience with composing for theatre and radio and working with voices and singing, together with her extraordinary collection of instruments, was perfect. She listened patiently to my half formed ideas about counter pointed melodies made of Welsh and Italian surnames and didn’t turn a hair when I sent her yet more lyrics needing a melody to dress them. She even taught herself how to play piano accordian when the accordian playing actress originally cast for the part of Mum, had to pull out.

Ffion and Dan trying to work out how pigeons fly

Ffion and Dan trying to work out how pigeons fly

We had a set in suitcases. We had music, we even had a sort of script but we also needed pigeons. The eponymous star of the show is a racing pigeon; he and his flock are part of the action and symbolism of the story. There was no budget for animatronics, or even clever lighting to suggest a flying flock, so puppet makers Marta Gemma and Mae Vogel gave us a flock, a bird that could flap and, very importantly, a bird that could be cuddled. This one, double life size so as to be visible from the back of the theatre, was handled by everyone in the cast at some stage and for some reason was only ever referred to as ‘Barry’.




Roger and Chrys in 'the town band'

Roger and Chrys in ‘the town band’

On Monday 11th of May we began rehearsals in the upstairs studio of Pontadawe arts, surrounded by the little town that, 90 years ago could have been a dead ringer for the one in the story. Having never been involved in a theatre production before I had expected a sort of construction job – building the piece scene by scene like a wall of bricks. But it wasn’t like that at all. We sort of sidled up to it instead of constructing it, like twirling dancers, pulling in ideas and images, threads of character and meaning as we whirled around.

The very first thing we did was sing. I joined in all the singing bits in rehearsal, partly because I love singing and partly because I just wanted my heart to be involved and inside every part of what was done. It was immediately obvious that we had a cast with really lovely voices as well as their ability to play instruments. The next thing we did was lie on the floor and listen to the landscape of sound created by Chrys’ giant gong. That was one of those alchemic moments. The gong created the sound effects for the storm that happen’s at the end of the play – but it wasn’t just an incidental sound effect. The layers of the gongs voice got inside all of us and somehow made a background of emotion that we painted on throughout the rest of the rehearsal.

That first five days was extraordinary. We sang. We learned how to make our fingers into puppets. The cast packed and unpacked the

Huw and Tessa being Mum and Dad

Huw and Tessa being Mum and Dad to Ol’s Lorenzo

set into suitcases, until the whole sequence was as choreographed as a Ginger and Fred routine. Characters and relationships grew and shaped the story. Huw and Tessa made the mother and father central to the story, so that their little, wordless set pieces, originally intended just to show the passing of time, actually told the whole back ground story of the family settling in Wales. Roger and Olly became friends just as Mr Evans and Lorenzo did. (I should say here that Olly is 14 – but actually after the first day I forgot that and simply thought of him as one of the cast).  Sonia created a whole village of people visiting the cafe.

I was constantly amazed by the craft and skill of the actors. Mesmerized by watching how they moved. A different species really – cleverer with their bodies, able to put meaning into the turn of a foot, the tilt of a head. I was fascinated by their ability to make characters live, tell a story, connect with the audience. Most of the time, inside my head I was saying ‘Oh wow! You are all soooo clever’.  And I was incredibly moved by the fact that they all understood what the story was trying to do, and were dedicated, determined, to communicate that to the audience. That was humbling. I made a resolution to be more focussed on communication in my own writing.

Huw and Tessa on the 'town band'

Huw and Tessa in the ‘town band’

I wrote and re wrote, added and subtracted. I adored the practicality of it – having to write extra lines to cover a move on stage, or a logistical problem with a prop. Everyone contributed ideas, including Dan Jones our assistant director and Ffion Davies our stage manager. It felt as if we were making a picture, pulling focus, sometimes on the back ground, sometimes on the foreground, zooming into close ups and then taking a wide. At first everything was blurred, then miraculously at the end of Friday the story was sharp, defined, in focus.

Sonia being a Welsh Mrs Overall

Sonia being a Welsh Mrs Overall

We did some quite bonkers things in the eight days of rehearsal. We did puppet performance with hankies, we practiced pigeon cooing, we tried out gloves in B and Q to see which made the best pigeon flapping noises. And every night I went home feeling more alive than ever in my life.

We came back at the start of week two with just three days refine and polish the show we’d made before the first performances. That was the only stage at which I was anxious, because I could see how good it could be, if we just got everything right. But from the first performance I stopped worrying and understood that even if everything wasn’t perfect, the cast were telling the story and connecting with the audience so powerfully, that little glitches didn’t matter. 

The response to the performances was amazing. The show didn’t simply ‘just work’, it was a hit, grown men cried and even the smallest children went out singing the songs. It had become the kind of production that people don’t just see, but experience, and carry away in their hearts.



