Animal Magic

As a child, I loved reading about animals, first in picture books and later in novels. My first picture books were the stories of Beatrix Potter, with their lovely watercolour pictures of animal characters such as Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck. Then there were the delightfully whimsical Winnie the Pooh stories by A.A.Milne. When I moved on to full-length books, one of the first that I read was The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. I loved following the adventures of shy Mole, adventurous Ratty, the gentlemanly Badger, and foolish, boastful Mr Toad who, like Pooh and his friends, were brought to life so vividly by E.H. Shepard’s illustrations.

Many years later, when I started researching my family history, I discovered that my grandfather, Leslie Clode, had worked with Kenneth Grahame at the Bank of England, and that another ancestor once ran a silent film company in partnership with A.A.Milne. Perhaps it is my family connection to these Golden Age children’s authors that ensured that animals play an important role in all the books in the Eye Spy series: the two dogs – Rockerfeller and Kiki – in Eye Spy; Boss Cat in Haunted; and Queenie the snake in Lady in Red.

There is now a modern successor to A.A.Milne and Kenneth Grahame: The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackay. This lovely book, which is both written and illustrated by the author, is full of thoughtful wisdom, and enchanting hand-drawn pictures. If you are looking for a beautiful and thought-provoking birthday present to read with your child or grandchild, look no further.

Ruined Castles and Pre-Raphaelite Artists

If you have read Haunted or Lady in Red, you will probably have guessed that I love all things historical. One of my favourite jobs was working for conservation architects, who looked after historic buildings, particularly churches and cathedrals. I especially love visiting old castles, and ruined abbeys, where the ancient stonework seems to draw me back in time to scenes of Mediaeval banquets and Civil War sieges. It was the thirteenth century priory in our town, now open to the public as a museum, which inspired the setting for Haunted.

I have loved the Pre-Raphaelite artists ever since I studied them for A level Art, so creating a lost masterpiece by a Pre-Raphaelite artist was great fun. When Donna looks at Maude’s portrait and wails “Why can’t I have hair like that?” she is echoing my own sixteen-year-old self, who would have died for a similar head of lustrous auburn hair.

If you too love the way a good book can instantly transport you back into the past, here are two absolute classics.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond Cover

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Sixteen-year-old Kit travels from her home in the West Indies to the American colonies in 1687 to live with strangers. She is thrust into a world which is very different from the one she has known, and she must learn to obey rules which go against everything she has been taught. But it is her choice of friend that is most controversial: an old lady who the settlers regard as a witch. As a teenager, I loved this book. It seemed to speak to the rebel in me.

I Capture the Castle Cover

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

This book is set in a moated castle in the period between the two world wars. It is written in the form of a diary kept by Cassandra Mortmain, and it tells of the family’s struggle to survive financially while her father’s career as an author is stalled by writer’s block. It’s about growing up in a eccentric, penniless family, falling in love for the first time, and learning some important life lessons. And it has some really funny scenes.

Secret Gardens

The derelict house and wild garden which are a location for much of the action in Lady in Red, were inspired by the empty house and overgrown garden that I lived next door to as a child. But Lady in Red is just another book in a long line of stories about secret places that children discover and explore on their own, away from adult eyes. Here are my two favourites.

The Secret Garden Cover

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

After Mary Lennox’s parents die, she has to return from India to live with her reclusive uncle in a rambling old house on the Yorkshire moors. Lonely and unloved, Mary’s life seems miserable, until she discovers a mysterious walled garden in the grounds which has been locked up for years. When she finds the key to the garden, she also makes two new friends, Together, the three of them make the garden bloom again, enriching all their lives, and giving Mary hope for a better future.

As a child, I spent a lot of time playing on my own in our back garden, building dens, watching the birds fly to and fro, and searching for caterpillars on leaves and woodlice under stones. The garden was my playground, and I loved plants and animals, so I really understood why the secret garden meant so much to Mary Lennox.

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

When Tom is sent to stay with his uncle and aunt in their small flat miles from home, he has no companions his own age, and is thoroughly bored. Then one night, as he lies sleepless in bed, he hears the grandfather clock downstairs strike thirteen…What is going on? When Tom creeps down the stairs to explore, he discovers the house has a huge garden which is not there during the day. As he explores the garden each night, he meets other children – but are they real, or ghosts?

I recently reread this novel as part of a university course, and enjoyed it all over again. It asks all sorts of interesting questions about time. Is it possible to travel back in time? And if you do, will you age at a different rate to the people you meet in a different time? It’s a magical story with an unexpected but satisfying ending.

Snake Research

Lady in Red, the third book in the Eye Spy series, is almost finished, and today I did some research to help me to complete it. This involved visiting our local reptile shop, and handling a snake for the very first time.

Why? Because Jake, one of the main characters in Lady in Red, has a pet snake called Queenie, who plays a very important part in the story.

Although I found out quite a lot on the internet about keeping snakes, there is no substitute for seeing one close up, and holding it in your hands. When the shop owner handed me a Royal Python, a cream-coloured snake with a small head, I expected its skin to feel cold and wet and scaly. Surprise, surprise – it was beautifully warm, very soft and smooth, and completely dry. Instantly, I understood why Jake was so fond of Queenie.

And another surprise – the shop owner told me that snakes are fast overtaking cats and dogs in popularity. He thinks this is because they are really easy to look after. They only need food once a week, and they like to sleep during the day. This means that when you come home from school or work, they are just waking up and ready to interact with you. But although I’m now a much bigger fan of snakes than I was before, cats are, and always will be, my favourite pets!