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Launching the Summer Reading Challenge

Emily Dodd in Hawick

I had a lovely time in the Scottish Borders last week at the launch of the summer reading challenge. This year’s theme is ‘Animal Agents’, about animal detectives. I visited Melrose Library in the morning:

And Hawick Library in the afternoon:

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Thanks to the families who came along to the Ollie and the Otter (illustrated by Kirsteen Harris-Jones) nature storytelling sessions! There was water squirting, fish catching, bird dancing and giant pine cones. And thanks to the awesome children who were part of the photo shoot at the library afterwards:

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The photographer was Scottish sports photographer of the year Jeff Homes. We didn’t do sport but we did do some bird dancing as part of the storytelling so maybe that counts?!

I don’t normally have professional photos taken so thought you might like to see some?!

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(I love those wellies! But what is that giant tesco book all about? – it seems very popular?)

40,000 children take part in the challenge to read a book a week over the summer holidays. Its a great way to encourage reading for pleasure. You can read more about the launch in the Hawick Telegraph here.

The Summer Reading Challenge is run by national charity The Reading Agency in partnership with Scotland’s libraries and Tesco Bank

 
 

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Blue Dot Days and the Golden Road

I’ve planned the year in dots. I love my colour coded wall planner:

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Yellow is author events. Green is workshops for Historic Environment Scotland. Red is deadlines. Orange is conferences and meetings. The more red, yellow and green I have, the more I need blue dots. Blue dots are rest.

Rest to me looks like:

  • Walking in the hills
  • Cooking and baking
  • Reading
  • Time with close friends
  • Gardening
  • Drawing
  • Slow mornings
  • Cleaning the house
  • Playing football 
  • Watching Poldark with a Gin and Tonic
  • Writing that I’m not being paid to do (writing for fun!)

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(a blue dot day ipad sketch of a stag)

It’s basically doing things that allow me to recharge. The last couple of months have a pretty intense yellow, green and red –go-go-go time. And I’ve not always got the balance right but being aware I need more blue on the wall planner helps. I don’t work properly without blue dots. I don’t think any of us do. The blue dots make everything else possible.

Sabbath

You might call a blue dot Sabbath – a concept that came as a law to 2 million people who were liberated from slavery. The problem was they kept working every day as if they were still slaves. They needed a law to remind them to take a day off.

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(no this isn’t Moses – it’s me on a brunch weekend away to Loch Lomond but it’s in here to remind me to stop, take a day and go up a hill!)

Blue dots aren’t law for me and I can’t often make them Sundays because of working events on weekends. A whole day is preferable but not always possible. But a blue dot morning or a walk to the studio the long way, on the bike tracks and along the river, that’s making blue dots part of everyday.

I’m trying to make it a way of life. To sustain the energy to perform and to write well – I need gaps.

Flexible Dots 
Recently I went on holiday to the Cairngorms – one of my favourite places in Scotland. I’d happily stuck five blue dots onto the wall planner months earlier. But since then I’d had a big book contract and the book was going to print the week after the holiday. I had final proofs of pages coming in every day so I worked around it, I had to. I got up every morning at 6.30am, did a couple of hours reviewing pages and then met folk for breakfast – it worked – it might not be total switch off but it was better than just working. I worked and then enjoyed mountains… and cake!

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Not long after that I was asked to write about being inspired by nature for Books From Scotland – so I wrote about the trip to the Cairngorms – you can read it here. It’s about how places inform writing just as a product of being there – of showing up for a blue dot.

Blue Dot Evenings: Lewis
Last month I was working on an oral history project with a school on the Isle of Lewis – you can read about it on the Historic Environment Scotland blog here. One thing I loved about the team was every evening we went for a mini adventure. We had a walk on a beach, or went to see a stone circle or lighthouse.

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(I loved this cave on Lewis – made me want to swim!)

It was a wee recharge of an evening. And we laughed lots too. That really helped when running workshops four days in a row. The blue dot evenings made the days possible.