I wasn’t surprised – it was more like the final piece of the jigsaw falling into place – but it did feel good, not in an achievement sort of way, more like the sharing of a really great meal. I felt we – the director, the cast, the stage manager and assistant director and I – had had this wonderful, wonderful time creating the show and now we had shared that two weeks of work, and fun, worry and love with hundreds of people.

Next year, if we can raise the funding The King of the Sky will go on tour. We’ll get time to refine and rewrite to do more with the components we’ve assembled. I’d like to do more with the music and make more of the lovely voices we have to play with. By then it will also be a picture book, with Laura Carlin’s wonderful pictures ( some of which already appeared in the show) so it’ll be great to see how people react to the two incarnations of the story.

Right now, I’m back at my desk, alone with my computer again, but I’ve had a life changing experience. I’ve seen that dreams really can come true, if you are lucky enough to work with the right people.DSC_0275


The King of the Sky

Adapted and Performed  by

Tessa Bide

Sonia Beck

OLiver Davies

Roger Delves Broughton

Huw Novelli

Directed by Derek Cobley

Stage Manager Ffion Davies

Technical support Daniel Travers

Assistant director Dan Jones

Puppets by Marta Gemma and Mae Voogd

Design by Derek Cobley and Laura Carlin

Supported by Angue Dickinson and Pontadawe Arts






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Suffolk Love and The Unpredictable

The UnpredictedDSC_0207

The goddess Fortune be praised (on her toothed wheel

I have been mincemeat these several years)

Last night, for a whole night, the unpredictable

Lay in my arms, in a tender and unquiet rest –

(I perceived the irrelevance of my former fears)

Lay, and then departed. I rose and walked the streets

Where a whitsuntide wind blew fresh, and blackbirds

Incontestably sang, and the people were beautiful.

John Heath Stubbs (1918-2006)

DSC_0169I often say I don’t feel I really belong anywhere, that I moved around too much as a child to learn to grow more than the shallowest of roots, but it’s not quite true. I spent seven very formative years in the Suffolk countryside. As a lonesome rather swotty ( and spotty ) adolescent, landscape became my companion and my obsession: the fields around my parents home near Clare that I tried and tried to paint, the Suffolk coast from Snape to Southwold, the Brecks, the saltmarsh sweep between Blakney and Cley in North Norfolk – I fell in love with them as only a dreamy teen can. This week, I’ve been back, wandering the Waveney near Beccles and the beaches, marshes and woods from Southwold and Westleton. I’m in love all over again.

I think what beguiles me so much about these landscapes is the combination of their lived-in-ness and their wildness. They are so human and so used. Farmed fields, boats on the river, criss crosses of paths and tractor tracks, horses and cows, gates and fences. Look at a map and every copse, lane, and field is named, known, noticed – even if not by the humans who live there now; once those names carried a meaning and symbolised a strong emotional and practical connection. The names remind me that we all were once tied to the land by the tightest bonds of necessity.

DSC_0178The wildness is there too: marsh, reedbed, ponds and rivers, islands of woodland and rushy fields, but it’s hidden in the linearity, not visible from a distance, and only there when you come upon it. Unexpectedly.

Thursday 23rd April 

Lost along the Waveney at dusk. This is when the wild expects humans to be tidied away indoors, and you can slip inside it as if passing through the spirit portal to Tir Na Nog – the land of other, the land of dream, and magic and imagination. Within sound of roads and sight of houses I felt I had passed into that secret, wild and distant place. Exactly the feeling I so adored when I roamed the ditches and hedgerows near my parents’ house. Two hares ran through the new wheat, their ears just above the green, their backs loping, like athletes just out of bed and still not warmed up. The difference between hares and rabbits is always breathtaking, shocking almost. Their movement is dangerous, unfettered even at their slowest pace. So not the homely, fluffy bounce of a bunny. Closer to the river, where the soil was velvet cake mix, lapwings zip-zipped, flashing the white undersides to their wings and a snipe jumped up and jinked away. A chinese water deer splashed through a marsh, caught by an illogical loop of dyke. And then, in the last, high, gold light a marsh harrier gleamed out, bronze, low over the ranks of reeds and then soaring high to scold me. Louche, languid, impossibly elegant and effortless – like a beautiful talent, too gorgeous to be bothered to exert itself.

