Picture Books 2018

I woke up one morning over the weekend and peered out bleary-eyed from under my duvet. The room was dark and nothing stirred, but something had definitely woken me up. As my eyes adjusted to the dimness they came to rest on a strange glowing circle hovering about 3 foot off the ground, right next to my side of the bed. The glowing circle belonged to a short, shadowy figure with a pointy head and a strange tuft of, what I could only assume was, hair sticking out of the top. The glowing circle must be its eye, I thought to myself. The eye wiggled rhythmically. I stared at the silent watcher with mounting dread. What on earth was it? Then, out of nowhere, the creature socked me with a thin rectangular object and demanded, “Story!”

Needless to say, it was Wren, who had got up, put on her new bobble hat, and come in search of someone to read to her. What I had taken to be a glowing eye was her glow-in-the-dark dummy. Yes, such things do exist, and are very handy in the middle of the night. It has taken Wren a while to be able to sit through a whole picture book, but now she can, she loves it. Yes, you guessed it, it’s time for my annual round up of the picture books we have been given or bought over the last year and have especially loved.

Tidy by Emily Gravett

Tidy by Emily Gravett

First up is Tidy by Emily Gravett. This is a tale about a badger who can’t stop tidying up, not until he has managed to tidy the whole forest away! It’s a deceptively simple story, beautifully written and wonderfully illustrated by Emily Gravett. I think all my three are hoping I’ll learn a lesson from this book and stop asking them to tidy up!

The Giant Jam Sandwich by John Vernon Lord and Janet Burroway

The Giant Jam Sandwich by John Vernon Lord and Janet Burroway

Many of you will already know and love The Giant Jam Sandwich, by John Vernon Lord and Janet Burroway. It was first published in the seventies and it has been great to introduce my kids to it. What else are the villagers of Itching Down to do when they are invaded by a swarm of wasps but make a giant jam sandwich to catch them in? John Vernon Lord is an legendary British illustrator of long-standing. He was awarded Illustrator of the Year at the V&A Illustration Awards this year. In this book his illustrations have such fantastic character and detail. They also have a brilliant subversive edge which Finch especially likes.

The Street Beneath My Feet by Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zommer

The Street Beneath My Feet by Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zommer

The Street Beneath My Feet is a non-fiction picture book by Charlotte Guillian and Yuval Zommer. I have to own up straight away: I would have given my right arm to illustrate this book (although that would have made illustrating it quite tricky). It starts by looking at what is underneath the pavement where we walk, down through the layers of earth and rock, right to the earth’s core. It’s packed with lots of quirky facts and bits of information about everything from fossils through to magma. The concertina format means you can also fold out the whole thing to look at it in one go. It’s a real feast for the eyes.

Gigantosaurus by Jonny Duddle

Gigantosaurus by Jonny Duddle is re-telling of the old The Boy Who Cried Wolf tale but with dinosaurs. Jonny Duddle is an incredible illustrator, bringing such life and fun to his stories. “Stomp, Stomp, Stomp!”shouts Wren eagerly as soon as we open the cover.

How Billy Hippo Learned to Swim by Vivian French and Hannah Foley

How Billy Hippo Learned to Swim by Vivian French and Hannah Foley

Oh go on, humour me. How Billy Hippo Learned to Swim by Vivian French and HANNAH FOLEY!!!

Goggles and other books by Ezra Jack Keats

Goggles! and other books by Ezra Jack Keats

These are a selection of books by Ezra Jack Keats about a little boy called Peter. I bought them second hand online and most of them are ex-library editions. In my humble opinion, it is absolutely criminal that a library should ever have been allowed to sell these books because they are classics every child should have the chance to read. In case you hadn’t got it yet, Ezra Jack Keats is one of my favourite illustrators! He evokes such warmth and feeling with his illustrations. One of the things about children is that their world is very small and because of this, every odd looking brick, brightly-coloured doorway, or winding back alley is important and affectionately familiar to them in a way it never can be for adults. There are very few illustrators who can evoke the strong sense of place that early childhood has and Ezra Jack Keats is one of them. These books are perfect for real littlies like Wren.