The Golden Road: Harris
The project team returned to the mainland while I stayed with a friend for another day and night. I’d planned ahead with a dot. I had a slow breakfast, like really slow! And hired a car to drive to the Isle of Harris. It was just me and my orange bug (car) on an adventure on the golden road – yes the road is really called that!

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Harris is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Like ridiculous amounts of beauty but all squashed into one small place. I stopped every few 100 meters because it was just so flipping lovely everywhere!

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The sheep on Harris did what sheep do, they were standing on the road and siting about. And then I saw these guys. They were different. Organised. In formation. Bleating in harmony. Imagine a Doctor Who episode:

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What do you notice about those sheep?

They’re sheep –white and fluffy? They go baaa. They eat grass.

Look more closely.

They’re all facing the same way? Oh and they’re standing together on rocks. They’re in tune…

Yes. The sheep are organised…

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And they were looking at me. So I drove off!

And then there were the beaches. Normally beaches are beautiful right enough – sand and cliffs and the view of the sea. But it’s usually sea out to sea. Unless…you’re on Harris where there are mountains (and more sheep).

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Like a painter decided to mix all the best elements of a landscape together in one painting that’s really quite unrealistic. But it is real – it’s Harris!

I got the best gin from the Harris Distillery and got my ipad a new jacket from the Harris Tweed Shop. I drove back as the sun set and returned to my friend’s after dark. With memories to take home from the blue dot day on Harris.

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Posted by on July 5, 2017 in Education, Environment, nature, Writing

 

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Ollie and the Otter Book Launch Pictures

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Last month I launched a new picture book, Ollie and the Otter. Lots of lovely folk came along to Waterstones in Edinburgh and Chris Scott took brilliant photos. Thanks to everyone for coming, here’s the highlights:

Editor Eleanor started the evening with a thoughtful introduction:
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I came up to say hi:

Ollie and the Otter launch And throw fish at folk

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Rory the otter squirted water…
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We made the smells of the forest and an osprey caught a magnetic fish and lots of volunteers came out to help.
Ollie and the Otter launch The sparkly water weed wings were placed on Rory the otter…Ollie and the Otter launch

He was pinged on a seesaw branch. Rory flew through the air with his water weed wings, whistling in the wind…

Ollie and the Otter launch Ollie the osprey had a great time making noises and helping with drinks: Ollie and the Otter launch

We listened to the story

Ollie and the Otter launch Some folks followed along with their own book Ollie and the Otter launch

Ollie and the Otter launch And everyone seemed to enjoy it, phew! Ollie and the Otter launch

The illustrator Kirsteen Harris Jones joined us for the Q and A

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People asked questions

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And folk bought books Ollie and the Otter launch

We signed them (for ages!)

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Ollie and the Otter launch

Thanks again so much for coming! If you enjoyed it, please could you review the book on amazon?Ollie and the Otter launch

Ollie and the Otter was illustrated by Kirsteen Harris-Jones and published by Floris Books inprint Picture Kelpies.  See more photos in Chris Scott’s flickr album here.

 

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Black Holes and Hot Chocolate

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I’ve written my first radio story. It’s about space and mental health and it’s aimed at upper primary school children.

A friend who listened said he thinks it’s a helpful way of talking about mental health for adults too.

I wanted to write about what it’s like for children and families when one family member disengages. Here’s a wee section from the middle of the story, Ben and his mum are stargazing but Dad has stayed at home:

She poured him a cup of hot chocolate and they sipped together. It tasted good.

“It feels like he doesn’t like me” said Ben.

“That must be so hard Ben. But it’s not true, we both really like you a lot – we love you Ben!

Ben sipped his hot chocolate. He didn’t look at Mum.

“When your Dad sips hot chocolate, it doesn’t taste good to him just now. So it’s not just you, he just doesn’t enjoy things like he used to, because of the way he’s feeling. It’s not because of anything you’ve done and we can’t fix it”

“I wish we could. That must be rubbish for him” said Ben “I love hot chocolate”

“But sometimes he does enjoy things though, like the other night when you laughed so much that milk came out of your nose?”

“Yeah, that was gross. Dad really laughed. I wish he was always like that!”

