the end of an era

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post about any aspect of parenthood but, well, it’s that time of year isn’t it? Today was the last day of term and marked a turning point – my youngest had his last morning at nursery before he starts proper school in September. And yes, I’m feeling all emotional about it.walking down a path
On Tuesday he had his ‘nursery graduation’ (these events seem to be the thing now) which involved the kids wearing caps and gowns and doing a little singing performance before being presented with a certificate. It was very cute and lovely but somehow didn’t really tug on my heart strings. I think it’s because I find that the most emotional moments are often the simplest. They sneak up without the bells and whistles of celebrations and ceremonies. Their power is not in the fanfare but in the stillness in its wake.

And so, this lunchtime, leaving the classroom where my youngest had been spending his mornings for the last year, I found myself dragging my heels. Most people had left – the hubbub of voices receded, the crush of parents chatting about holidays and of jostling youngsters waving paintings faded away. But I couldn’t quite leave. Dawdling, I took one more look around the empty walls usually festooned with colourful artwork, at the rows of little pegs without their clutter of coats and wellies, and the big tables swept clean of plasticine, paint and glue. And my eyes swam.

Because I wasn’t really seeing it at all – that emptiness, I mean. I was seeing my youngest bouncing into the class every morning and rushing up to greet his little friends, I was seeing my middle son grinning by the window as he waved me off, already clutching the lego he made a beeline for every morning. And I was looking back seven years to when my eldest began nursery, remembering how it felt to cross that threshold for the first time. I couldn’t believe I was about to leave for the last.

So I stalled, I hugged his (wonderful) teacher again, I fought back the tears and made plans to immediately head to the nearest soft play with a group of friends for a chat and a laugh and a little nostalgic wallow.

I’ll miss these afternoons together once my son starts school – not only my time with him but also the (mostly) weekly meet-ups with the group of mums of my son’s best friends. I didn’t even expect to make new friends third time around (having lost the super-keen ‘Ooh, who will be my friend?!’ edge I’d had when my eldest started school and even the more casual ‘Shall we be mates, then?’ vibe of round two) but my youngest, it turns out, is a sociable little thing with impeccable taste and his friends’ mums are lovely. We’ve had some good times this past year.

This isn’t an ending though, not really. The nursery class are all moving up to reception in September and it’s a mere one classroom away! I know my son will be happy and I’m not at all worried… so what am I getting all emotional about? Well, apart from the simple answer (that’s just how I’m wired, sentimental sap that I am), I think it’s because it’s really and truly the end of an era. All three of my boys have been through this particular rite of passage but third time around it has particular significance for me because this is also the last time. It’s not just the end of my four-year-old’s preschool years it’s the end of the preschool years for our family entirely. That’s it.

Of course this change is great in many ways. It means more freedom and space and time for me and a movement towards all three of our kids being more independent. Honestly, I think it will be fab.

But right now, I’m allowing myself a little wobble. My baby is growing up – ALL my babies are growing up – and sometimes that hurts. So tonight I’ll indulge myself. I’m going crack open the wine and the chocolate and reflect on the last ten years.

A decade of parenthood and three little school boys.

It’s all going to be fine.

Helena Handcart

I’d like to introduce you to a new friend of mine – her name’s Helena:Helena Logo square

Ok, she’s not strictly speaking a friend, she’s a business, but she’s an idea I dreamt up with one of my oldest friends last year and, as the months have gone by and we’ve plotted and planned to make her a reality, we’ve become rather fond of her. You see, Helena is a positive and determined sort of a character. Feisty and no-nonsense but with a heart as soft as melted butter. She’s focussed too, she knows what’s important to her – creativity and compassion – and she wants to use art to make a difference.

