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Author Archives: auntyemily

About auntyemily

Screenwriter (CBeebies), science communicator, storyteller, author, podcaster and poet. @auntyemily on twitter (:

Travelling in Time and Space

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On Friday a mad lady scientist took her time machine through history to pick up some lady scientists and bring them to the Dundee Women in Science Festival. The resulting ensemble was called the Lady Scientist Stitch and Bitch. This was the fourth performance since the Illicit Ink spoken word show began a year ago at the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

I’ve loved being part of it – sitting in a sewing circle with such wonderful characters. These wonderful characters are wonderful writers too – they each researched a character from history and wrote and performed a piece as that character. I’m mostly quiet during the show while the scientists talk about who they are and why their achievements matter. I play Emma Darwin, she is brought along by accident (The mad lady scientist was going for Charles but he was stuck in the privy). The other scientists dismiss Emma but right at the end I speak to question if any of it matters. I talk about having kids and knowing loss and about the fear of loving someone who has completely different views on the most important things in life. I wanted to get to the heart of what really mattered to Emma:

“I’m not a scientist, does that matter? I am a woman, does that matter?

Read about the Lady Scientist Stitch and Bitch in the Dundee Courier here.

Lost Among The Stars

And now it’s happening again, a collaboratively written Illicit Ink show. But now I’m lost in space, not time. Again I say very little until the end. Again there are many different beautifully written characters. Some performed by the writers and some performed by actors. I’ve written and am performing as Tara the astronaut. She’s the one who gets lost. In Space.

Getting Into Character

I found it quite challenging – trying to imagine I’m alone in space and about to die. I listened to astronauts talking about their experiences on Radio 4. I looked at pictures of the earth from space. I had to record a few audio sections ahead as part of a conversation with mission control – but it didn’t smell right (I was slow cooking sausage casserole at the time – space shouldn’t smell of sausage casserole).

But when I read the heartfelt, beautiful monologues written by Tara’s boyfriend Jeffrey (I keep calling him ‘my imaginary boyfriend’ but that sounds a bit odd! His name is Ricky in real life) and the piece by Tara’s sister, who’s kind of half hates her but also loves her too (that’s written by Mel and acted by Roanna) – when I read their work I realised, it isn’t about being lost in space. It’s just about being human. So I managed to write a response to other human’s beautiful words with space as a geographical location. It’s about being real with stars. And I’ve always loved stars. I studied physics, I’m a planetarium presenter, I’ve written space episodes of Nina and the Neurons, I was making rockets on mothers day – I’m still kind of geeky with all things space. Maybe I’m more like Tara than I realise.

Space Wobbles

I’m pretty nervous about my writing and the performance. We had a rehearsal last week and I was totally impressed with everyone’s pieces. There were proper professional actors who were really good. Even the voice of mission control sounds like he’s actually working for NASA! I’m hoping I won’t spoil it with my bit. I’m hoping I won’t pee in my space suit. If I were an astronaut, that would be okay – they wear giant space nappies. The thing is, I will actually be wearing a space suit. But not a giant astronaut nappy.

ANYWAY, this isn’t the first time I’ve written a last address to the world, just before gruesome death. Last time it was for another collaboratively written Illicit Ink show during a zombie Apocalypse. You can read about that and see a video here.

AND this isn’t the first time I’ve written about being lost in space. Here’s a comic, created by me age 11. Okay so it’s about a dog going into space but use your imagination. I needed to go somewhere after giant nappies and zombie apocalypses. Meet Space Dog, yes I know – classic school ending to the story too (sorry!):

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Sadly there is no happy awakening at the end of Apollo 21. And no dogs. There will be space and music and humans. I may or may not make it back to Earth. 

Apollo 21: Lost Among the Stars will be performed on the evening of Wednesday 15th April at The Royal Observatory Edinburgh. Get Tickets from the Edinburgh International Science Festival website here. The Lady Scientist Stitch and Bitch sold out at the Science Festival Last Year so get your ticket early to avoid disappointment! 