 Monday 27th

RSPB Reserve, Minsmere. As a teen, I used to hate the fact that I had to be in hides, along paths, with people. Now, I found rather liked the sharing, the overheard expertise -and the reverse. I got very excited! Avocets everywhere, as always looking like someone trying to bale a boat with a teaspoon. A mobile carpet of dunlin with their dear little black tummies. A party of tufted ducks, their eyes luminous in the fierce white light of a pin-bright spring day. I found myself marching from hide to hide, eager for the next experience, my heart racing just as it did when I was 12. At noon, the epitome of the unexpected – a pair of otters gamboling in the water, not 200 m from where I sat in a hide with twenty other not especially silent watchers. I watched them through my binoculars, rolling in the water, the light shooting and sparking, emphasizing their liquid curves and catching the droplets on their whiskers. My heart suddenly squeezed and my eyes filled. I sat wiping my tears and trying to analyze what this feeling was: hope. It was hope. Hope for the wild, daily so squashed, so shattered by everything that humans do, and don’t do. But here were otters, with an audience and a back drop of a nuclear power station, and hope had flown up, joyful, jinking like a snipe into the blue, to say we might not ruin everything, it might just be ok.

DSC_0204Monday 27th Dusk

I walked out over the footbridge from Southwold Harbour to Walberswick marsh and turned north up the river. An island of purple cloud dispersed the atomic tangerine of the sunset down onto the river, staining the whole luscious curve upstream, raspberry. In the field below the pig farm, a hare limped along, more than 500m from me but still aware of my presence and wary. I stopped watching in case she was a jenny, going to give here leverets their brief suckle. A pair of shelduck peeped anxiously at my approach, paddling about on the mud, turned metallic apricot in the sunset. A curlew stepped out in front of them, like a lead actor upstaging the supporting cast. Once again I got that feeling of having passed through into a secret world, but now I was out of place, noticed, making the residents self conscious. I turned back, and stood behind the fence on the other side of the bridge, scanning the fields and the reeds. By chance, I ran my binoculars along the fence at the bottom of the dyke. A pearly heart-face looked right at me, eyes dark as space, through the intervening tangle of twigs.A barn owl, a female by the look of her, with a biscuit-coloured scatter across her white breast.  I was all too visibly human, outlined against the sky but tried the old trick anyway, ‘kissing’ my palm noisily to generate the high squeaks that to a barn owl signal ‘Vole Dinner Is Served’. She looked my way, but unconvinced took off. Barn owl flight is miraculous, the words float, glide, soar just don’t do enough to describe its other worldly quality. It seems to completely defy all normal laws and require a new vocabulary. Perhaps other langugeas have better words, but in the meantime: flap, flutter, float; up a little, down, glide, is what she did. I tracked her all the way from the footbridge, down to a gate at the end of the field next to the car park for Walberswick beach, with the rooves of houses behind, little sheds, house lights coming on. Then back, with the rigging of the yachts and fishing boats in my binocular’s field along with that wild, white owl, more silent than breath. All her beauty and wildness was magnified by the proximity to the gear and doings of humans.

Wednesday 29th

Now I’m back in Wales. Looking at the hills, thinking about the difference between them and the flat I’ve just come from.  It’s the surprise of the those linear, layered East Anglican landscapes that gets into my soul. They are undpredictable. You come upon wildness suddenly because a flat landscape keeps it secrets until the last moment. Everything is unpredicted there, until you arrive at it and it flies up like a spell. 


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A Book List For Teachers

I’ve done my last school visit of 2014. It’s been a good year for them. I’ve met thousands of children and laughed and written and had a great time with them all. Hopefully some of them will remember something about our meeting – a fragment of information about an animal, a little tip about how to approach writing, a spark of inspiration that will make them want to read. One thing that’s struck me again and again, is how hard it is for busy teachers to find out about my books – about ANY books. So here, for anyone who wants it is a list of some of my books, with a little description of what they are,  what year group they could be used for, and what topics they could be used for. Then, if you want to know more, its just a couple of click from here to explore my website.

You can see covers on my website and some reviews and prizes/ shortlistings


Non fiction Picture Books    

Good for reception and infants but can be used for primary too:

A First Book of Nature     Walker Books 2012

Poems and prose poems about first experiences of the nature.

Good for all aspects of natural history and also for reading aloud.

Big Blue Whale    Walker Books 1997

Topics: Adaptation. Marine life. Migration.

Bat Loves the Night Walker Books 2000

Topics: Nocturnal animals. Flight. Animal senses. (echolocation)

One Tiny Turtle  Walker Books 2000

Topics: Marine life. Migration. Navigation. Classification (turtles are reptiles lay eggs but breathe air and must breed on land) Adaptation (contrast between tortoises and turtles.) Conservation (most spp of turtles now declining).

White Own Barn Owl  Walker Books 2007

Topics: Birds. Nocturnal animals. Adaptation.  Conservation (putting up owl boxes helps replace lost nest sites in barns old trees etc).

Tiny. The Invisible World of Microbes Walker Book 2014

Topics: Disease and health. Basic life processes (decay, recycling of nutrients, soil, air.) Food and fermentation (yoghourt, cheese vinegar etc). Variety of living things.