Daddy Long Legs by Nadine Brun Cosme and Aurelie Guillerey

Daddy Long Legs by Nadine Brun Cosme and Aurelie Guillerey

Lastly, Daddy Long Legs by Nadine Brun-Cosme and Aurelie Guillerey is a book that could have been written for me as a child. The car breaks down on the way to nursery and now the child is worried about how Daddy will pick her up if the car breaks down again. I spent large chunks of my childhood sat in the back of old bangers by the side of the road while my Dad huffed away under the bonnet. Even now it still feels like a minor miracle when I successfully complete a journey by car. Scarred for life, I tell you! In this book Daddy reassures the little girl that he will go to all sorts of extraordinary lengths to get to her, and if all those should still fail, well, he will walk to her on his long legs. A super book for calming all those childhood fears of abandonment.

Tomorrow is the first day of my Return to Practice course. Wish me luck!

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Hello 2019!

How was your Christmas and New Year? I hope you had a lovely time, and managed to find some restful moments in amongst the busyness. We travelled back yesterday from Yorkshire after visiting Big Dreamer’s side of the family. The roads were clear and we drove towards the sun, low and pale in the wintery sky. Already I could feel that the atmosphere had changed. The earth has turned and the daylight hours are on the wax again. Hurrah! Big Dreamer and I discussed our plans for the year in the front of the car while the children alternately dozed in the back, and watched DVDS on Little Owl’s pocket player. Amongst my seed ideas for the allotment, and birthday party plans for the children we talked about keeping things simple and local in 2019. More fresh air, more outdoors, and everything a lot more slowly. How about you? Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?

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It is a late one this year. The children only broke up on Friday. Little Owl has managed to peak at just the right time, that is, collapsing in tears as the school gates closed on the term having worn her Christmas jumper, given out all her carefully scribed Christmas cards and joyfully sung her heart out in her school Christmas production. Finch acted his part as one of the Wise Man with gusto. He turned his gift (an empty washing up liquid bottle wrapped in shiny paper) upside down, and sang into it with his eyes closed. He had obviously missed the memo telling him that the Three Wise Men were travelling seers and not in fact a three-piece boy band. He came home with most of his Christmas dinner around his mouth and in his hair. At the Christmas fair he was chuffed to bits to win a second-hand Red Nose Day mug. After such dizzying heights of ecstasy he spent the last week of term huddled up on the sofa, wheezing away like an old pair of bellows. Wren gave up after the first week in December and has been in a foul mood ever since. Such prolonged levels of anticipation and raised blood sugar levels can only be tolerated for so long.

Yesterday we found a quiet bench under the vast, vaulted ceiling of Exeter cathedral and joined our voices with the congregation who gathered there to sing lunchtime carols. It was wonderful to feel small under those ancient arches, singing words that have been sung by generations before us. In a similar vein, today we escaped to Saltram House to wander in companionable silence through the illuminated gardens. It being only two days after the solstice, and a day of creeping mists, the lights glimmered in magical contrast to the dim stillness of the day. I hummed the last verse of Hark the Herald Angels to myself as we walked back to the car. “Hail the Heaven born Prince of Peace.” I work hard to protect my children’s sense of wonder but this year, it felt like we were all over taken by the frenzied activity of the season. Somewhere along the line peace went out of the window, only to be thankfully snatched back at the last minute in song and strolling.

“Light and life to all he brings, Risen with healing in his wings.”

As I always do at this time of the year, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of you who read my blog, leave comments, send me messages, and support me in my creative (and now caring!) endeavours. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your support. A very merry Christmas to you all! May it be a joyful and peaceful one for you and yours.

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Weather for ducks

It has been wet and wild here. We made our annual pilgrimage to Dartmoor at the weekend to get our Christmas tree from the park rangers. The tops of the hills were lost to sight, covered in low hanging cloud. Water poured out of field gates. Paths had become a myriad of gushing streams. The River Bovey was swollen to a muscular torrent. We sloshed through sodden meadows, the tips of the grass just pricking the surface of the standing water. Big Dreamer and I laughed at ourselves as we proclaimed to the kids that it was good to get out for a ‘breather’. We could hear our parents’ voices ringing out from our own childhoods as we extolled the virtues of getting out and about, even if it was weather for only the bravest of ducks!

And how right our parents always were. It is good to get out of the house and embrace the season. We sloshed and splashed, stamped and squelched. We marveled at the surging water and dipped our wellies in day-old waterfalls. And the best bit of all? Heading back to the twinkly barn we always visit, to warm up with hot chocolates and sausage sandwiches. Our coats left creeping puddles on the floor but no one minded amongst the walking boots and wet dogs of all the other customers. Back at home we lit the wood burner and decorated the tree, glad we had gone out but all the gladder to have come home.

