Wednesday 2 October 2013


A good diary day today, because a pretty card arrived, signed by all the lovely people of the Stripes Team, aka Little Tiger Press. Thank you, everybody! Today is the official publication day for MOONLIGHT TALES and I have written one of the ten stories. 

MOONLIGHT TALES is a "seasonal anthology". It’s a collection of stories that can be read by grown-ups to five to eight year olds but a book that can also be read by older junior (KS2) children on their own. I have written stories for several of these winter anthologies and always find it a pleasure.

For a start, wintry weather always makes for a wonderful setting, filled with uncertainties. Will it, or won’t it, snow? Will the snow bring peril or pleasure? How dangerous will the dangers be? Will everyone reach journey’s end? And will all the preparations - for whatever kind of feast or event – be done on time? It’s also a season where a writer can include moments of beauty or delight or kindly feelings.

 However, as a writer, there’s also the fun of not knowing what the other stories will be. You know there will be this or that animal. Early on, when you send in an idea or two, the editor will tell you that “owls” or “kittens” have been taken so could you go for your other suggestion. 

But even then, you don’t know what genre that other animal’s story will become. A real-life story? An animal fantasy? A retelling of a tale or legend?  Or more? (No need to be afraid: these collections never include horror and I can’t recall any ghosts either.) While I'm writing the story, I remember the bright faces of the seven and eight year olds I meet on school visits, all eager to tell me about their pets and favourite animals.

There’s a second kind of curiosity about the finished anthology. Being included in these winter anthologies feels like being at a secret party: each anthology will have stories written by authors that I know. 

As soon as my author copies of MOONLIGHT TALES arrived about a fortnight ago, I turned to the index and looked down the list of names.  

Aha! I spot Linda Chapman, Caroline Pitcher, and quite a few more.  

Not very, very, very best friends, of course, or I’d have known they were working on the anthology already, wouldn't I? 

But certainly really nice writing friends that I meet once or twice a year, and sometimes email. Now I can discover how they angled their story and what animals they choose. What a pleasure!

Finally, there's one last thing that makes writing for these anthologies such a delight. The stories are rarely specifically "Christmas" tales, in a religious sense, but the anthology is probably bought for children around this time.

So I like to imagine MOONLIGHT TALES  - with my very own story, hooray! – being posted to faraway young relatives, or given to nieces or nephew or grandchildren or next-door neighbour’s children. I think about the anthology being slipped into stockings or pillowcases as an extra surprise on the Big Morning.

I do know MOONLIGHT TALES won’t be the Most Stupendous Gift Ever but I do like to muse on the book bringing its own precious reading moments. I imagine the stories being read to calm a child after a too-busy day, or the book being used as a read-together after hours of screen-time, or a one-more-story alongside a mug of hot chocolate after a winter walk.

MOONLIGHT TALES won’t bring me writing glory. But being part of something nice to enjoy when all the fuss of the holiday is over? That’s fine by me.

Thursday 29 August 2013

SURE AS EGGS IS EGGS! The Story of a School Visit

Ah well, Bank Holiday Monday’s over and done. My head and notebook are still full of everything I saw when I was visiting London last week. But that’s for another post..

Instead because the Big Back to School Week is almost here, I’m looking at diaries. So this post seems a good space to mention the good eggs.  


Yes, eggs!  Read on!

 I rarely write in detail about any schools I've visited as an author - for a mix of reasons - but I've decided I must use this resurrected blog to tell you about the good egg school, and how very pleased and hopeful that author visit made me! 

For a start, the school buzzed with busy, happy learning. It was a village school, tucked deep within the Yorkshire Moors. Sounds idyllic?  Yes, but rural schools can have their own particular problems. Village school children often return to isolated homes, where they spend long hours on video-games or in front of the tv or computer. A child’s only company may be their siblings. Busy working parents may not have time, travel-time or money for the range of outings possible in cities. Additionally, rural children may grow up meeting very few people outside their own small and remote community, yet that is unlikely to be where their twenty-first century life will lead them, or even their secondary school years.

Yet, because this particular school recognised the need for enrichment, for widening the children’s interests and experiences, they involved the children in music, art and craft. They brought in all sorts of speakers and activities. This school staff chose to give their children the real experiences – not just “interactive white-board experiences” - of the wider world. 

Each year, the children were taken to the theatre in the nearest seaside town and the oldest children went down to London by train for an overnight stay. The staff saw such outings as a way of developing the children’s future independence and knowledge.

During the school day, as I was rather busy, I didn't have much time for idle observation. However, I did see something I haven’t seen for years: school pets! Happy school pets. Those three guinea pigs were the most charming, socialised and well-cared-for pets I’ve ever met, totally comfortable in the children’s arms.. I think I heard rumours of giant snails elsewhere, but I didn’t go searching . . .