Good for infants year 1- 3

Surprising Sharks   Walker Books 2002 

Topics: Marine life. Diversity (lots of shark species, not just one) Perception of animals (are all sharks maneaters and scary? No!) Conservation (not just the cute fluffy things that are worth saving. Sharks under huge threat from over fishing). Animal senses.

Dolphin Baby             Walker Books 2011

Topics: Animal babies and mums. Growth and development. Marine life. Senses. Taxonomy (mammals but live in the sea). Adaptation.

Just Ducks     Walker 2012

Topics: Wildlife in the town. What is a wild creature? (mallards will come close to you in the park but free to fly off.) Birds. Adaptation.

Good for year 4 plus 

Ice Bear            Walker Books 2005

Topics: Arctic. Predators. Adaptation. Inuits. (also climate change, peripherally).

Grow Your Own Monsters    Frances Lincoln    2010

Topics: Plants. Seeds. Growth. Gardening.


Longer non fiction.

Good for years 4, 5, 6 (also 7,8,9! Boys in particular)

Series of six books, all illustrated with fun, cartoon style pictures by Neal Layton, each about 7000 words long. Each one covers a particular topic in biology and contains quite a density of scientific information in an accessible, narrative form. The titles tell you all you need to know! (except perhaps for Poo which covers a wide range of topics from animal communication to paleontology, but is really about how biologists go about finding out about animals using their poo). All we be re-isued in 2014/15 with new covers and a different format.

Poo: A Natural History of the Unmentionable    Walker Books 2004

Extreme Animals       Walker Books 2006 (adaptation to extreme environments)

Who’s Eating You. The Inside story of parasites.    Walker Books 2007

Just the Right Size. Why Big Animals Are Big and Little Animals Are Little      Walker Books 2009

Talk, Talk Squawk. How and Why Animals Communicate   Walker Books 2010

Deadly, Animals That Bite Back    Walker 2012



Picture books

All ages

The Promise Walker Books 2013

Topics: Environment. Trees. Growing. Responsibility. Personal growth and change.


Year 3 plus

Silver Street Farm Series

Six chapter books overall length 7-8000 words, with short chapters and line drawing illustration. All set on an imaginary city farm with three main child characters reflecting ethnic diversity of inner city communities. Fun adventures with animals, lots of humour and warm happy endings. Also available as audio books.

Welcome to Silver Street Farm

Escape From Silver Street Farm

Spring Fever  at Silver Street Farm

All Aboard at Silver Street Farm

Crowded out At Silver Street Farm

Frozen Solid at Silver Street Farm    Walker Books 2011/12


Year 4, 5 and 6 

Heros of The Wild Series: (fiction/ non fiction ) Walker Books 2012/13

Short, exciting novels based on real conservation stories and real people. Each written with an indigenous child at the heart of the story and with a post script detailing the factual back ground to the story.

The Lion Who Stole My Arm

Elephant Road

Manatee Baby

Walking the Bear 

A Girl Called Dog  Random House  2011

Modern fairy tale about a girl kept as a slave in a pet shop, who escapes with the help of animal friends.

year 5 and 6

Rubbish Town Hero   Random House 2012

Set on a West African rubbish tip. Chipo and his disabled sister Gentle, get into trouble when a plan to steal some valuable ‘trash’ goes wrong. They find new friends and an improvised family in a war torn country.

Whale Boy   Random House 2013 (shortlisted for the Blue Peter Best Story award 2014)

A boy growing up on a Caribbean Island is given the chance to won his own boat by a mysterious stranger. He makes friends with a young sperm whale but find out that his new boat comes at a price and that ‘the bigger the bait, the bigger the hook hidden inside’.


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One Heart At A Time

DSC_0012The Promise was published just 14 months ago. It seems like much, much longer. I’m four more books further down the line from it now, but more than any other book I’ve ever written the stories of how it is reaching out into the world, exactly as I hoped it would, are singing back to me.

Children often ask me what is your favourite book that you have written, and I always answer “that’s like asking a Mummy who their favourite child is, and Mummies love all their children”. It’s true. I do love all my books, because that’s what they’re made from: my love of the natural world and my love of children. I make each book as good as I can, because I believe in the job that my books can do in the world. But right from the start ‘The  Promise’ was special.DSC_0009

Writing, as I’ve often said in this blog, is a solitary struggle. I write slowly. I rewrite all the time as I go. I never just bash on to the end and then go and knock it into shape (the one time I did, it was a disaster). Picture books are especially tricky and, in terms of time spent per word, take the longest by far to write. The picture book I’ve started this week may not be finished before Christmas and it’s just 600 words.

