On May 1st I got this email:
“I am putting together a collection of poems and short prose by children’s authors in Scotland for ebook publication. Titled Stay at Home! Poems and Prose for Children by Authors Living in Scotland – it will help children come to terms with the changes we are experiencing under lockdown… I would like to invite you to make a contribution, and very much hope you will be able to take part.”
The email had been sent by Joan Haig, whom I’ve only ‘met’ on Twitter but whose debut novel Tiger Skin Rug has been winning much praise since its publication earlier this year. It was immediately clear to me that this inspirational project was in the best possible hands as her emails were packed with information, step-by-step timeframes, instructions and spreadsheets. Oh how I love organised people! Even more, though, she was brimming with infectious enthusiasm. The cherry on the cake – or the raspberry, more aptly – was the publisher, Cranachan.
Cranachan is the name of a beloved Scottish dessert made of toasted oatmeal, whipped cream, whisky and raspberries which is often served at Hogmanay or Burns Suppers. It’s also the name of a dynamic independent publisher of children’s books based on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, run by the equally dynamic Anne Glennie. With a diverse selection of titles from Barbara Henderson’s historical fiction to Caroline Logan’s fantasy series, it punches far above its weight and, being small, can be nimble. Perfect, then, for a project like this.
Of course I said yes.
The only startling piece of information in Joan’s super-organised email was the plan to launch by the end of May. Gulp. It certainly focused the mind and I jumped right in, looking down the list of potential topics, grouped in three broad categories:
Life in Lockdown The ups and downs of self-isolation.
Everyday Superheroes Celebrating the keyworkers who are helping us through the pandemic.
The World Beyond Our Windows Nature, wildlife, cultures, castles in the sky, stars & space…
Having seriously caught the poetry bug last year in my residency with the National Park, I chose to write a poem on rainbows celebrating our everyday super-heroes.
So how do you write a poem? Like all writing, there will be ideas humming around your head, but the piece only really begins when words hit the page. This time I started by thinking about what we associate with each colour in the rainbow. As ever, Google gives entertaining results and wastes a lot of time. (All essential writer’s ‘research’, of course.) So, there are the obvious things, like green grass and blue sky, but what about the feelings and meanings generated by each colour? Quite serendipitously, I came across an interesting radio 4 programme The Story of Colour that explored different understandings across time and cultures. Fortunately for the children of Scotland, I decided against referencing Newton and Goethe in my poem, though it was a close call. Finally, I pondered which ‘everyday superheroes’ to include and which colour best expressed what they do for us.
After a few drafts, I sent it out to readers for feedback. Two were good friends, both mothers who have worked as early years educators; another was my poetry buddy Karen Hodgson Pryce, who is getting increasing and deserved publishing success and who always improves my work; and the final and crucial readers were my 6 year-old godson Jonathan and his 9 year-old brother, Micah. Their conscientious Mum got them each to read the draft aloud to her and then emailed their responses back to me. Wonderfully, they both enjoyed it and, interestingly, had different levels of understanding around the metaphors, which I felt was age-appropriate.
Having absorbed the feedback and tweaked the poem over a week or so (which can include taking a comma out and putting it back in the next day), I sent it off and got ready for the digital launch. Like half the planet, I’d already discovered and got sort-of accustomed to Zoom during coronavirus, but had never before attended a virtual book launch, far less contributed to one. It was an honour to be asked to read, so I uploaded a rainbow photo as my background, posted launch invites and found clothes that didn’t look like pyjamas.
Thus, on the afternoon of 28th of May 2020 we held the launch of Stay at Home! It was fun to see Joan, Anne and all the other writers popping onto my screen for the pre-launch meeting, everyone waving and calling out hellos. They included Maisie Chan , Alastair Chisolm and Linda Strachan, who has not only written dozens of books for children but also the Writers’ and Artists’ Guide to Writing for Children and YA. Some folk were on Zoom for the first time and there were kids and other house-mates wandering past or talking from the side-lines. A wee boy asked if he could eat the whole brownie and I’ve no idea what his Mum wanted, but the rest of us said yes.
Once ‘attendees’ were with us (invisible and muted, alas), we had a welcome from Joan, readings and Q&A. It was fitting to kick off with Chief Chebe’s hilarious story Abiba’s Zoom and interesting to hear from illustrator Darren Gate, whose cover captures all the creativity and love holding families together behind lockdown. Look out for the tiny mouse and the gorilla on the bicycle inside the book, too!
But just as everyone was having a fabulous time, our call got cut off. (My moment of poetry fame so cruelly wrenched from me!) After a few frantic texts to and fro, the contributors re-assembled an hour later to record the second-half, although we had, of course, lost our audience. Fear not, the whole thing is stitched together and posted on the Cranachan YouTube channel. (I’m at 35:10. Thanks for asking.)
Finally, there is a wonderful section at the back of the book called Your Turn packed with ideas for children to do their own creative writing in response to the pandemic. It includes prompts like Lockdown for Dummies and Nessie on the Loose. Teachers and home-schooling parents, this gold.
Everyone involved in Stay at Home! has donated their time and skills, so the book is completely FREE. You can find it here to download and read on any device. Do please spread the word so it can be used and enjoyed as a gift from children’s writers in Scotland to kids all over the world.
Finally, you might be wondering why I got invited. Snap. I can only hope it wasn’t a terrible mistake but that some little bird told the organisers I have written a novel for children which is currently out on submission. Anyway, thanks to Stay at Home! I can now definitely say I am a published children’s writer.
Here, then, is Rainbows. Wherever you are and whatever lockdown has meant for you and your loved ones, I do hope these words touch you.
Red is for rosy apples and warm winter gloves
for carers working everywhere with hearts full of love.
Orange is for oranges, bright as the rising sun
for teachers making videos so learning can be fun.
Yellow is for buttercups, bananas and busy bees
for bin lorries passing by and budgies eating cheese.
Green is for gardens and finches in the hedge,
for farmers and food workers bringing healthy veg.
Blue is for rivers and the tears of our goodbyes,
for doctors, nurses, cleaners and all angels in disguise.
Indigo is for evenings and bedtime stories told
with families who treasure us and teddies to hold.
Violet is for dreaming from the cloud-boat of your bed,
going on great adventures in the worlds inside your head.
Rainbows are bright colours held together in one rope;
light in stormy weather, rainbows are for hope.