I’m still talking about her like she’s a person, aren’t I?  Ok, let’s rewind…

I made no secret of how I felt about the world last year – the EU referendum with its climate of hate and the racism that the result seemed to legitimise, the horrendous terrorist attacks, Trump, the political and social situations in countries around the globe, even the celebrity death toll… it started to feel like we were all going to, well, hell in a handcart…

All this was the focus of many discussions with my best mate, Sus, on our monthly dinner dates in the Scottish borders. We live over a hundred miles apart (in Scotland and Northumberland) and there’s a little pub we go to – half way between our homes – that has, for the last six and a half years, been our retreat from all the other demands on our time. There we go to eat, chat, and put the world to rights. And, being illustrators, we often draw too. Not for work purposes, we just find that, in a funny kind of way, drawing makes us feel better about things.

The two of us outside the Bucchleugh Arms

The two of us outside the Bucchleugh Arms

Anyway, on one of those occasions while drawing and having a good old rant, we decided enough was enough. We were sick of feeling helpless amidst everything that was going on. We wanted to do something – even if it was only a very small thing – to make a positive difference. And we decided art could help us achieve that… and so the idea for Helena was born.

miniature cards range

The small change range. These use my miniature drawings which are reproduced actual size on the cards. I love drawing things small!

So, to get back to introductions:  Helena Handcart is a greetings card business that’s committed to doing some good. To that end, 50p of each and every card we sell is donated to grassroots charities devoted to causes close to our hearts. Sus and I design the cards, and they’re printed by a lovely company called Six Print who support the Woodland Trust project and use only carbon captured papers for the production of their greetings cards.

Alll together now range

Some of our ‘All together now’ range of cards by Sus, pictured in front of the forth bridge where Sus lives!

We have two partner charities at the moment who are the fabulous Starcatchers who focus on improving the lives of the under fives through creative experiences, and Crisis Classroom who believe in empowerment through education of all refugees. Because they’re grassroots organisations, even tiny donations can make a difference to people’s lives and we’re thrilled that every time anyone buys one of our cards, we’re able to do just that.

I’d love you to visit our Etsy shop and take a look at all our cards. We’re working on more designs right now so the range will soon be expanded. In the future, I even hope to illustrate some of my limericks for cards – that should be fun!

Right, that’s the introductions over I think! You can find Helena Handcart on FacebookInstagram and Twitter – do pop over and say hi if you can. Or, as Helena would say:

“Buy a card. Send love. Make good things happen.”

xxx

 

 

some thoughts on politics

Despite the storm in UK politics recently, I’ve held back from sharing my views on the blog and social media. I’m not quite sure why – last year I was pretty emotionally open about it all on here. I made it clear I was pro-remain and vehemently anti-Trump and believe me, my silence this time round hasn’t meant any lack of political passion this year either.poppy field

So I’ll be honest with you now – I was nothing short of THRILLED that Labour won more seats in the election last week. I feel it’s a huge step towards a more compassionate society – one where everyone matters and where vital services like the NHS are protected. I also think it’s a huge slap in the face to Theresa May’s hard Brexit and the way she was pursuing it and, as someone who values togetherness and collaboration, I think that is a very good thing.

I love all the talk about the youth standing up to be counted, the thought that our population is more engaged and politically active and the belief that the hate-soaked tabloids are losing their power over the electorate. That last thought alone is enough to make me dance in the streets. There is much in all of this to celebrate.

But, man alive, what about this proposed Tory coalition with the DUP?!!!! Their party is sickeningly homophobic, denies climate change, wants to teach creationism as scientific fact, reintroduce the death penalty and is not only anti- abortion but wants to criminalise any one who offers or seeks advice about it. It beggars belief. And even though I can’t honestly see any of these beliefs radically impacting on policy (I have more faith in our Conservative MP’s than to think they would back-track on gay marriage or our right to choose etc – I hope I’m right on that) I think to allow the balance of power to lie with the DUP gives such abhorrent views a dangerous legitimacy.

I also understand there are grave concerns in Northern Ireland about how this could unsettle the peace process there. I can’t pretend to have much of an understanding in this area (although I’ve been doing a bit of reading this weekend) but I’ve heard this alliance called dangerous and irresponsible. There are rumblings in the Conservative party’s own ranks let alone in wider parliament.

