Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Alchemy! Theatre, books and birds.

I used to think being a writer involved tapping away at a computer in my pjamas, drinking copious amounts of coffee and then twiddling my thumbs waiting for my editor to read my manuscript.  However, I increasingly find myself juggling many things…writing a new draft of a story, editing older drafts of other stories, discussing the layout of illustrations, preparing for school visits and trying to answer emails which sift into the computer like snow (as soon as you think you’ve cleared one load, more drift in) and being distracted by social media. On top of that, there’s the cooking, cleaning, dog walking etc etc…all of which makes me feel as if I can't quite keep everything together.

But sometimes the planets align and everything just seems to slot into place. Last week this happened at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast when theatre, books and birds all came together at the showing of the stage production of Sky Hawk.  

The Lyric, Belfast

The programme for Sky Hawk

It began about eighteen months ago, when a teacher in North Wales handed a copy of Sky Hawk to Tim Baker, the theatre director at Theatr Clywd in Mold and suggested that he might like to adapt the book into a stage play.

When Tim contacted me, I knew in that one phone call, that his enthusiasm and vision would create something remarkable. And so, with soaring music composed by Dyfan Jones, Sky Hawk the musical  was hatched and took flight at the Theatre Clwyd in North Wales in June/July 2013.

Audience waiting for Sky Hawk to begin

Tim is a champion of bringing the arts to young people, especially bridging the gap between primary and secondary school, a time when the creative arts seem to drop out of the school curriculum like fleas from a dead dog. Not a very good analogy, I know, but I remember my own experience in that transition, feeling the fun had been taken out of learning and any creative spark extinguished in the race to learn facts for compulsory testing. My experience of creative writing took a thirty-five year gap between the end of primary school and enrolment on a writing course as an adult. Tim's answer is to bring live theatre to schools and provide drama workshops to reconnect children with the arts. 

When I saw Sky Hawk for the first time, I was blown away by it. There is something surreal, uplifting and magical to see your own story being given new life as a stage production. Tim’s adaptation and Dyfan’s sweeping music capture the essence of the story. The young actors’ brilliant performances encapsulate what it is to be young and deal with the dynamics and emotions of friendship. The actors’ singing voices are truly incredible too…worth going along just to hear them sing. I’m not sure how they manage three performances a day!
The set design is stunning in its simplicity; a rugged textured backdrop, onto which the images of flying ospreys, mountain and desert scenes are projected. As the author of the book, I loved it, but the real proof of the pudding was seeing the reaction of the children in the audience. Indeed, Tim’s production was so successful that it was a sell-out in 2013 and secured a major arts grant to tour Wales in autumn 2014.

Mari Izzard (Iona) Tim Baker (director) Gill Lewis. Berwyn Pearce (Rob) Ebony Feare (Jeneba) Daniel Graham (Callum)

Philip Crawford from the Lyric Theatre in Belfast saw the production in North Wales and brought it over to the theatre in Belfast. Philip is a whirlwind of energy and enthusiasm and he managed to secure sponsorship from Belfast Harbour to bring 500 children from deprived areas in Belfast to see the show. It was brilliant to meet the children and answer their questions at the end of one of the performances. 

Philip and the librarians from the Northern Ireland Library Service invited me along to the first showing of Sky Hawk at the Lyric. 
After a great book tour with the libraries last March, I was really chuffed to be invited to join them again and slightly in awe that they all came along to the first showing of Sky Hawk at the Lyric. The librarians took up a whole row of seats at the theatre, prompting the question…what is the collective noun for a group of librarians? Some suggestions were, a shelf of librarians (slightly dusty connotations?), an archive of librarians (filed away out of sight?)...hmmm, maybe not. 
However, I think maybe it should be an enthusiasm of librarians. They are a definite force to be reckoned with. Despite the threat of major cuts, they share their love of literature, taking books into communities of all backgrounds, and into schools and prisons, and they do it with such a passion and conviction. It is their calling. They are a diverse range of people too. One librarian had recently returned from Uganda where she had been teaching sewing skills to women and children. Indeed, such is their enthusiasm that I am convinced that if you put a librarian and library in every school, literacy rates would rocket.

