Category Archives: children’s books

When The Dragons Came To Play

(For Findley – born 19.04.2016)                                                              

The dragons came again today.
They came in style, as dragons do.
I thought they’d come to eat us up,
But they just wanted to meet… you.dragons-at-sunset

The sky was filled with dragons’ wings
And spiky scales of every hue.
Their amber eyes saw everything,
And glittered when they looked for you.

And the wind in the trees went woooosh, woooosh, shhhhhhh
When the dragons came to play.

findley-6-months-copyThey’d heard you were the bravest boy,
You seldom slept or seemed to tire,
But smiled at everything – and laughed
When they came breathing trails of fire.

Legend foretold your bluest eyes,
Sprinkled with magic, three times blessed.
And dust of stars within your heart
Meant you would master any quest.

And the wind in the trees went
woooosh, woooosh, shhhhhhh
When the dragons came to play.

 

They mentioned they had come before,
To barbeque us all, but when
They saw you smiling up at them
They turned and flew back home again.

They wondered if you’d like to go
Up to the mountains – you could fly
Straight to their lair on dragons’ wings,
And ride across the morning sky.dragon-silhouettejpg

They’d make some toast with just one breath,
Play hide-and-seek behind the sun –
There were so many of their games
That you could try. You’d have such fun.

And the wind in the trees went woooosh, woooosh, shhhhhhh
When the dragons came to play.

I said we would consider that,
Though we had lots of things to do.
(It always pays to be polite
When dragons want to play with you.)

findley-elephant

 

They said they’d take the greatest care,
That they would never let you fall.
They’d play some dragon games to see
How brave you really were, that’s all…

They promised not to breathe on you,
Would bring you back in time for tea.
I thanked them very much, but said
I’d like to keep you here – with me.fikndley-tomatoAnd the wind in the trees went woooosh, woooosh, shhhhhhh
When the dragons came to play.

One dragon tapped his claw and hummed
A little tune. He looked quite nice,
Until I asked him if he knew
You had the gift of Fire and Ice?

The dragon’s scales turned pasty grey,dragon-and-sky
And ice?” he stuttered, blinking fast.
I nodded. You sat there and smiled.
“Good grief, is that the time?” he laughed.

 

findley-grinning-june-2016-copyYou traced a pattern on your hand.
A snow storm came, icicles grew.
The dragon’s breath puffed white with frost,
His ruby tail turned wintry blue.

Snowflakes swirled, the north wind howled,
Dark clouds gathered, spitting rain.
But then you sighed a little sigh
And everything was calm again.

“It was an honour meeting you,”
The dragon bowed; soared to the sky.
A thousand wings beat after him
Into the sun. We waved Goodbye.

dragons-nto-sun2

And the wind in the trees went woooosh, woooosh, phhewwwww
When the dragons flew away.

 * * * * * * *
dragon-every-hue

This poem was inspired by Findley, the smiliest, happiest baby that dragons have ever seen.

findley-blockfindley-7-months

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kay Leitch
Treasure This
kaywritesheretoo.wordpress.com

Pictures: Kay Leitch, Vicki Boyd; images: Pixabay

 

 

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Filed under children's books, Creative Writing, Electrik Inc, Kay Leitch, kaywritesheretoo.wordpress.com, Poetry, Story Telling

Mobile homes with a difference

I love the creative freedom independent publishing gives me. Here’s one of my micro stories. I hope you like it!

Mobile homes final.JPG

First posted on my author blog.

Kim

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One ring to rule them all…

ring-1671094_1920

The Ring is a rather unique collaborative novel born in the imaginations of the creative writing society at King Edward’s Senior School, Bath. The concept is simple. The novel follows the story of a mysterious golden ring from thousands of years BCE to the present day via Ancient Egypt, Shakespeare’s Globe, the wreck of the Titanic…and much more. The chapters are written by pupils, former pupils, teachers, parents, and some local authors (including me).  I also typeset the book for them. It certainly ruled my life for a while (80,000 words, 56 chapters, 41 different authors). But it is still my precious!