Personally, I’d question the extent to which a minority Tory government propped up by the DUP could be genuinely representative of the views of the British people. I may be a lefty myself but I’ve spoken to Conservative voting friends over the weekend and they’re appalled by the DUP’s views too. All told, the coalition feels desperate and unsafe. To many it doesn’t even feel legitimate.

So where does that leave us? What’s going to happen next? Will we have a new Prime Minister by the end of the week? A date for another general election by the end of the month? An entirely new government by the end of the year? Who knows?!

Anyway, I thought I would share this drawing I did. It’s about sticking together to face whatever life throws at you. Braving the storm no matter what. I think we’re going to need to.

storm image for blog

book launch!

It’s funny the twists and turns life takes. When I began this blog a few years ago it was with the dream of becoming a published author, yet this weekend when I finally found myself holding a novel bearing my name, it was as an illustrator!inside cover

As you can see in the photo, the book is The Mystery of The Disappearing Underpants by Nikki Young. It’s aimed at 8 – 11 year olds and centres on Harry, his best friend James and neighbour Stacey who form a spy club and spend their summer holidays solving mysteries. The premise immediately appealed to me because my brothers and I often pretended we were spies when we were kids and I loved the way the story started off light-hearted but ended up with a real mystery that’s genuinely exciting.

The book was released last week and on Saturday I went to the launch party! The journey down to Kent from up here in Northumberland was a bit of a trek – especially with a  two and a half hour train delay which led to me arriving rather more than fashionably late – but it was worth every moment. The launch was brilliant with pink fizz, book signing, cupcakes with my illustrations on them and conversations with some really lovely people. I’m so impressed with Nikki for all the hard work she’s put into the book and really happy to have been able to work with her to add that little extra something.

book launch

I left the launch full of optimism, cupcakes and bubbles and, as if that wasn’t enough, then went immediately to London and met my oldest friend for a meal. A night away by myself is a rare treat indeed – with no kids tea or bedtime to have to think about, I was so giddy I could barely find my way to the restaurant, but I got there in the end and we had a wonderful evening. I then went to check-in to my hotel, was told I’d had a free room upgrade and found myself with this view:

kings cross at night

Wow. It was a little louder and brighter than the moonlit fields of home but for the one night it was totally perfect! The next morning I had a leisurely breakfast (avocado and scrambled eggs on toast, freshly squeezed orange juice and not a child in sight – not my usual experience!) and then strolled off to meet my writing friends for lunch. And when I say ‘lunch’ I mean a six hour long food and drink fest where we utterly put the world to rights. Ah, bliss.

What I'm Writing meet up May 17

Finally, on the train home I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for years and had a really good catch up. It was the perfect end to my weekend way. I arrived home and was able to give my sons a copy of Nikki’s book each. My middle son was so excited he’s now cleared a shelf of his bookcase for “Books illustrated by Maddy Bennett (my mum)”. If that’s not a reason to keep on drawing in every spare moment, then I don’t know what is. I fully intend to make sure he ends up with some books written by me on that shelf too. One day.

You can find out more about The Mystery of the Disappearing underpants (and buy it!) here.

books illustrated by Maddy Bennett

making miniature art for #The100DayProject

I have a new favourite drawing style – very, very small pencil sketches.

haunted house tiny

In case you’re reading this on a huge computer screen, that’s an averaged-sized pencil not some kind of super-massive thing.

I’ve been drawing tiny pictures for the last two weeks as part of The 100 Day Project – a yearly, free, global art project that runs for 100 days (no surprises there) and which this year started on April 4th. It’s open to everyone and it’s up to each individual to pick their particular creative project then do that each day and post the results on instagram with #The100DayProject hashtag.

Regular readers will know I love a creative challenge – #ShapeChallenge on Twitter really helped me with my drawing last year, as did my #THISislearning cartoons and #GuessTheFilm, all of which I shared on social media. I’ve done Camp NaNoWriMo in the past too and written everyday. There’s something really motivating about a challenge, I think!