An enthusiasm of librarians

At Finaghy library

Not to be outdone, the RSPB were there in force at the first showing of Sky Hawk too. The RSPB do an amazing job in schools promoting awareness and love of birds and nature. 

RSPB team

What struck me during my short trip to Northern Ireland, was the enthusiasm of the people I met and the genuine passion to engage with young people to encourage a love of theatre, books and wildlife. From the theatre directors, to the actors, to the librarians, to the staff at the RSPB, there were no hidden agendas, no motives for personal gain, just a love of what they do and a motivation to share it with others. It is the arts that help us understand each other and make sense of the world around us, and so it seems almost criminal and lacking in foresight to cut funding to such a needed area. Instead, if the government harnessed this energy and embraced the goodwill and enthusiasm of people like the ones I met during my trip to Northern Ireland, society would reap the benefits ten times over. I hopefully managed to say such things to Marie-Louise Muir from BBC Radio Ulster. 

With Marie-Louise Muir from the Arts Extra BBC Radio Ulster talking about the importance of the arts for young people.

Sky Hawk Q and A with schools...

There are only a couple of weeks left of the Sky Hawk catch it if you can soon...but hopefully it will be on tour again. 

Monday, 6 October 2014

Sky Hawk the stage production is on tour

Sky Hawk the stage play is on tour!

After sell-out performances at the Clwyd Theatr Cymru, North Wales, the cast and crew are taking Sky Hawk on tour, travelling the length and breadth of Wales, and also taking in the Lyric theatre in Belfast.

For tour details click on the link below

Award winning director, Tim Baker, won an Arts Council of Wales grant to take the stage production on tour after a hugely successful run of Sky Hawk at Clwyd Theatr Cymru in June/July last year (2013) 

So how did it come about? Well, I clearly remember the phone call I had with Tim back in 2013 when he discussed the idea. I was struck by his enthusiasm and vision and his love of bringing the arts to all young people especially those who might not have the opportunity to experience live theatre. He was also very keen to continue the arts in the transition from primary school to secondary school. I followed my gut feeling that Tim would keep the stage production true to the heart of the story.

My gut feeling proved to be right. From the talented young actors, to the soaring music by Dyfan Jones, to the magical projected lighting effects, Tim Baker's stage adaptation is truly brilliant and captures the imagination of the young people who come to see it. 

On Tuesday 7th October, Sky Hawk will be visiting the Grand in Swansea, S-Wales...which is also very exciting for me. 

Swansea has very special connections for me. Not only does the Swansea coat of arms bear an osprey (likely proof that ospreys were once a common sight around Swansea Bay) but Swansea and the Gower are the home of my father’s side of the family. I spent many childhood holidays on the Lougher estuary and camping at Llangennith.

So here's my little potted...So Who Do You Think You Are?....history...

My great grandfather, George Rees was a keen reader and also liked to write poetry. He was killed at the young age of 22 in the Elba Colliery disaster in 1905. This was depicted by the children from Gowerton school on the centenary of the disaster. 

My great grandmother was left to bring up her newborn daughter, earning money from cockle picking on the estuary. This must have been incredibly daunting to be a single mother at a time when women did not even have the right to vote. 

My gran (the daughter) then married my grandfather (Gramps) who worked in the steelworks.  They   encouraged their own children to work hard at school, believing that education was important to ensure they could make their choices later in life. 

My own father grew up in Gower. This is him, building a green house with my Gramps from reclaimed steel from the steelworks. The dog in the picture, Floss, had been abandoned at the steelworks and was rescued by my Gramps. She became a faithful friend…my father has many stories about her.

When I was growing up my father kept a small boat on the estuary, and I have many memories of watching porpoises form the boat, seeing gannets and terns dive for their fish, and cormorants drying their wings on Whiteford Lighthouse. My love of wildlife was probably sealed on these trips to the Gower. Here I am about to have a tantrum at not being allowed to go out on a boat trip. I also remember that Ratti's ice-cream in Penclawdd was the best ice-cream in the world.  