Now for the main thing! What I really want to mention was their whole-school initiative., known as "Forest School.” You can find out about it, in general, here at the The Forest School Association

Each term, every school year group makes visits to a designated wooded area nearby, and follows a seasonal programme. This was not just a lazy walk in the woods. During their primary years the children would be involved with such activities as:
Constructing “fairy houses”.
Identifying natural materials
Story boarding using natural materials
Using natural materials to make art.
Tracking in small groups.
Studying the living creatures and animal inhabitants.
Constructing dens
Constructing experiments
Identifying plants and trees
Studying maps and landscape features
Cooking outdoors, from marshmallow kebabs to making and lighting fires.
Reading Books, both non-fiction and fiction, on related topics - from the Gruffalo to Stig of the Dump..
Record-keeping, as well as various forms of account and diary writing.
And real LOG BOOKS – made of split logs, string and laminated paper entries.
Wish I could have taken a picture.
And there was much more I didn’t have time to find out about. 
Think amplified Andy Goldsworthy with much much more attached!

What I particularly noticed was the effect on the children’s body language and behaviour. The children seemed friendly, confident and generally at ease within the school and classrooms. They did not seem to jostle for territorial space and for teacher’s attention. They did not “agg” each other. They did not seem full of stress..

When I commented on this, the teacher explained that the Forest School programme gave children opportunities to show and value a wide range of skills and abilities, far more than those required by a restricted classroom setting. I also felt, as the day went on, that the Forest School fitted in with the school’s whole philosophy of education.

Certainly, such stuff costs, so the school is constantly fund raising to help the pupils. I felt very honoured to be the chosen “author experience”, and hope the children and staff enjoyed the sessions as much as I did. It is also a brave stand at a time when many schools are cutting out anything but OFSTED requirements - yet this programme had been closely matched against those needs. Yes, it was a very very good day!

Over lunchtime, I watched the children playing in “their” field and clambering on the climbing frames. I was told about the school garden and observed the fat brown hens running about in their grassy pen. I must admit it was wonderful to be there, and I almost wished I wasn’t working just to spend more time observing and finding out about this hopeful style of education. 

However, teachers, school staff - and children - are all busy people and the day passed and as I left I was presented with a dozen eggs, laid by the school’s hens.

And over the next few days, as those twelve good eggs turned into an omelette and more, they reminded me of a really cheering day, one that I’m smiling about again right now.

Wishing you all a good September,
Best wishes

PS.. Rather sadly, I’ve heard of urban schools who might have been just as interested if their nearest woodland hadn’t been dangerously full of drug-taking detritus and similar health hazards. So very, very sad! Nevertheless, it’s good to share the happy stories too, despite everything.

Monday 19 August 2013


Yes, hello again! 

Now my holiday's over, I’ve checked my diary - and it's mid-August already. It's almost SEPTEMBER 2013, and the start of the new school year. 

Suddenly I feel a shudder of anticipation, a tingle of tension.

Suddenly I feel an odd need to rush out and find a new geometry set, one with all its plastic pieces and a working compass and a pencil with what seems like poor quality lead for drawing with, or so it seems.


Even though I haven’t used a geometry set for decades, and may not have been able to, even then.
The glorious end of August teases with its Bank Holiday weekend, but the days call for urgent positive action. Yes, come on, come on, you!  Hurry up! The lazy days are almost over!
This is a time to take stock, to get organised, to make plans for the year ahead.  The days grow bracing, invigorating and purposeful, and so on. If you let them.

I admit that I enjoy this fortnight almost as much as I enjoy January's New Year. It's a time for pretending that the purchase of new stationery will bring a whole personality change.A time for hoping that the emptying of cupboards and re-ordering of filing cabinets might bring a clear, creative, psychic space. These are days when one can half-believe in the resurrection of dreams and intentions. 

So, in this cheery postive spirit, I dared to glimpse at my long-ignored Penny Dolan Diary once again. Aaaagh! I saw a Silent Blog, an Unattended Page, the Very Ghost of a Social Presence. How had so much time passed?

If this was a real world diary, I could blow away dust and dried-up spider skins and maybe a crushed petal or two. But the blogosphere doesn’t carry such mementos, not yet. Yet the diary’s pages are opened, and here I am, staring at the blank screen again. 

I haven’t been totally idle, people. I’ve been busy with writerly projects and visiting various schools, from Stockton to Sussex. 

I’ve even spent time away in India, storytelling and talking about books at the wonderful Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival in Delhi. 

I’ve been blogging elsewhere, too: posting on the History Girls blog, writing for An Awfully Big Blog Adventure.


I've been looking after the rota for Awfully Big Reviews, ABBA’s partner blog, and reviewing there, of course. Not totally silent, not quite.

But now I’m back here, standing in my uncomfortable new start-of-term shoes, with some hopes of getting the Penny Dolan's Diary rolling again, even if in a rather random way - so watch out for a few thoughts, grumblings and mumblings.

As a few good friends often say: "Onward!"