I came to write The Promise because my beloved editor at Walker Books, Caroline Royds, suggested  I write a retelling of ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’ ( sorry if you’d heard this before in an earlier blog ). I knew the story very well but wanted to write something of my own, and something that would speak to urban kids; particularly kids who were having a bad start in life. One of the things that recurs in my stories (Rubbish Town Hero, A Girl Called Dog) is children with a bad start. I see a lot of them on my travels – lone street kids in the poorer parts of the world, neglected ones in the richer – and I always want to reach out to them in some way. All I knew about the story I would write on the Monday morning when I sat down at my desk was that it was about a street child who planted acorns. Two hours later The Promise was written and – somewhat scarily- I cannot tell you how – it just came out of my fingers onto the screen. Since that first draft that made my editor cry, it has changed by a total of 6 words. I knew at once that this was a story with the power to change hearts – and as I’m always saying these days ‘ the world can change, one heart at a time’.

I’ve written in an earlier blog about how Laura Carlin was really the ONLY choice for the illustrator of the story, and when her first images began to take shape, I knew she’d heard the heart of The Promise beating. So  the day when we sat in the Walker Books meeting room, signing copies together, was a very happy one.DSC02172

It seemed that every adult I shared it with was moved to tears, editors, reviewers, bloggers, members of my family, all reached for the tissues. It was touching some kind of nerve. But knowing you have made something good doesn’t mean its going to appeal to or be liked by booksellers or reviewers. The Promise’s first outing wasn’t promising: I presented it at a session for the Bath Children’s Literary festival, to an audience of 12 people six of whom were from my publisher. But among the six who weren’t obliged to be there was a mum and her two children. None of them said much at the time and I finished the session feeling pretty dispirited, feeling that we’d created something that actually nobody was going to understand. But a few weeks later the mum contacted me to say that she’d been so struck by The Promise that her children’s school were going to do a whole project on it – art work, poems – and were writing their own ‘Promises to the Planet’ . Also, they wanted to spread the book in the spirit of the story, so were sending a copy to the African school they are twinned with, hung a copy in a tree in the village with a note to ‘please read me and pass me on’ and were even sending a copy up in the air, attached to a balloon!IMG_0602

Quietly enthusiastic reviews followed. A few people visited the website we’d set up to promote the book and encourage people to fund real tree planting and forest saving by donating to my adopted charity The World Land Trust. But really no big bells and whistles. Except for Spain, where Il Mundo gave us a whole page review with photographs of me and Laura and the cover of the book. I wondered if perhaps, the droughts that parts of Spain had experienced in recent years made this story speak especially to them?


Two things kept my spirits up:  my great friend Jackie Morris and her faith, unfailing support and relentless reviewing and promotion of The Promise,  and Eddie. Eddie is the son of another friend and WLT colleague, Simon Barnes and Eddie became my biggest fan. He loved The Promise and had to have it read every night (I did begin to feel a bit sorry for Simon because any book you have to read night after night,gets old. Eddie’s family even started to read it in different voices to stop themselves getting bored. His older brother did a fabulous reading as William Hurt.) I came to feel that if no one else had ever read The Promise the fact that Eddie held it in his heart made the whole enterprise worthwhile.

IMG_0406In March the WLT hosted an exhibition of Laura’s art work for the book. I brought little pots of acorns collected from last Autumns bumper harvest and grown on in my garden. Laura did art work and words on the walls around her exquisite pictures and ceramics. We sat and waited for visitors. And waited. And waited. Almost no one came – we did lots of very lovely and useful talking about stories and pictures, we hatched various plots, but still no one came. Eddie came, as he lives nearby and that for me was the highlight of the Spring; his face through the window of the gallery as we recognised each other.

Over the following weeks I was very occupied with two new short novels, crossovers of fiction and non fiction telling real conservation stories in a fictional holder, and as I wrote, evidence of  evidence of the way The Promise was working, actually exactly as I’d hoped, came trickling in. E mails from teachers whose classes had loved it – older children right down to little tinies in year 1. Schools that were doing whole projects on the book, tweets from other authors, teachers and bloggers across the world.

In September the wonderful Scottish Book Trust took me on a tour of schools in Argyl and Bute. Children here had made their own responses to the story, with artworks and writing. I began to end every session I did in each school with a reading of the Promise and every time, you could hear a pin drop. Sometimes a teacher at the back of the class would wipe a tear with a finger.IMG_1127

In Hackney, where I have a longstanding friendship with two primary schools I read The Promise to a tough crowd, a group of ‘too cool for school’ year six kids. As I got to the pages where the city is transformed by growing things the whole class gasped – I wish Laura could hear those gasps, now repeated so many times. At the end the children applauded quite spontaneously “The planting’s going to go on and on!” one little boy exclaimed joyously, “It will fill the whole world!”