“Me too Ben……         Do you see the moon?”

Ben forgot they’d come here to look up.

“We can only see a bit of it, but is the rest still there?”

“Of course!” said Ben

“But how do you know it hasn’t gone, you can’t see it?”

Ben thought for a moment.

“Well because the crescent is enough of the moon to know there’s a moon. The rest is hidden in shadow but I know it’s there”

“Well it’s the same with Dad. He’s with us but we might just see bits of the old Dad, the one who laughs lots. But he’s still here. And in time – he’ll be back to his old self”

Listen to Black Holes and Hot Chocolate on the BBC Scotland Schools radio website here, play from 9 minutes 20s.

The commission was to write something for KS2 with a stargazing theme and a link to Australia. I set it on Blackford Hill in Edinburgh but it could be any hill near a town or city in Scotland.

Half way through writing the story, physicist Stephen Hawking gave a lecture to celebrate his 70th birthday. He talked about black holes and compared them to depression. I’d pitched black holes as a metaphor to the BBC before Stephen did his lecture (tiny bit annoyed he got there first!) but I loved his beautiful words:

Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up – there’s a way out.

Stephen Hawking

Read more about his lecture on ‘Image’ here.

Here’s how I wrote about black holes in the story, They’re looking at the constellation signus the swan:

“Signus is where the first black hole was discovered. It’s called Signus X1. The X means black hole…

“And one because it’s the first one?” Said Ben

“Right. It’s kind of darker than the surrounding area – can you see?”

Ben could see a sort of dark shape but he wasn’t sure if he was just imagining it.

“It sucks everything in, even light.”

“Do you think that’s how it feels for Dad?” asked Ben.

They were quiet for a moment, staring at the stars.

“Maybe, sometimes” said Mum “I think sometimes he feels like he’s in a dark tunnel but he’s holding on. Like if you’re on a train – you don’t jump off when it’s dark, you wait until you come out of the other side.”

“Do things come out of the other side of the black hole?”

“Well, not exactly… they get squashed.”

They laughed.

“I prefer the idea of a tunnel” said Ben.

“But things can’t just disappear. No one knows what’s on the other side of a black hole. Energy can’t be destroyed, it just changes from one form to another. There’s always hope Ben.”

The BBC team tested the story in school at different stages and I worked hard to rewrite it while keeping the story to it’s 8 minute broadcast length. We knew this was a potentially difficult subject to engage children on, I was asked to give it a happier ending. We also knew that one in three men in Scotland suffer from mental health problems in their lifetime so this is something children in Scotland will have come across, even if they’ve not talked about it. That’s why it’s important people do talk about it.

So often it’s the stories of people with metal health problems we hear but there’s also the story of those around them. Their story is just as important.

The school curriculum in Scotland has relevant outcomes that all children are required to learn in school from nursery age upwards including:

  • I am aware of and able to express my feelings and am developing the ability to talk about them.
  • I know that we all experience a variety of thoughts and emotions that affect how we feel and behave and I am learning ways of managing them.
  • I understand that there are people I can talk to and that there are a number of ways in which I can gain access to practical and emotional support to help me and others in a range of circumstances.
  • I understand that my feelings and reactions can change depending upon what is happening within and around me. This helps me to understand my own behaviour and the way others behave.
  • I understand the importance of mental wellbeing and that this can be fostered and strengthened through personal coping skills and positive relationships.
  • I know that it is not always possible to enjoy good mental health and that if this happens there is support available.

I’m so grateful for a school system in Scotland that supports conversations like this one. I really hope you enjoy it. Please pass it on to any teachers you know who might be interested.

Listen to the whole program for a fab space story from author Gill Arbuthnott proceeding mine, it’s called ‘A Long Way From Home’. Black Holes and Hot Chocolate starts at 9.20. Both stories were first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 22nd March 2017. Listen to the whole episode here.

Thanks to Rob Pearson, Producer at BBC Scotland Learning; Angela Darcy and Terence Rae who read the story; to the school children who fed back on the first version, to my agent Lindsey Fraser and to everyone else involved. Finally – thanks to you for listening. 