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Star decoration. Photograph by Hannah Foley (www.owlingabout.co.uk)

First few Christmas decorations going up

Today I am attending the first day of a three-day induction at the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital in Exeter. ‘Why would you be doing such a thing?’ I hear you cry! Well, changes are afoot. Many of you will know that when I left school I first trained and worked as a Registered Nurse. In January I will be starting a refresher course with my local teaching hospital to return to nursing. There are a few reasons why I’m doing this and I wanted to explain them here for any of you who are interested, or have been kindly following my journey. It’s a long one so grab a cuppa.

I think the first thing to say is that from starting Art College as an eager and earnest art student, my view of art and illustration, and in particular, making a living as an illustrator, has changed inordinately. It was interesting and strangely reassuring for me to return to the art college where I studied, to take some tutorials with students there the week before last. I found Art College a real roller coaster and I still find it difficult to articulate what I found so tricky about it. Visiting for the afternoon, it was as difficult a place as ever to be. It is something to do with the almost tangible mismatch between the hopes and dreams of bright young people, and the cynicism and arrogance of the market place that is a current UK Higher Education institution. It’s sort of like watching toddlers being fed into a mincer.

I recognise now that I was naïve about a couple of important things when I graduated from Art College. The truth is that, over five years down the line, I know very few people who are earning a living exclusively illustrating. The phrase that is often bandied around is Portfolio Career, and it turns out you have to be as creative about your career as you do about the work itself. People I know are working as designers, communications officers, SEO specialists, web designers, writers, teachers, workshop facilitators, technicians, speakers, baristas, shelf-stackers, and much, much more, along side their illustrating. The other thing I was naive about was the ‘Hustle’. The ‘Hustle’ involves selling yourself as an illustrator, getting your work under the noses of those with the power to commission you, and the horrors of contract and pricing negotiations. It is best compared to having your eye drilled out very, very slowly. For anyone with a vaguely sensitive disposition (oh, you know, like illustrators and artists), it’s tantamount to water torture.

So, back at the beginning of the year I ended up having a ‘moment’. The ‘moment’ involved me acknowledging that there would probably never be this magical point where I would ‘make-it’ and earn a living consistently from illustration, so I needed to supplement my illustration work with other things. However, I knew I didn’t want to do the things that I could see other illustrators doing as part of their portfolio careers (a good teacher is worth their weight in gold, and I am not one of them). I could also see that the ‘hustle’ was killing my mental health. All this coincided with the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution (SCCR) conference in Glasgow. Some of you will remember that conference. I had worked on their Cranial Cocktail project, looking at the chemicals in your brain, and went up for the launch conference at Glasgow Science Centre. I sat in that conference room with doctors, nurses, teachers, probation officers, counselors, mediators, family workers, and youth workers, and I remembered how much I care about what happens to people when they are having a tough time. And when I say that, I mean, I care a lot about it.

I don’t want to get all high-faluting. Nursing is a mucky old business and it’s the hardest work I have ever done in my life. I don’t suppose I made a lot of difference in my time as a nurse and often it was absolutely hideous. The bureaucratic structure of the NHS sometimes seemed as if it were expressly designed to thwart any attempts by its staff to actually help any of its users. Nevertheless, I sat there and thought, there’s still a nurse inside of me. The end result was that I have been slowly working my way through the grueling process of getting on a refresher course.

Of course, into the mix of all this has been the Kelpies Prize. Talk about a curve ball. I hope that I can find a good balance between the physical and emotional demands of nursing, and the creative demands of writing and illustrating. At the moment I feel as though I would gladly never pick up a pencil again but I think that might be part of the process, and I hope I will find my way back to illustrating again. I’m certainly very excited about the writing. As to this blog, it’s probably going to evolve a bit. I hope I don’t lose too many of you as it does. I can foresee that there will be fewer drawings, more day-in-the-life stories as I work this nursing thing out, and hopefully, more writing. Do stick with me. At the very least, it should be entertaining!

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Billy Hippo workshops

Billy Hippo school workshop. Photograph by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.owlingabout.co.uk)Last week I had the absolute delight of taking some illustrations workshops at a local school. It was brilliant fun. The kids were wonderfully imaginative and inventive. We sang a Billy Hippo song and did some Billy Hippo-themed crafts. I did feel completely exhausted afterwards though. I don’t know how teachers do it, day after day.