Here’s my story.

1911

Mary hadn’t meant for the fruit to topple out of the painting on the wall. She’d only been looking at it, thinking, What if? Apples, pears and plums thudded onto the mahogany dresser, like the sound of feet on stairs. The fruit was no longer two-dimensional or made of cracked paint, but round and smooth and sweet-smelling.

The boring dinner party conversation stopped abruptly and everyone turned towards the picture, eyes wide and mouths open. Mother tried to divert the guests’ attention by asking in a loud voice, “Do you think women should be given the vote?” But Mary didn’t get to see if it worked as Father took her hand and dragged her outside, banging the door closed behind them.

“When are you going to learn to be normal?” he hissed, his freckled face red with anger. “Go to your room. I’ll deal with you later.”

Mary pushed her hands deep into the pockets of her lace dress. She still remembered the stinging pain from being given several sharp swats to her palm with a tennis shoe when a stone lion disappeared from the Italian Garden and a real one had been found prowling through the local village on the same day. She sprinted up the stairs, her eyes bright with tears. She felt sick, knowing Father would keep his word.

For a long time she sat on the edge of the bed, waiting in the candlelight, still wearing her lace-up boots and the big bow in her brown hair. She could hear the sound of muffled voices and laughter in the dining room below; the party was still going on. If only she could run away and find a happy place to live where she could be herself.

Eventually, she picked up what was left of the candle and walked over to the bookcase. The guttering flame illuminated titles and authors’ names on the spines of the books. She ran her fingers over Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Grimms’ Fairy Tales and stopped on Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets by Edward Lear. Her hand tingled when she touched the cover, and a pins-and-needles sensation travelled up her arm as she pulled the book off the shelf. She flicked through the pages and stopped at the first black-and-white illustration: an owl with a small guitar, serenading a cat in a wooden rowing boat at sea. Stars winked in the night sky. She had a vague recollection of her mother singing The Owl and the Pussy-cat to her as a very small child, but she couldn’t be sure if it was a real memory or if she’d made it up for herself. Still, it was comforting.

As Mary looked at the picture she thought about the curved sides of the boat, the smell of 4c6ad17ccfa7d7830a50cafc2f162c261salt water and sweet honey, rough wood and silky-soft cat fur. She pictured the owl’s talons plucking the guitar strings and the sound the instrument made.

“The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat,” she whispered.

A boat, the size of a small ornament, appeared on top of the book. Mary quickly looked at the door and listened – no-one was coming. She turned back. The boat remained black and white and shaded in charcoal grey, as it had been in the book. The owl had a white, heart-shaped face surrounded by a ring of short dark feathers, black eyes and shaded upper parts, and he strummed a simple wooden guitar. The cat sat opposite him, staring into his eyes. She had the stripes of a tabby and a mark on her forehead resembling the letter M. A big jar of honey rested between them. Mary thought this an odd choice of food for a bird of prey and a cat. Surely, a few dead mice would be much more agreeable to them. Two oars stretched across the benches they sat on, dripping water onto the paper.

She continued reading. In the top corner of the page an island rose covered in bong trees with purple, heart-shaped leaves and hairy trunks. The owl and the pussy-cat went ashore and soon they met a pig with a tarnished ring, inscribed with tiny letters, at the end of his nose.

“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling your ring?” asked the owl.

Said the Piggy, “I will.” He wriggled it free of his snout and handed it over.

The owl wiped the ring on his feathers and the cat admired it and purred with pleasure.

Mary smiled at her. “If you’re going to get married, can I be your bridesmaid?”

She was so lost in the story that she didn’t hear her bedroom door open.

“You’re in so much trouble, young lady.” Father’s bellowing voice made her jump.

Desperately, she tried to squeeze the book shut, but neither the creatures nor the bong trees would lie flat. She tried to push them down with the palm of her hand. The owl pecked her little finger and the cat clawed her skin; they weren’t going back into the book without a fight.

“Please, I’m trying to help you,” said Mary.