 

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Rockets and Dancing in Dundee

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I’ve been working through in Dundee running science events as part of Dundee Women in Science Festival. On Mother’s Day we ran a Can’t-Dance-Cameron event for under sevens (and Mums!) in the morning. In the afternoon we ran ‘Love you to the Moon and Back’ rockets show and workshop for over sevens / families. Photographer Alan Richardson took some fab pictures at both events. My favourite photos were of the dancing:

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I love the photos that showed the children’s reactions too:

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There’s one of me looking highly uncool with head set and safety goggles:

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And finally the book signing at the end:

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Next up we have the ‘Love you to the Moon and Back’ rockets show and workshop:

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Making and testing rockets for the competition:     WiSF_Fly-Me_to_The_Moon_AR WiSF_Fly-Me_to_The_Moon_AR WiSF_Fly-Me_to_The_Moon_AR WiSF_Fly-Me_to_The_Moon_AR WiSF_Fly-Me_to_The_Moon_AR WiSF_Fly-Me_to_The_Moon_AR

The competition:

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The happy winner:

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And our grand finale, launching a water rocket in City Square:

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The best way to see the rocket launch is via a video:

Evaluation

The drawing of me launching the rocket (and getting wet) was on the back of one of the evaluation forms. My favourite comment on the forms was from the boy who won the rockets competition. When asked what he liked most about the event his answer was:

Winning flowers for my Mum

Big thanks to everyone at Dundee Women in Science Festival and to everyone who came along to the events.

Video: Ana Ranceva. Images: Alan Richardson

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2015 in Education, Events, nature, Science, storytelling

 

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Women and Science Festivals

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I’m excited to be taking part in Dundee’s Women in Science Festival this month. The festival is all about celebrating and supporting women in science, engineering and maths. I’m also off to Dunbar Science Festival this Friday on a similar theme – it’s a science spoken word night to celebrate international women’s day.

I’m doing seven events in total – for schools, families, mothers and other adults too. There’s a science poetry writing workshop and some spoken word and comedy shows. Men are also very welcome!

Here’s a wee summary of what’s coming up with links to get tickets, hope to see you at an event soon!

Wednesday 11th March: Can’t-Dance-Cameron school events

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Hillside Primary School, Hillside Nursery and Gowriehill Primary School in Dundee. Part of Dundee Women in Science Festival.

Friday 13th March: Rally and Broad, Dunbar Science Festival

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Rally & Broad are delighted to be coming to Dunbar Science Festival on Friday 13 March (8:30 – 10:30pm, Dunmuir Hotel, Dunbar)! We’ll be celebrating ‘Women in Science’ alongside Scots singer songwriter Kirsty Law; science writer and performer Emily Dodd, poet Russell Jones and the surreal musical stylings of Zara Gladman. Come with open ears…

More info and tickets here.

Sunday 15th March: Mother’s Day Science Shows (for families – Dad’s also welcome!)

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Can’t-Dance-Cameron tickets and info hereLove You to the Moon Rocket tickets and info here

Sunday 22nd March: Sparking Ideas From Science (writing workshop)

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I ran this workshop last year in the National Library of Scotland as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Really excited to be running it again using the D’Arcy Thompson collection for inspiration.

 Friday 27th March: The Lady Scientist Stitch and Bitch

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Tickets and info here.

FIND OUT MORE

Find Dundee Women in Science Festival online here and on facebook here. Download a copy of the Dundee Women in Science Festival Programme here. The twitter hashtag for Dundee Women in Science Festival is #womenscifest and you can follow the event organisers on twitter here

Find Dunbar Science Festival online here. Find them on facebook here and on twitter here

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2015 in Education, Events, poetry, Science, storytelling, Writing

 

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Maritime Memories of Leith and Newhaven

I’ve been working with older people in Leith and Historic Scotland’s maritime museum Trinity House to create digital stories. A digital story is a two to three minute audio sound track with still images over the top. It’s a personal story in the story maker’s own voice. These stories were inspired by the collections at Trinity House.

This week we had our red carpet premiere at the beautiful old cinema build of Destiny Church Leith. It’s one of the three remaining plaster cinema screens in the UK.

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We even rolled out a red carpet and over 70 people attended!

I introduced the digital stories at the event and thought that would be a good way to introduce you to the films now:

A Bow-Tow Remembers: Sophia Abrahamsen

Sophia is a Bow-Tow, that’s a person from Newhaven. She’s passionate about Newhaven History. On week two of the workshops Sophia read her first draft – it was so beautiful it was met by a spontaneous applause.  Who is Old Sherrag? Who lives in New Lane and why was Sophia abandoned as a child in Newhaven Harbour?