At the Wells Festival a very bouncy audience of 200 primary school kids fell silent and also gassed at the last page, the end page of the book where the grey pavement we began with is transformed by plants. Very trendy year elevens were happy to pose with copies of the Promise.

Just before I was about to leave for the US in October I had a lovely e mail. A post grad student on the Bath Spa Writing for Young People MA had heard me read the story before its publication and, when it was out ,bought a copy for her sister, an aid worker in Afghanistan, helping to re-establish gardens and growing in areas damaged by the conflict. The email told me that copies of the book were ‘ passing from hand to hand across the most war torn regions’. I spent a long time crying over my e mails that morning.

In the suburbs of Boston the kids I met loved to hear The Promise read. Once again there was that response – the gasp on the page turn, and the recognition that cities could be mean and hard and ugly. On my last day I worked in a particularly beautiful school library, but some of the children were clearly having problems in their lives; one little boy hid behind a row of chairs at the back of the room and did not come out. It was obvious from the teachers’ reaction that this was the norm with this child. I proceeded with my session, talking about stories and animals and writing, and at the end, read The Promise. I was suddenly aware that someone was leaning against my leg as I sat. I looked down into the dark eyes of the little boy who had been behind the chairs. As I closed the book he tapped my knee to get my attention and pointed to The Promise,

“That’s me, “he whispered, ” that story, it’s about me.”


The schools I worked in next were in Amsterdam, upstate New York. Amsterdam was once a thriving town, but years of unemployment have eroded it and the people who live there. The schools are doing a great job of caring for their students, supporting them, encouraging them and trying to help them transcend their start in life. Whenever I spoke to those kids I could look out into the audience and see at least four children who very clearly didn’t have adult looking out for them at home. I learnt the stories of some of the children and their families, and greater tragedies of deprivation it would hard to find. And it was these children who most of all responded to The Promise. The wonderful librarian with whom I worked told me that one little girl, with a particularly sad story of her own, had turned to her and said “Isn’t this great? ” as I read The Promise. “You know, “the librarian told me, “I had to turn away because I was crying. I’d never seen that little girl smile before.”

I went on to stay in Montreal with friends at the end of the trip. I sat in a coffee bar with them and searched the pages of the New York Times. I’d been told The Promise had been picked as one of their best picture books of 2014. I didn’t really believe it could be true.IMG_1471

“Its not going to be in!” I said to my friends, feeling bad that I’d even mentioned it. But there it was, one of the New York Times top picture books of 2014. It was a wonderful moment but mostly because it means that the message the story carries – that change is possible, that personal transformation is within the grasp of all of us and that through our change, we can transform the world – will reach an ever wider audience.

There’s a chance that The Promise may become a theatre production in Montreal. I’ve begun to think about how the layers of meaning in the marriage of text and pictures can be unpacked and translated into movement, music, dialogue, drama. It’s very exciting, and hugely creatively stimulating to think in this new format. It also reaffirms my faith in what the story has to tell – its message is so big that its easily enough to fill an hour or more of stage time. It would be the biggest dream come true if it all happened, but the most important moments for me will always be those that show that the story Laura and I created has touched the hearts of the people who need it most.IMG_1440


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DSC_0465It’s been so beautiful this week. Perfect weather, warm and still, like a blessing. Thanks to a shoulder injury that means more than 4 hours at my computer is agony, I’ve been out in it too, far more than I would have been normally. Normally I would have been frantically working, trying to Get Everything Done because from next week I’m not really at home until the middle of November.

This is the calm before the storm. Next week I start six weeks of almost constant travel. Italy for the pordenonlegge festival, Scotland for a Scottish Book trust tour, then sundry UK festivals (Bath, Cheltenham, Wells)followed by a tour of schools in Boston and New York State. I really love this part of my work – talking directly to children and to adults, reading my work, talking about the stories behind my books (as I always tell children every story has a story of how it became a story). So I’ll be telling audiences in Italy at the Pordenonelgge Festival about the real conservation stories behind each of the four ‘Heros of the Wild’ books, and about the people I met and the places I visited in the course of researching them.

I love taking photographs when I travel so I like to share those too sometimes, as long asDSC_0951 technology – ipads/ projector screens – doesn’t take over. What’s most enjoyable for me, and seems to work best for my audiences, is the simplest of connections – talking, listening, answering questions without anything even approaching a power point presentation!