At home, the advent calendars are out and it has blown Wren’s mind. Chocolate for breakfast? Marvellous! We headed out to Buckland Abbey at the weekend to mark the start of Advent. Buckland Abbey was the home of Sir Francis Drake. It’s a great place to visit at any time but it was full of Christmas charm this weekend. There was an enormous, sparkly tree in the old Thythe Barn. Up in the attic The Lord of Misrule was presiding over festivities. The Lord of Misrule was a character who would have appeared at Christmas on Sir Francis Drake’s ship, The Golden Hind. I suppose he comes from the old topsy-turvey traditions. Essentially, one of the sailors would take on the role of The Lord of Misrule, being captain for the day, playing practical jokes and causing havoc. Interesting fact, did you know penguins got their name from Francis Drake’s Welsh sailors who named them Pen-Gwinns, ‘White-headed’ in Welsh?

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Rainy day in Exeter

Rainy day in Exeter. Photograph by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.owlingabout.co.uk)Well, that’s put paid to my allotment plans for the morning. It is pouring down!

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Singing trains

Last week was a busy one. My trip to Edinburgh was great. It was beautiful weather up there: clear and crisp, and slanting low light around every corner. I visited my publisher’s office and met my editor properly for the first time. We had lemon biscuits and coffee, and chatted through the editing process and all sorts of other miscellaneous book-related things. It was lovely and made me very excited about working with them. I also did some tutorials at Edinburgh College of Art but will post about that another time. It was funny being back at the College of Art. It hadn’t changed a bit. Back in Exeter, most of the housework and chores awaited my return but the family seemed to have survived.

At the weekend it was Exeter Literary Festival, and I got along to an ‘In Converstion…’ Event at Exeter Waterstones with Philip Reeve. Philip is best known as a YA author but he has also collaborated on books for younger children with the incredibly talented Sarah McIntyre. Really, I think his books are for all ages. We love them in our house. If you haven’t heard of Philip’s books you might have heard of the upcoming Mortal Engines film by Lord of the Rings director, Peter Jackson, which is based on Philip’s book series of the same name.

It was wonderful hearing Philip discussing his books and writing, with another Devon-based YA author, Lucy Hounsom. He is a very engaging person to listen to. It was particular interesting for me to hear about his journey from illustrator to writer. His books are mostly science fiction and I loved hearing his ideas about dystopian versus utopian science fiction, and how these relate to current events. He is definitely someone I could have listened to speak for at least double the time. I have been making an effort to get along to more author events as I always do find them inspiring. I virtually skipped back home down the hill, underneath the hung but yet to be lit Christmas lights on Exeter High Street, singing to myself just like one of Philip’s sentient trains.

Philip doesn’t just sign books for his fans, he also draws them illustrations – brilliant!

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Boatbuilding diorama

Here is a children’s fold-up diorama with cut-out figures I worked on over the summer. I do love a bit of maritime history!

Next week there will be no post from as I’ll be away on illustration-related business. I’ll be back the week after.

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Hunter’s Moon

I have been enjoying the Autumn evenings over half term. There is still enough light to do half an hour in the garden after the littlest ones are down to bed and I’m often getting a stack of washing in anyway. It has been so still and peaceful, glorious sunsets adorning the sky. The plants are dying back, elegant skeletal remnants of their former glory. I have left the grass long this year, to help it recover from the trauma of the dry summer. Oh, it did look forlorn. I pounce on each fallen leaf from the fig tree. As big as dinner plates, they are perfect as a mulch on my patio pots, keeping the weeds at bay. I have slowly been putting the garden to bed. This year I have laid a lot of my cuttings over any bare soil. I have learnt from my allotment reading that this is good for worms, and hence good for the soil.

I have had to cut the rambling roses back hard. Apparently they should normally be pruned in August but a renovation-prune should not be done until now. I have a lot to learn about roses. I learnt this year that I should have trained them along the horizontal and then the new-flowering-growth would work up the vertical, but I had it all backwards, hence the hard prune. I hope they don’t die! The hanging baskets are down and stored on a nail in the shed. As I work the shadows grow longer and the air more chilly, until at last the whole garden is dim and the kitchen lights send bright rectangles across the side-return. The Hunter’s Moon is high in the sky. I briefly stop on the doorstep to take a deep breathe of star-lit evening air then head inside to the snug warmth.

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