 

Watch the video on Youtube here.

From Lerwick to Leith: Stephen Hall

Stephen loved to talk about this family and that’s what this story is about. It’s also the first thing Stephen has written since school – I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s wonderful:

Watch the video on Youtube here.

Leith Docks: Ramsay Tubb

Ramsay began this story in school when he and two friends researched Leith Docks. Just what was it about the docks that captured his imagination?

Watch the video on Youtube here

All at Sea: Andrew Grant

Andrew is an amazing local historian. As well as bringing his local knowledge, Andrew helped digitise many of the images you see in these stories. Andrew had so many stories that his first read through was eight minutes instead of three. He had the challenge to shorten this and he chose one story – the story of his maritime training:

Watch the video on Youtube here.

How did the project begin?

I worked on a similar project facilitating digital story workshops with the Govan Reminiscence Group and Britain from Above. I’ll blog about that soon! I got chatting with Lucy at Trinity House and suggested digital stories would be a great way to engage people on their collections as well as capturing and sharing local history.

What did the project involve?

Firstly we ran a drop in recruitment session at the Living Memory Association venue in Leith’s Ocean Terminal.

We told people more about the project, shared some memories as a group and gave people a chance to sign up.

Each participant came to six two hour workshops with homework in between too. We drank tea, ate cake and worked on the stories.

The group gave feedback on each story – polishing a tweaking them and choosing the right images:

Lucy Bull provided the expertise on Trinity House and their collections and I ran the storytelling exercises. It was amazing to see the participant’s stories grow and improve over the weeks and it was wonderful to get such a brilliant reaction to them at the premiere.

UPDATE:

I’m looking forward to seeing this in the Edinburgh Evening News any day now. You can read about this project on STV here.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2015 in Education, Events, Film, Media, storytelling, Writing

 

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Timmy The Turbine: Edinburgh International Science Festival

The Edinburgh International Science Festival launched its 2015 programme earlier this week. I’m really excited to say a science story I’ve written will be running every half an hour (for ages three plus) in the City Art Centre. Turn to page 7 of the programme, bottom right hand corner and you’ll see this:

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I wrote about the process of developing and piloting Timmy the Turbine for Vento Ludens here. I’m going to be training the Edinburgh International Science Festival Staff to run Timmy The Turbine soon – looking forward to that!

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Timmy the Turbine runs from the 4th to the 18th April (not Sundays) in The City Art Centre during the 2015 Edinburgh International Science Festival. If you know any children how enjoy science and stories, please do send them along. 

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2015 in Education, Events, Science, storytelling, Writing

 

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Drawing Again

Are there things you used to love doing as a child but then for some reason, you stopped?

For me it was drawing. I loved to draw and later to paint. I’d forget to eat, I’d spend hours on one picture, I loved building an idea, one line at a time.

Almost First

When I was seven I came second in an art competition with this:

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The judges said the leaves on the drawing were too good for a child of my age and I’d obviously had help. That’s why I wasn’t getting first place. I did the picture in school so my teacher, Mrs Richardson was furious. She hadn’t helped with the leaves. She said that second and an accusation of cheating was a compliment – I should be proud.

Be Careful What You Draw

When I was nine my picture won the Ambergate carnival programme competition. It was printed on the programme cover and on posters all over the village and I was given a T-shirt with my picture on it. I remember drawing the zebra crossing and a few houses out of my head, quickly so it wasn’t very good – it had wobbly lines and I was a little ashamed when it won but I couldn’t say that because it would sound ungrateful and everyone kept congratulating me.

Bananas on the Wall

When I was 14 my art teacher Mr Young put my work up all over the art room and in the corridor at school. I remember feeling embarrassed – a WHOLE WALL of my stuff. And a corridor too. A sort of Emily exhibition. I didn’t know he was going to do it. The rest of the work was the fifth year’s because their work was really good.