Hopefully there will be ospreys nesting in the Gower again. They are already well established ospreys in Wales at and 

Most of the ospreys have already left for Africa for the winter, so why not take a trip to one of the venues and see the ospreys in Tim Baker’s brilliant stage production instead.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Tenterden Rural Alliance Regional Book Award

2013 saw the start of the Tenterden Rural Alliance Regional Book Award. Homewood School teamed with twelve feeder primary schools to read and discuss the three shortlisted books.

Unfortunately I didn't have my camera for the event. Mark Lowry, author of Socks are Not Enough and Pants are Everything (if you haven't read them yet...put them on your list!) was our fab compere for the event and threw curly-wurlys into the crowd as if there were no tomorrow. Gillian Cross joined us by video link to talk about her book, After Tomorrow. Nicky Singer, author of Feather Boy told us about the inspiration behind Feather involved trespassing into derelict houses (don't try it...she warned us!)

The event was organised by staff and students who put a huge amount of effort into the running of the evening.

Students from Homewood School read out their WWI poems to the audience...the poetry was beautiful, reflective and quite chilling at the same time...showing the wealth of talent at the school.

I was chuffed to have been on the shortlist and hugely chuffed that Sky Hawk won (and receive an honorary curly-wurly too) :0)

Moon Bear news...

Peace by Piece... is Animals Asia's new landmark campaign to help rescue and rehabilitate over 130 moon bears in Nanning, China. These bears have been kept in horrendous conditions – many trapped in tiny cages from birth - and farmed for their bile. The courageous plan is to convert the bear farm into a bear sanctuary and education centre. 

Follow the link to see Animal Asia's amazing work...

Inspired by Animal Asia, three Somerset children baked cakes and ran a dress-as-a-bear for the day and raised a great total of £230 for the charity.

Little Rebels Book Award

Moon Bear was shortlisted for the Little Rebels Book Award. The award is given by the Alliance of Radical Booksellers and administered by the Letterbox Library, a not-for-profit children's booksellers and social enterprise. They specialise in books which celebrate diversity, equality and inclusion. For more information follow

The event was held in London at the Bishopsgate Institute and I sat in on on a lively panel with Deborah Chancellor and Geraldine McCaughrean, chaired by Wendy Cooling...discussing the importance of little rebels.

Gillian Cross was the ultimate little rebel, winning with her wonderful book After Tomorrow.

Moon Bear in Germany 

I was treated to a sneak preview of the gorgeous cover of the German edition of Moon Bear, published by dtv junior.

Moon Bear in Audio

Moon Bear is now available in audio, read beautifully by Nigel Carrington 

To listen to a short extract ...

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

World Book Day in Northern Ireland and Saving Endangered Species

I’d like to say a HUGE thank you to all the lovely and amazing librarians of the Northern Ireland Libraries for a very warm welcome and making my World Book Day two-day visit of Northern Ireland so memorable.

My whistle-stop tour took in four libraries, ten librarians, eight schools, about two hundred and fifty brilliant children, an RSPB ranger, a harris hawk, a cocker spaniel called Rufus and an Ireland road trip over the mountains of Mourne and a very tasty sandwich at the Carrickfergus library.  At the end of the tour, as my plane was leaving the runway of Belfast International, I was already thinking up excuses for another return trip.

In the nerve centre, organizing all these shenanigans (one of my favourite words) for World Book Day, were the librarians.

There are many misconceptions about librarians. They are often viewed by the general public as tea drinking, book stampers who scowl at anyone who raises the ambient noise level above 5 decibels.

So…what else to these librarians actually do? 

Well, for a start, the whole book stamping thing is being taken over by robots…there are machines to check books in and out of libraries. But as one visitor to the library said to me…the technology is very clever, but machines can’t recommend a good book and have a friendly smile as well.