Answering questions is actually one of my favourite things. Of course I often get asked the same ones – particularly as I talk about animals, I get asked ‘whats the biggest/smallest /scariest/ ‘ type questions and every writer gets asked ‘where do you get your ideas from’. I can honestly say with my hand on my heart that I NEVER, EVER get tired of answering the same things, because for the person asking, it’s a new question and I’m giving new information. The opportunity to deliver information to a young person who really wants to hear it is so precious, and inspiring the desire to ask questions is kind of the whole point of my writing life. I don’t want any book to be a dead end – whether its non fiction or fiction – I want my readers to know more, think more, ask more, imagine more, when they get to the end of one of my books.with reception KICS

One of the other things I love about working directly with live audiences is it gives me the chance to present things straight to audiences, without the gatekeepers of publishing getting in the way. I’m hugely grateful to my publishers – they make it possible for me to do what I do – but there are some things they don’t want to publish. So I can tell stories to live audiences that will perhaps never make it onto the published page. (The swift story that I wrote about in a blog earlier this year is one of those: kids love it, teachers love it, can I get it published? Nope.) I can road test things too, and see how they work, and I can try out ideas that may then work their way back into a book. One thing I’ve been doing with live audiences for more than 20 years now, is teaching kids how to sing like a humpback whale. The crazy thing about this is, that although humpbacks were the first whale I studied, I’ve never written about them. There’s so much more known about humpback song than when I saw my first humpy in (gulp) 1979 I really do want to do a book. It would be great to have a book to back up all those noises that kids all over the country and now all over the world have learnt in one of my sessions.DSCN0757

Writing is solitary and often dispiriting. Getting anything published is a struggle. Your best ideas are rejected. You favourite books fail to sell. But when you are in front of an audience its just you and them, nobody to get in the way, nobody to tell you what readers like. You can find out immediately for yourself and get instant feedback – and happily for me that feedback is always really good, really encouraging. And once in a while it’s astonishing, once in while I see the lightbulb coming on in the head of a child, and I know I’ve sparked something important that they are going to remember for a long time.  Seeing live audiences of children, listening to their questions, seeing them taking in what I have to say reminds me of WHY I do this.

So here’s a little list of places where I’ll be over the next few weeks where you can come and say hello!

September 17th

September 21st to 26th touring schools in Argyll and Bute with Scottish Book Trust


October 3rd  10 -11am Toppings Bookshop in Bath

13.15 A Natural History Of The Unmentionable, The Guildhall, Bath.


October 4th  11am Natural Inspiration,  Prior Park College Bath


October 6th  5.30  The ICK Factor , Ipswich Museum


October 7th   13.30 School’s Event The Inkpot, Imperial Square Gardens

16.00  Fun at Four Picture Book Event The Studio, Imperial Square.


October 9th  12 noon onwards Number Seven bookshop and gallery Dulverton, Devon


October 16th  14.00 – 15.15 Wells Town Hall

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As the author of books that are put in non fiction and fiction sections of libraries I don’t see that there is a hard boundary between fact and fiction. Look at any great works of fiction and you find truthful information about the real world – portraits of Victorian poverty and social injustice in Dickens or the pin sharp critique of the Russian revolution in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Photography, supposedly the most ‘non fictional’ medium of all, but you only have to reflect for a moment about how you’ve cropped your own pictures on facebook to know that photography’s credentials as non fiction are not impeccable. Robert Capa’s photograph of the Spanish Civil War  ‘Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death’ is one of the most famous documentary pictures of all time not for what it’s supposed to portray, but for the debate about whether or not it was staged.

My point is that the line between fiction is and non fiction is at best made with wiggly crayon and that trying to draw it with an indelible marker is actually getting in the way of children’s learning, reinforcing gender stereotypes and undermining libraries. Instead of dividing non fiction and fiction, we might do better to talk about different kinds of narrative, drawn from different sources.

I’m interested in igniting the spark of curiosity in my readers. My aim is to start a fire so big it can consume world of information and experience and burn for a lifetime. And the best way I know for doing that is using narrative. It’s an incredibly flexible and robust device – it can hold information about the deepest tides and currents in our nature, the instructions for making a soup or the life history of a polar bear. Narrative is good at providing combustible material in exactly the right form to get those sparks crackling away. A search engine provides you with a whole freshly cut tree. Just ask Ray Mears how good that is for firestarting. Narrative breaks knowledge into nice dry twigs and feeds them to the flames at exactly the right rate.

Narrative works by creating story space, which I would argue is perhaps the most important and powerful invention of human culture. Story space is a liminal region, a territory between the exterior world and the interior world of emotion and reflection. In it, boundaries are dissolved, the real and the imagined are combined in unique cocktails of experience, allowing us new insights into the world and our place within it. Story space allows us to to see things differently; it facilitates fresh thinking and helps both artists and scientists to formulate new questions, theories, new ways to investigate and describe the world. It is the business of the writer to create the narrative, to shape the story space; what goes in that space is information, either drawn from imagination or evidence from the real world.