I had a banana thing going on at the time. This is a depressed banana in prison in pastel (imagine a person sitting hugging their folded knees) and it was huge, 80cm across:

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And this was Van Gogh’s bedroom with a depressed banana slumped on the chair:

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And bananas in bed:

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So my bananas (there were many more) and four self portraits (we had to do them!) were up all over the school.

A-Level Art

When I was 16, Mr Young tried to find an A-Level to enter my GCSE work into – two years early. He was an A-Level moderator for the county, he said my work was good enough. But all the courses needed an art theory element to A-Level standard. Something I didn’t have. I did do A-Level art the following two years at college. And maths and physics.

Everyone has an Opinion

When I applied for University I had to choose between art and science. People told me science was ‘useful’. That artists are poor. That even the good ones are only appreciated when dead. That art is hugely competitive – it’s unlikely I’d make it. That it’s much easier to do art in your spare time (picture a science shed blowing up in the back garden!). They said science would get me a job. Science was safe.

Nobody said:

The creative industries bring in more money to the UK then any other industry

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If you’re an artist, you’ll need to create art. Otherwise a part of who you are just won’t exist and you’ll never be fully you or fully happy.

So I chose science. Geophysics – physics for people who like going outside. And I stopped drawing. No I lie, we had to draw rocks in geology and I got told off. The tutor wrote “too artistic’ in red pen on my beautiful diagrams. But apart from that, I didn’t draw.

Fast Forward Fourteen Years:

Last summer I was pitching my second picture book ‘The Grouse and the Mouse’ to my editor. She explained they wouldn’t be working with the illustrator from my last book ‘Can’t-Dance-Cameron: A Scottish Capercaillie Story’. And something strange happened. A still small voice in my head whispered:

You should do it

I internally replied by thinking ‘Don’t be ridiculous! I’m not an illustrator. As if I could do it!’ And that was that.

But ‘You should do it’ was still there. Like a gentle knocking on a door I was refusing to open.

My parents had asked in the past “why aren’t you illustrating your own books?” and I had replied “because I’m not an illustrator. I don’t have an illustration degree. It’s not like it’s easy” and so on. I’d never realistically considered it.

Maybe I could learn?

The ‘you should do it’ thought wouldn’t go away so I started to think maybe I should do a course in illustration. It would be fun. No pressure to be good – just a chance to learn. To ‘do it’ as a hobby.

I looked for short courses at Edinburgh College of Art and at Leith School of Art and on the Council adult education programme. There were NO short courses in illustration.

Ask an Illustrator

I went along to the Edinburgh Literary Salon and found an author-illustrator friend of mine, John Fardell. I explained my background in fine art and that I was looking for courses – was he teaching any, did he know of any? He said:

You don’t need to do a course, just draw

But I don’t have a style (I said). He replied with:

You don’t need a style. Just work and your style is there. It’s how you draw. It’s you.

He also told me about a workshop he was running that weekend at the National Library of Scotland. It was for children over 8. I’m over 8 so I decided to sign up.

Make a Commitment

I kept thinking about what John said. The next day I spoke to a good friend and former writing mentor of mine Elspeth Murray. She does lots of sketching so I suggested we have a sketching date. I told her I’d decided I would start drawing… sometime in the next month. She said:

Emily, why not today?

I made some excuses and hung up. The truth was I was scared. Scared I’d be rubbish. Even more scared I’d become the slightly crazy person I was as a teenager – drawing giant bananas and forgetting to eat. Singing with paint in my hair.

Why Not Today?

And then I realised Elspeth was right. No one need know. There’s a draw under my bed full of art stuff, I never use it but it’s all there – water colours, acrylics, gouach, pastels, paper, pencils. I chose a pencil and a rubber and a pack of pastels. I decided to try drawing a character from my new book – The Grouse and the Mouse. I drew Squeaker the wood mouse:

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It was my first drawing in 14 years and there he was, suddenly alive. I wanted to stroke his little wood mouse head and I felt so happy. I emailed him to friends, to Elspeth and to John and a few others. Like a kid who wants to show everyone their picture. It was a wonderful feeling. And after that I started to draw every day. I drew in bed instead of reading – so I could fit it in.

The course with John Fardell

That weekend I went to the course with John Fardell and the 8 year olds. It was AMAZING. John talked through his process from roughs all the way to finished artwork. He showed us examples at each stage. He talked about how to tell stories through pictures across the page. I learned so much.