 
 

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The Enchanted Forest

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I was invited to Riverside Primary in Stirling to be part of their ‘Enchanted Forest’ storytelling session. It was funded by the First Minister’s Reading Challenge Inspiring Classrooms Award. We had a wonderful time and it was something totally different to my usual events so I wanted to tell you a bit about it.

The teacher, Mrs Gemmell and the children in Primary Four decided they wanted to use their outdoor classroom space for the first time – they wanted a magical outdoor storytelling evening and they wanted to invite their families too. The school bought blankets for the event and everyone wore warms clothes.

We’d checked sunset times and worked out we’d start in the light and it would get dark by the end of the session. The children all enjoyed a hot chocolate and then I did some interactive story activities with the group.

We met the animals in the forest and learnt more about their behaviour as we re-enacted it. We created the smell of the forest and there was a football challenge with a giant football pine cone. I shared the story of Can’t-Dance-Cameron and everyone joined in on actions. Then it was time to toast marshmallows on the fire. I got to do one too!

After that I did a few more activities (including a rocket to make the pop sound of a capercaillie and a camouflage demonstration) and we finished on the story of The Grouse and the Mouse.

I know my books off by heart and I realised it would be distracting to turn pages in an outdoor space and much more intimate to share them as a storyteller. This was the first time I’ve told them that way and it worked really well. I used to do a lot of storytelling before I became an author so it felt good to be doing that again.

The whole event lasted an hour and there was such a lovely sense of community. The children and parents were brilliant fun and we all shared a love for stories. I signed books and postcards at the end and everyone headed home.

I’m glad the First Minister’s reading challenge is encouraging schools to come up with creative ways to enjoy stories – I really loved being part of something so special that night! Thanks to Mrs Gemmell and everyone at Riverside for having me!

 
 

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Ollie and the Otter Book Launch

It’s official, this is the window at Waterstones, Prince’s Street in Edinburgh today:

waterstonesdodd(Thanks Keira Brown for tweeting this photo!)

I invite you to the launch of my new picture book ‘Ollie and the Otter‘, illustrated by Kirsteen Harris-Jones on Thursday 9th March at  6.30pm! You can collect tickets from Waterstones in person or order them online via eventbrite here. Here is the lovely book cover:

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It’s aimed at children aged 3 – 6 years but lots of people will be coming without children so if you have some they’re so welcome but you don’t need to borrow any if not. Look here’s a Chris Scott photo from the last book launch I did:

The Grouse and the Mouse launch

(see, lots of adults!)

Here’s a bit about the story:

Ollie the osprey loves catching fish but he’s useless at throwing them! And if he can’t throw a fish to Isla, she’ll never become his friend. Can Rory the otter help? A fun book about the loveable birds and animals of the Scottish Highlands.

You can take a sneak peak into the book and read more about it here.

There will be wine and nibbles and books and fun! Hopefully see you there! The cat will be staying at home…

If you’re not too sure what to expect, check out the Can’t-Dance-Cameron book launch photos and blog or The Grouse and the Mouse book launch photos and blog

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2017 in Education, Events, nature, storytelling, Writing

 

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Adventures in Sketching

I recently spent a lovely week visiting relatives in England. I set myself the challenge of sketching every day. Mostly because it’s a fun, relaxing thing to do on holiday. But also because I’d love to illustrate my own books and I want to get better. My illustration mentor, John Fardell has been telling me to sketch every day for a long while. So finally I made the time to do it. Here’s how I got on:

DAY ZERO: SUNFLOWER

The day before I left a stylus arrived – I had my first go at sketching on my ipad with the notes app:

Then I downloaded the paper app to try that next…

DAY ONE: WOBBLY OTTER (all the pens, paintprush and pencil)

wobblyotterI sketched this on the train so it’s not precise. It was my first go with the paper app and only my second go at sketching on an ipad so it was all about getting used to it. I enjoyed trying the different pens and colours and seeing which ones blend and which override the one below. I love otters!