Her father lunged forward, holding a tennis shoe. He grabbed Mary with his free hand and smacked the characters into the air with the shoe. They tumbled over and over; the owl let go of the ring as it stretched its talons towards its sweetheart.

“Let me go!” Mary pulled herself free.

She reached for the owl and the pussy-cat and, as she did so, the ring grew bigger, and then it slipped onto her finger. The moment it touched her skin it turned from black and white to dazzling gold. It was as bright as the sun. The three characters disappeared into thin air with a pop and a moment later Mary vanished from the room too.

 

*

 

Mary found herself standing alone on a soft white beach. Bong trees rustled in the breeze and the air smelled of coconut and the sea. The pig sat in the boat, but there was no sign of the owl and the pussy-cat – she would give them the ring the next time they met. She now examined the ring more closely. It fitted her finger perfectly and a few words ran along the shiny gold band: Mary sailed away for a year and a day…

She hesitated for a brief moment and thought about home. Then she smiled, climbed into the wooden rowing boat next to her new friend and set off on an adventure.

 

The Ring will be on sale from October 13th in Topping bookshop, Bath.

This story was first posted on my author blog.

Copyright (c) 2016 Kim Donovan. Ring image: Pixabay/ColiN00B. Original illustration of the Owl and Pussycat by Edward Lear

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The black, the white and the grey

 

The pen is indeed mightier than the sword. And when it comes to children’s literature the power of words to shape the attitudes of the child reader is awesome. Should well-written stories (classics, even) be scrubbed clean of sexism and racism? The characters with derogatory names re-invented? Should the offending books just be piled up in a public place and burned? Might be tempting, rather than have your child read that Mary in The Secret Garden thinks that “blacks are not people”.

But what about the role of those outdated books in highlighting thoughtless attitudes and in educating children in the way things used to be? In The Daily Beast the suggestion is that if publishers, librarians or teachers simply withdraw offensive books then they are of course indulging in censorship, which could lead to a distortion of history. Anna-Marie Crowhurst is a great fan of Enid Blyton and as a child adored the quirky, outdated language and the jolly japes the children got up to. But she clearly grew up in a thoroughly enlighted household because at the age of nine she already knew that a story in which girls always did the cooking was “silly”. To my shame there is a host of classic children’s literature out there which reveals racist and sexist attitudes which I hadn’t ever spotted. Do we bin them all? If so we would be depriving children of E. Nesbit, the Barbar stories, Tintin, TS Eliot, Dr Seuss and Roald Dahl, to name but a few.

img002        The Greater Good is a really thoughtful and interesting American website which reiterates the idea that—with a few exceptions—many stories are simply reflecting the times they were written in and can be seen as history up for discussion. The valid point is made that very few people are wholly bad or wholly good and therefore many stories are simply introducing young readers to a complex world. Laura Inglis Wilder, writing about the Americans setting up a homeland in the mid West, wrote about real life as she and her family saw it. Her own history. And that included indigenous people who were described as “dirty and thieving”. Fertile ground for discussions with children: Why did people think like that? Does that make them bad people? Are we different now? Why?

Of course an enlightened and positive antidote is to actively promote books which combat racism and sexism. I found a great website called A Mighty Girl which suggests lots of books containing strong and successful girls and women, including the true stories of Rosa Parks, Billie Holiday and Malala. I particularly like the choice of the word “mighty”, which makes a change from “feisty” and “strong”. The Guardian offers an extensive list of children’s books which promote diversity, including one with the lovely title Amazing Grace, another about the life of Stephen Lawrence, and Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s story called The Unforgotten Coat. I love the idea that a children’s book can challenge and educate us all on the subject of difference in its widest sense, and that it’s never too early to start talking about the issue. How lucky we are to live in an age where these things are openly discussed by children, parents, teachers, writers and publishers. Now what about a children’s picture book about combatting the rise of racism since Brexit?

 

 

 

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The Magic of Storytelling

Fairy tales witch readingWho doesn’t love fairy tales? From that lyrical “Once upon a time”, which tells us we’re entering another realm, to the “Happily ever after”, which we all seek, children and adults alike. Of course there are fairy tales with unhappy endings, too – but you won’t see many of those on Disney.