Afterwards we all started drawing – the 8 year olds and me. I had a question for John – how do you make a grouse smile when it has a downward beak? I’d tried making the beak turn up instead but it didn’t look right – I mean it didn’t look like a grouse. John explained that Disney bird beaks start the right shape and then turn up at the end – that’s how to give them expression – think Donald Duck. So I tried that and suddenly I had anatomically correct expressive grouse:

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One night soon after that I tried three new ways of drawing Squeaker the wood mouse. I was trying to find my character.  I tried realistic, cute and cartoon:

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Something unexpected happened. I got out of bed and did a little dance. I can’t remember when I last did anything like that. A part of me was back. I felt like a child again. A little bit unhinged but I liked it. Maybe that was me?

I emailed my mouse drawings to John and he told me specifically what was working and what wasn’t (e.g. the first one has a rather long monkey like arm – and he’s too stiff). He was brilliant at balancing praise and encouragement with useful constructive feedback.

Use the Mistakes

I read James Campbell’s Guardian article on how to be an illustrator. Tip nine suggests drawing straight in pen and if you make a mistake just keep going – the mistake becomes part of the picture (rather like life). I tried it and these are the mice I drew:

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No pencil, no rubber. I was getting more confident. I emailed them to John, he especially liked the round one above – he said it was my best yet!

Picture Hooks

I’d heard about an Edinburgh based illustration conference and a mentoring scheme called Picture Hooks. I decided to start working on a submission, the prize was an illustration mentor – I really wanted that. I’d told John I was entering and he’d said he would be happy to advise me on my submission.

I also asked my publishers if I could submit my competition entry to them – would they consider me as an illustrator for The Grouse and the Mouse? They said it was highly unlikely but I could have a go. Mainly because I explained how much I was enjoying doing it and that I wanted the best for the book so if my pictures weren’t good enough I’d be totally happy for them not to use them.

I noticed I was improving every time I drew so I decided to do my picture hooks submission work as last minute as possible. That might sound like a bad plan but I wanted to get as good as I could before I did it.

Deadline Weekend

The deadline was Sunday midnight and I spent all of Saturday on a double page spread. Here’s half way through the day, my messy desk, sketch book and page plan!

20140830_163834Here’s the spread almost finished – it’s A3:

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John advised adding more background so I did that next and added some text.

On the Sunday I started a three page character sequence. I decided to try water colours because that’s what John uses. I spent two hours on one mouse and it was a total disaster:

IMG_20140901_114017It looked like a hunchback. At this point I very nearly gave up. I’d wasted so much time and still had three pages to go. What was I thinking trying a totally new technique? More to the point what was I thinking trying to be an illustrator?

But then I thought of John and that he’d taken the time to feedback on my first double page spread, despite being a busy man so I decided I couldn’t just give up because he believed I could be an illustrator, even if I didn’t.

I planned out a new page:

20140901_134758And started to pastel each bit:

20140901_215127 (2)I got it finished but by then it was around 11pm and I needed to submit at midnight. I did my final page as a quick rough A3 pencil sketch, I drew it in ten minutes:

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I submitted and sent it all to John too. I told him about the disastrous water colour mouse and that I’d considered gin and tonic at that point but that I’d finally got it all done. He said people love to see roughs and that my rough sketch was really good so it had actually strengthened my application. I sent my work to Floris too. Then I waited.

No and No

I got a no from Picture Hooks. It went like this:

Dear Emily

We met recently to consider the entries and it was a tough process as the standard was so high. I am sorry to be writing to inform you that we were unable to include you on the shortlist, even though we enjoyed looking at your work very much.

Emily, we hope that you will understand our thinking. Everyone admired your work and we all felt it had great commercial potential. However, after much discussion, we decided that you didn’t really require the close attention of an illustrator as a mentor for the year. I hope you won’t be disappointed because actually this is an endorsement from us about how good your work already is.You have your own distinctive style and a great track record – have confidence as you are well on your way.

Kind regards

Lucy

I sent it on to John and asked if he thought it was softening the blow? He said he’d had many rejections in his time but this wasn’t one of them. And that I should take it as a compliment.