DAY TWO: SCOTTIE DOG (Dip pen and a little bit of pencil)

scottiedogI’m writing a book about a worm and a scottie dog just now so that’s why I chose to draw him! I google image searched for ‘scottie dog’ and chose one I liked. He was on my phone while I sketched on the ipad. I was really pleased with the result.

DAY THREE: OSCAR (Dip pen, ball point pen, pencil, paintbrush)

oscarI was missing my lovely cat so I thought I’d draw him. He’s all black so that was a challenge but I realised the great thing about digital drawing is, you can add lighter colours over the top of darker ones. In real life that doesn’t really work so I made the most of that, building up the dark colours first and adding the light after. It even looks like him (:

DAY FOUR: QUICK MINI (Dip pen) AND A NEPHEW (Dip pen, paintbrush)mini

My sister picked up an amazing new mini! I love minis and really enjoyed sketching the light on something shiny!

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I also tried to sketch my nephew from a photo but it went a bit wrong and aged him by about ten years – he looks like someone else:nephewI tried to get the mouth right so many times and eventually gave up and just did a little line! So I learnt mouths are hard and maybe I should stick to animals.

DAY FIVE: BROUGHTON FOX (Dip pen, ball point pen, pencil, paintbrush)

fox

The Broughton Spurtle were having a competition to find foxes in Broughton and I noticed a fab photo of a fox by Camera Stellata:

I thought I’d go for some colour this time, I really loved building up the colours in layers and adding texture and inking over lines. I was really pleased with this – it looks 3D and I like his face!

DAY SIX: PTARMIGAN (Dip pen, ball point pen, pencil, paintbrush)

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I love rare Scottish birds – I’ve written books about a black grouse and a capercaillie. Earlier this year I had a wonderful experience sitting next to a pair of Ptarmigan up Cairngorm. Here’s a picture I took with my phone of one of them:

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They have white feathers in winter and black feathers in summer and they change to half and half in spring and autumn. They’re pretty cool as birds go! Here’s the lovely photo by Ben Dolphin that I sketched from:

I also added some lettering – my writing is quite messy, I’m a bit dyslexic but I’ve been encouraged by illustrators like Oliver Jeffers who use messy letters as part of their illustrations and thought I’d have a go – I like it!

DAY SEVEN: QUICK WILLOW (Dip pen, ball point pen, paintbrush)

willow

I had a lovely day on my Dad’s canal boat. I just had ten minutes after lunch to sketch one of the willows before we moved on along the canal (and I was needed for locks!). It’s an impression but I think it could work as a style for a background in a picture book? If you screw your eyes up it suddenly looks real so I like that about it! Here’s the canal in real life:

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DAY EIGHT: NIECE (Dip pen, ball point pen, paintbrush)IMG_20160720_003611My final day of the trip and I’d forgotten to sketch until the plane ride home. A friend had said they thought I should try people again so I decided to give it one more go and sketched a picture of my niece in the time it took to complete the journey. The only problem is my style went a bit realistic rather than children’s illustration. It’s a bit too intense. Then I tried to make the eyes less realistic. But it’s just a bit of a weird mishmash of styles.

One of the best bits is the clothes and I just did them really quick! But one good thing is, her mouth! It looks like a real mouth so at least I improved at something. I ran out of time to finish this but it’s something I can come back to. People are hard!

AND NOW…

I’ll keep going. The best thing was I totally loved doing it. I improved. I got excited every time I finished a sketch and I wanted to show someone – kind of like being a kid again. It’s nice to feel that. Thanks to the people who encouraged me when I sent photos and posted them on my facebook page, twitter and instagram.

Sketching made me get up earlier to sketch before the day started. I felt happy and excited. Even if I never illustrate my own books – I think I’ll make sketching part of life!

Thanks to John Fardell for all the illustration encouragement. And to Elspeth Murray for being an awesome Ipad sketcher and making Ipad sketching a thing.  And to Stuart for convincing me a stylus would work on my Ipad, even though I’d tried five and even called the apple help line (who said a stylus was ‘unsupported’ on the ipad mini). Turns out you can even use sausages

 
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Posted by on July 29, 2016 in illustration, nature, Writing

 

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