So, like librarians across the world, these are only some of the things the lovely librarians of Northern Ireland get up to…..

Rhythm and rhyme for tots and toddlers introducing young children and their parents to books at a very early ages…so important for developing language and an early love of words and stories. 

Schools involvement…recommending books, getting books around to schools, keeping up with changes and new books in the publishing world as well as recommending the classics, organizing book awards where the children choose the winning books, arranging author tours around schools…etc...etc..etc. Importantly, children feel safe choosing books from librarians. They do not feel judged or tested on their choice of book and this allows the skills of reading to develop in a non-pressured environment...reading for the love of reading. 

Libraries provide a space in the community for art exhibitions and venues for lectures on the arts or the latest technological advances in science.

Many libraries have mobile libraries, going to inner city areas and also to remote island communities.

Many librarians take their work into prisons and connect prisoners with their families by giving the opportunity record stories for children to hear a story read or told to them by their absent parent.

Libraries provide a community centre for access to computers for those who do not have access at home.

Librarians are human search engines able to redirect queries about references, magazines, other publications, articles, music, plays…. the list goes on…and on….

Librarians wear many, many hats…(some of them very silly on world book day) and they do all this with an unconditional love of books and unbounded enthusiasm to connect books to readers…especially children.

And yet, I feel, librarians are at risk of becoming an endangered species. In Northern Ireland I was reassured to see that many libraries have had funding to refurbish old libraries and build new ones. The library at Kilkeel is a brilliant example; built to resemble a fishing boat (Kilkeel is an active fishing port), the library is bright and light and busy! with an endless to and fro of people though the doors. It really is a centre for the community.

In England the picture is grimmer, with library closures and staff redundancies becoming ever more common. The problem is, that with government cuts and local authorities trying to save money, cutting back on libraries seems the easy option. In the short term…yep, it seems a great idea; free up a whole load of money…libraries are only roomfuls of books, right?

But in the long term? We will have severed links within communities. People will be denied access to books and information and that is a very dangerous thing…and may have serious repercussions in the future akin to the effects of book burning by repressive regimes. Knowledge is power. It gives us as individuals the ability to think for ourselves, to reason between right and wrong and not follow each other like sheep to the slaughter. We need libraries. We need books. We need stories. Stories allow us to share experiences, to live in someone else’s shoes, to understand lives other than our own, and in doing so, it makes us better people for it.

Some authorities are introducing volunteers…individuals with enthusiasm and love of books but no specialist training…which sounds great doesn’t it? But just imagine if we applied that principle to other professions….

“So, Mrs Smith, you’re all set for your triple bypass surgery today. I’m sorry but we had to cut back on surgeons, but this is Mike. He’s a volunteer. He’s ever so keen. He’s seen nearly every episode of Casualty and he’s even dissected a pig’s heart. What he might lack in skill, he makes up for in enthusiasm…. good luck!”

Doesn’t really bear thinking about, does it!?

So..there we go…

We need libraries and librarians and must make sure they never become an endangered species….which brings me back to my book tour of Northern Ireland.
For my talks, I would be focusing quite a bit about Sky Hawk, my book that features an osprey as one of the main characters.

Birds of prey in Northern Ireland suffered the same fate as those in Scotland, England and Wales, in that most have been persecuted to extinction. The osprey has returned to nest in Scotland, Wales and England (the latter after reintroduction program at Rutland) but to date, no ospreys have nested in Ireland. There have been attempts to attract them with nesting platforms. The landscape would suit ospreys perfectly and I really hope it is only a matter of time before passing ospreys (and the do pass over on their way to Scotland) decide to make their homes there.

So, I was driven down the gorgeous coastline to Kilkeel a working fishing town on the south east coast.
The new library was built to resemble a ship. It’s light and airy inside with a fab reading area for children made out of little boats.

Two schools came to hear me talk about my books and I was very honoured that two children from Kilkeel primary school presented me an amazing painting, they had done themselves.