Now, researchers have examined the evolutionary development of fairy tales http and found many to be much older than we thought. Thousands of years older.

Sara Graça da Silva, a social scientist/folklorist with New University of Lisbon, and Jamshid Tehrani, an anthropologist with Durham University, have conducted a phylogenetic analysis of common fairy tales, using a technique that traces linguistic attributes back to their origins. The origins appear to be much older than modern linguists and anthropologists believed.

The part of the report that caught my attention was: “they started with 275 fairy tales, each rooted in magic, and whittled them down to 76 basic stories…”

for fairy tales blog 1Each rooted in magic. I loved that. I don’t know about you, but I find all creative writing to be rooted in magic. That doesn’t mean it has to be about spells and fantasy. All sorts of magic can be yielded by a blank page and a quiet afternoon – though maybe not so quiet if you count the barking dogs, beeping mobile and husband yelling, “I said dinner’s ready!”

I’ve found that, like in so many fairy tales, what we end up with in our own writing is not what we started with, after all the editing and changing and rewriting is done. But, hopefully, we retain the core of the story we’re trying to tell. That’s where the magic is.

Physics teaches us that a pure element cannot be destroyed. I think fairy tales are literary creativity in its purest form and no matter how we rewrite them, edit them, disinfect or Disneyfy them, they will endure. The core remains. Stripped to its core element, the fairy tale is pure story.

Here’s how one core element changed over the centuries: Cinderella started life as Yeh-hsien, believed to have been written down by Tuan Ch’eng-shih in mid 9th century China. In the original version there was no fairy godmother; a magic fish helped Cinders. In Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s version, a hazel tree helped her, the ugly sisters cut off their toes and heels so their feet would fit the shoe, and their eyes were pecked out by doves. Can you imagine the collective fits of apoplexy at a Disney editorial meeting if they read that story board? I’d love to see it. 🙂

Cinderella Manga

 

Yeh-hsien went on to be called Zezolla by Giambattista Basile in 17th century Naples, then Cerentola. Joseph Jacobs called her the Cinder Maid. Charles Perrault (end of 17th century) introduced the fairy godmother and the pumpkins and mice… And what story do you think the film Pretty Woman depicts? Same core, different clothes.

If Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid Tehrani are right and fairy tales are more ancient than we thought (Wilhem Grimm also believed this), then these core stories are even more embedded in our psyches than we thought. Which is great news for all story tellers.

Fairy tales teach us much more than the ultimately unchanging human condition – they hold good lessons for writers too: keep structure and plot simple. Remember, “character is destiny”, and be aware that rhyme, rhythm and poetic sentence structure are important. fairy tale pic 2Symbolism is universal. The words “once”, “long ago”, “far away” and “for ever and ever” can give us instant access to the reader’s unconscious, especially children.

I’m delighted that, as a storyteller, I’m carrying on an ancient tradition and, yes, I believe it is rooted in magic. As writers, we can take these cores and dress them in whatever finery we choose. And that feels magical, too.

Kay Leitch
Treasure This

 

Pictures courtesy of pixabay.com

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Authenticity

I’ve returned from an exhilarating weekend of stories at the international Storytelling Festival Beyond the Border, St Donat’s, South Wales. Listening to oral stories is, for me, important and enriching and makes a fine change from the written word. Some of my highlights at this year’s festival were:

Ben Haggarty keeping his audience spellbound on Sunday morning in an open- air cliff top setting. He dressed all in black and told tales of the devil, very well suited to his commanding tone and presence.

Ben Haggarty enthralling the crowd.

Ben Haggarty enthralling the crowd.

On Saturday, luscious Italian Paola Balbi wore red, her rich voice and swaying hips adding colour to her stories of medieval naughtiness. Beowulf, from The Telling Theatre of Denmark was part-theatre, part-telling: spare, virile and unmistakably Scandinavian. Eerie percussion accompanied Grendel’s passage amongst the trees, through the squelching bog, into the feasting hall and the Danish tellers Andersen and Ejsing used their words with all the precision of a singing sword.