Soon after I got a No from Floris too. They wanted to use a professional illustrator. I was expecting them to say no so it was okay – I wanted the best for the book and was really happy they were publishing my words for a second time, even if they didn’t want my pictures.

But where did I go now? I was too commercial to need a mentor and not professional enough to get published. I felt stuck.

A Yes and a Yes

But then a lovely thing happened. John said he’d be happy to keep feeding back on my work. So I had a mentor after all. And one who’s already helped me improve so much – someone I respect and love working with.

At the end of last year, I wrote a nonfiction book for Harper Collins and as a result I’m now working with a brilliant literary agent, Lindsey Fraser. She’s one half of Fraser Ross Associates – a children’s specialist literary agents. They work with authors AND illustrators. So now I had an agent too, primarily for my words but if my illustrations get good enough in the future I’d have help to pitch them to publishers.

I took some of my drawings to her for a new book I’ve written about squirrels:

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She gave me some brilliant advice – my writing has humour in it but my illustrations tend to be a picture of the thing – I’m not bringing me or my humour into them. I realised she was right – I was playing it safe by sticking relatively close to a picture of a real animal. Not changing it much. Not daring to use my own imagination. So that’s my next challenge. And I’ve got John and Lindsey to help.

The Future

Just now I’m looking at renting out my flat and moving to the country to help me to reduce living costs. That way I can spend more time writing and drawing. And as for illustration, I’m hoping one day I might get there. One day I might illustrate my own books.

The thing is, even if I don’t, I can still enjoy the process of drawing. I will do little dances of joy because the artist in me has been allowed to come out and play.

My second picture book ‘The Grouse and The Mouse’ comes out later this year, it’s illustrated by the brilliant Kirsteen Harris-Jones.

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2015 in illustration, nature

 

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Kick It Cameron!

Last week, people kept sending me links to a video of this bird:

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The video was of a dancing capercaillie attacking skiers! It went viral. That same week I got a couple of lovely letters about my much less violent capercaillie children’s book ‘Can’t-Dance-Cameron‘. I wanted to share these things with you.

Firstly, I’m sure you’re dying to see the video:

It reminds me of how important it is to observe nature from a distance! Male capericallies dance during the mating season but they also dance in defense. Sometimes they dance so hard they drop down dead. No joke. And there’s only around 1000 of them left in the wild in Scotland. That’s why we humans shouldn’t get too close. If they waste their energy dancing for us it might just be their last dance.

If you do want to see the phenomena that is a dancing capericaillie you could watch one from inside a bird hide. That way you don’t disturb the bird causing any unnecessary dance moves. I’ve been to RSPB Loch Garten Caperwatch the last three years in a row to try to see a dancing capericaillie. I live tweeted my adventures and even made a wee video about it. Did I see a dancing bird? You can find out here.

Alternatively, to dance like a capericallie without harming any capericallies in the comfort of your own home or school, you could follow the dance moves in Can’t-Dance-Cameron!

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And now, on that lighter and much lovelier note – I’ve received a letter from a Dad and one from a Mum all about just that:

 xxxx had to give a talk in school this week about an object that summed up ‘Scottish identity’. So, he took along his signed copy of ‘Cameron’ and talked for two minutes in front of his P2 class. His teacher said he did really well, and she was delighted to discover the book through him. She read it to the class after his talk and it went down a storm, with all the kids doing the Cameron Boogie at the end. The teacher has ordered a few copies for the school (she said she was struggling to find new books for P2’s with accessible Scottish themes). So, if you are planning a promotional roadshow to local schools any time soon, please include xxxx PS in Musselburgh to the list – you already have an established fan base there!

I just wanted to let you know how much we loved your new book – My daughter was given a signed copy of ‘Can’t Dance Cameron’ for Christmas and I will make sure its kept safe so she can treasure it forever . She loves the book and we read it often and do the dances , we both love the beautiful pictures and the story of the book is very apt for my little late bloomer who took her time to find her groove like Cameron. We can’t wait for other stories to follow x

Writing is sometimes a lonely job – you don’t get much feedback sat at a desk by yourself. So getting letters like these is really one of the loveliest things about being a writer. It’s so great to know you’re making a difference – thanks to the parents who took the time to write them – you totally made my day!

 Image Credit: Laurie Campbell

 
 

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