Children understand the nature of story space and what can happen there. They are happy with narratives – both visual and verbal – that convey all sorts of information, factual, emotional, spatial, real and imaginary. This was vividly demonstrated to me a few years ago when I was working with Tate Modern, talking to groups of children about particular works in its collections. The work ‘Gothic Landscape’ by Lee Krasner, was particularly popular with the children with whom I worked – I probably should say here that these children had never been to any sort of art gallery before. A little girl said ‘This painting is about a bird landing in a tree. It’s about how the wings beat and how it feels to land in the tree going fast and then slow’. I think it’s telling that she used the word ‘about’. Not this ‘painting is a picture ‘of’ or ‘this painting shows’ but this ‘painting is about’. So this little girl was perfectly happy that the painting was a narrative that told a story about space – the tree and the bird; about time – the bird going fast then slow, and about emotion– how it feels to land in a tree. All real things, represented in an obviously fictional, abstract painting. (Jake Chapman put that in your ready-made-pipe and smoke it).

My narratives hold information about the natural world. Sometimes those narratives are found stories – real things that I pick up off the ground and sometimes they are entirely invented, poems, myths, made only from a weave of words. Sometimes the information I put in the story space is factual – the diet of a bat, the number of eggs a turtle lays – and sometimes it’s emotional – how you feel when you are close to a wild animal, or when you have promised to plant a whole forest. What this combining of fact and fiction offers me is the opportunity to convey the emotional roots that every natural history fact has put down in my own soul.

What I’m making the case for here is narrative non fiction with attitude, with voice with personality. Somehow we are familiar with the value of this kind of writing for adults, but not for kids. And far, far from being obsolete in a world where information is just a click away, passionate narrative non fiction has never, ever been so important. The division of non fiction from fiction, and the lack of attention to the role of narrative in conveying information about the real world has eroded the status of libraries particularly in schools. The line of thought goes something like this . Learning is about putting facts in your head. Facts are things you look up, and you used to look up facts in a library. That’s what libraries  are for. But if facts come from the internet, why then do you need a library? With so very much information easily available a child is at risk of being swamped by an overload of facts, demotivated by over exposure (see Ray Mears and the tree above). What narrative non fiction offers is a route, a guide a companion, a means and motivation for finding out, and structure in which to place new information. A good narrative doesn’t carry all the facts – just  enough to make the reader want more; it infects the reader with curiosity, the most virulent and powerful way to create self motivated learners, who will become the curators of their own minds throughout life. And at the moment good narratives are not the strong point of google search.

In America this is understood. I think the tradition of narrative non fiction there, of nature writing in particular is stronger. What they found was that high school graduates raised on an exclusive diet of fiction did not have the skills to interrogate a text – pretty essential for any university course. In the US they now place the reading and writing of narrative non fiction at the heart of their curriculum. This teachers children how to process information in one form, and present it in another – about the most transferable skill set you can acquire.

Writing non fiction based on personal observation of the world around them hones children’s ability to look, and to question; it gives them something to write about and helps them to find the power of their voices as writers, speakers and human beings. I represent this process through reading non fiction to writing non fiction very simply like this

your world into your words into my brain

my world from my brain into my words

my words into your brain you see my world

This seems so obvious, yet some children go through the whole of their education without understanding what words can do, what their words can do. Reading narrative non fiction models it; writing narrative non fiction teaches it. Simples.

Somebody asked me the other day if I’d ever written ‘a real picture book’. This question embodies the attitude to children’s non fiction in the UK. Frankly its a ghetto created by dividing fiction from non fiction and forgetting about the existence of narratives and the creative role of the writer in their creation. There is a perception that children’s non fiction books aren’t proper books and that the writers of children’s non fiction are not proper writers. I once heard a librarian tell children not to look in the non fiction section but to look for a ‘real book’ and I’ve frequently encountered teachers who encourage the reading of fiction but don’t count non fiction reading at all. I think this is at least in part a gender issue: women tend not to read non fiction and most teachers and librarians are women. But ladies, we need boys to read too, and what men and boys like are stories drawn from the real world. And girls need to read about more than fairies and witches if we are to raise female scientists and engineers.

The last twenty years has divided the world into Harry Potter on one side and google search on the other. Fantasy is not the only kind of narrative and ramming in lists of facts is not how we learn. We don’t even learn only with our brains, but with our bodies, our hearts, our souls. We need to rethink our concept of learning, and of how we learn best. We are, to paraphrase the conclusion of Phillip Reeve’s marvelous science fiction story cycle ‘Mortal Engines‘, ‘engines for making stories’. We are made of story, our very lives have a beginning, a middle and an end and to learn about the world, to learn how to be the best of ourselves we need all sorts of stories – real and imagined and mixtures of the two – and that’s what writers, and publishers and libraries are for.



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