The children were grandchildren of a famous local artist, Pearson who painted some of the art work in the library. The two girls have obviously inherited their grandfather’s talent

Their connection with Antarctica interested me too. The children of Kilkeel have a special relationship with an owl that resides on a research ship in the Antarctica. 

The Wise Owl sends regular blogs to the students about life in the Antarctica and the work the ship does. The Wise Owl even conducted an experiment for the children by lowering a polystyrene cup thousands of feet below the surface of the sea and bringing it back up to see the pressure of the water at that depth had squashed it to a small fraction of its previous size.

Connections with research stations and conservation groups around the world are so important, and with technology, it makes it potentially very easy.  It would be amazing if every school could have such a long-term connection to a project to give pupils of a school a sense of ownership of it too…another point I will come onto soon.

Sadly I had to say goodbye to Kilkeel and then my lovely librarian, (now removed school organiser and IT hat and put on chauffer hat) and drove me over the Mountains of Mourne (mountains I have always wanted to visit since signing the Mountains of Mourne rather drunkenly after passing my vet school finals). The mountains were very atmospheric with the trails of clouds skimming across their peaks, and yes, they really do come down to the sea, like in the song.

And then Banbridge, to another lovely library and another great set of pupils.

We were very lucky to be joined by Adam McClure of the RSPB who came to tell us all abut his work reintroducing red kites into Northern Ireland. 

One of the schools had adopted a red kite. Adam told us how the reintroduction has been successful but there are still many problems with poisoning often due to the birds ingesting poisoned rats. Part of his job is to educate about indiscriminate pest poisons. The one thing that struck me was how he connected with the pupils. He also showed the pupils the really grim photos of poisoned red kites…one, a female dead on her nest. This provoked a feeling of sadness and outrage with the pupils.

The children really felt that this was wrong, they cared about the fate other the other birds.

60 children in that room cared.

And that is something to ponder upon.

*please take a moment to ponder*

60 children cared.

What if people like Adam could connect the natural world to every pupil in every school!?

The children at the school which had sponsored a red kite felt a greater sense of responsibility over their bird; they cared about what happens to her. If every school had a connection with species within a local habitat and also with that habitat then we would have a generation of children who feel a sense of ownership towards the wildlife and the habitat. This is possible in cities and rural communities. Many cities have wildlife areas within them, and there should be more wildlife spaces, providing people with access to wild areas and giving wildlife home and green corridors through our cities.

We desperately need this. On the same day as I left for home, I heard from Adam that one of the white tailed sea eagles reintroduced to Ireland had been shot. This is such a blow, considering last year was the first year for 100 years that white tailed sea eagles have successfully reared chicks.

It only makes Adam’s work more urgent and important to connect the next generation to the wildlife and habitats we are at risk of losing forever.

So, after a night’s sleep, I was taken to two more great libraries in Belfast. At Ballyhackamore (added this to my favourite words list)  library we were lucky to be joined by the Northern Ireland School of Falconry and their Harris hawk. For many of the pupils, it was the first time they had seen a bird of prey close up before. The pupils had loads of questions about the bird and falconry too.
Many of the children were in World Book Day costume and it was a strange sight to see a four-foot white rabbit holding onto a bird of prey. Even the bird looked confused.

After Ballyhackamore, and onto Carrickfergus library to meet the last two schools.  Thanks to the pupils who came out and did a great piece of acting to the first chapter of Sky Hawk…I think your futures may well lie on the stage!

I loved my visit to Northern Ireland…and was made to feel very welcome by all. The librarians had gone beyond the call of duty organizing the connection with the RSPB and the falconers. They brought us all together and they made it a great event for all and for that I cannot thank them enough. I wanted to stay longer but the plane was revving its engines as I ran into the airport.

On my flight home, I thought about libraries, birds of prey and wild habitats. They all need protecting and maybe the best way for this to happen is through a sense of ownership, for individuals and communities to really care for them and to know the consequences if they are gone. As individuals we need to unite and be able to say, ‘we won’t let you take that from us…not on our watch!’ because if we don’t care, these precious things will be long gone and it may be too late to do anything about it at all.