The Telling Theatre's magnificent 'Beowulf'.

The Telling Theatre’s magnificent ‘Beowulf’.

I chatted with Dorset storyteller Martin Maudsley about sharing stories and how a storyteller can take ownership of a traditional tale. They craft and embellish it until, by twists and turns, it becomes something new and exciting, unmistakably their own, in much the same way as a writer strives to find their ‘voice’ on the page. The resulting performance/creative piece has an honesty and truthfulness which audiences can’t help but respond to. All in all, the message is: be yourself, write from the heart and find a voice that’s truly your own (we knew that anyway, but I guess it’s always good to be reminded).

The importance of authenticity was also flagged up by Melvin Burgess in the talk he gave to MA students and tutors at Bath Spa University this summer. He spoke about his process of interviewing ‘real people’ as part of his research for novels such as Junk, Nicholas Dane and Kill All Enemies. Many of the characters in these books are so powerful because the author has taken time to understand the people behind the stories, and the bittersweet voices of Gemma, Tar and Billy are some of the most authentic I’ve read.

JA

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Exploring ‘How To Write’ advice

If you’re setting out to make a Victoria sponge for the first time it’s wise to follow a recipe; one egg too few or a laudable aim of cutting down on the sugar spells disaster. A writer, on the other hand, might shy away from following advice. Writing is, after all, an intuitive, creative, complex and highly personal activity and the notion of looking at a website that calls itself Ten Ridiculously Simple Tips For Writing A Book might seem an affront to that idea. Certainly the advice to Get a notebook and Put your thinking cap on (the latter accompanied by a really clunky graphic of a guy tapping his teeth with a pencil) is probably a bit too obvious. Some sources of wisdom seem over keen to use the words don’t and never. Call me stubborn but when someone says Don’t anthropomorphise animals I might just give it a go. (And of course everyone can think of wonderful examples of talking animals!) Even Wikihow can help the aspiring writer for children age 5-7: Use bigger words but be careful to explain them so as not to frustrate new readers. But Beatrix Potter’s famous example of a sophisticated word for younger readers surely needed no explanation when she wrote of the Flopsy Bunnies: They did not awake because the lettuces had been so soporific.

Persevere, though, and you can mine a rich seam of wisdom in a really worthwhile site called Brainpickings, which explores the more philosophical aspects of writing and is packed with fascinating insights of a less prescriptive kind. There are various schools of thought about the rightness of always bearing your target audience in mind. As a writer who has always struggled with the question Who is your story for? Maurice Sendak offers reassurance here. He says he doesn’t write for children; he writes, and then someone says That’s for children! CS Lewis (on the same website) is vitriolic about the tendency of some adults to downgrade children’s literature and to treat adulthood as a sort of existential upgrade, using childishness as a put-down. This is music to the ears of someone who occasionally finds being an adult tiresome!

Slightly more contemporary advice comes from a book simply called Write, published by Guardian Books. I can forgive the lists of Dos and Don’ts because the contributors are so entertaining. This from Roddy Doyle: Do keep a Thesaurus, but in the shed…or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg: horse, ran, said. Stephen King was in a similar groove when he told us that the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and Mark Twain was famously sorry for having written a long letter because he hadn’t had time to make it shorter. Margaret Attwood assumes we’re several steps further along the path to becoming a serious writer when she gives us advice about travelling: Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

If you read enough of this kind of stuff you could be left with the impression that the whole world is waiting to tell you how to write, how not to write, what to write about, how long to spend at it, what to eat, what music to listen to (Schubert, according to Colm Toibin), what to do for inspiration (make a pie!). I reckon that if you think about something too much you become frozen with terror and therefore the only advice that I’m prepared to take seriously is this: just get on with it. After I’ve sorted my sock drawer and e-mailed the Council about the house where the rubbish is never ever left out at the right time. Now, I wonder who lives there?

Julia Draper -Author of The Paupers of Langden

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