This time, having the choice of any creative project I liked nearly froze me in the start gates, but then I thought if I’m going to do it every day (alongside everything else), it needs to be something I can do reasonably quickly. Drawing things very small works well in this way – each of the sketches takes me between 15 and 45 minutes (which for me is really fast!). I decided to draw ‘big’ things small so I could play with scale and also to try and focus me a little.

I’ve enjoyed the challenge even more than I thought I would, and have found it really beneficial. Drawing small is somehow less outfacing than taking on a large scale project, so I’ve felt able to try a range of different things: animals, buildings, people… pylons… Any drawing I do helps improve my skills; I definitely subscribe to the theory that practice is more important than innate ability.

giraffes, jack, pylon and cake

TL – BR giraffes (on an average-sized paperclip), Jack introducing himself to the giant (having climbed the ladder rather than the beanstalk), pylons, and chocolate cake with BIG emotional significance)

Posting my work on social media has been really beneficial too; throwing my work out there helps with the self-doubt, and I can’t deny the positive feedback has been a real boost – who doesn’t like a bit of insta-love?!

elephant, bus, tree and dragon

TL – BR elephant, double decker bus (that perspective was so tricky!), me drawing under a tree (well, fantasy me – real me would have small children crawling on my head) and a dragon.

I’ve also really enjoyed scrolling the #The100DayProject hashtag and seeing what other people are getting up to. It’s inspirational and feels like a lovely community too. All in all, it’s been a massively positive experience.

Can I keep it up for 100 days? Follow me on Instagram and check out my #100DaysOfDrawingBigThingsSmall hashtag and we’ll find out…

illustrating for the Story of Me

cameron's dragons cropYou know the feeling you get when you’re involved in a particularly inspiring project? Something that’s not only fun, interesting and exciting but that bit special too?

I’ve had that feeling recently about an illustration project I’ve been working on. It’s called The Story of Me and is the brainchild of a friend of mine who’s a primary school teacher in Scotland.

Sus – or, as she is generally known by a classroom of children, Mrs Jeffries – is one my oldest friends and someone who never fails to amaze and inspire me. She’s not only a teacher and a mother of two, she also writes for the TES, sits on the boards of creative companies and is studying illustration. I don’t know what powers her (although I suspect creme eggs or party rings might play their part!) but to top it off she’s always full of amazing ideas. The Story of Me is no exception.

The idea is based on a study which found that children were more likely to recall target vocabulary if it was used in sentences where they themselves were the subject of the sentence. In other words, when you’re teaching kids to read, they’re more likely to remember words in stories about them.

Knowing how well children respond to images as well as words, Sus designed a project where the children in her class would work (remotely) alongside illustrators to create stories that they were the subject of. You can read more about the details and expected outcomes here but the basic idea was that the children would provide sentences for the illustrators to work with and by the end of the project, each child would have a short illustrated book about themselves which would help them learn and remember target words. A book that they’d co-created – how cool is that?!

I was one of the twenty illustrators who were a part of this project and I worked with six-year-old Cameron. He wrote a sentence or two a week for me to illustrate and the project evolved as it went along – I was never sure what Cameron would write or how I might respond and was often surprised… by both of us! There was something so lovely about illustrating for a specific child and feeling I was helping to create a story that meant something to him. I’ve heard from Sus that he loved what I did and that means loads to me.

Anyway, as the project draws to a close, I thought I’d share our little story:

Cameron's dragon's 1cameron's dragons page 2Cameron's dragon's page 3Cameron's dragons 4

I have to admit, when I got the first sentence I wasn’t sure how to illustrate it at all and figured all I could do was draw Cameron (I had a photo to work with). After that it became easier; the dragons came to me the moment I read his ‘dun dun duuuuuuuuun’ – I mean, clearly there was something exciting going on so… dragons!

I absolutely loved the way Cameron took the dragon idea and ran with it. Dragons playing hide and seek was loads of fun to draw (and apparently the whole class of kids enjoyed looking for them in the picture) and the idea of a dragon that would trick him with a drawing of itself was brilliant. He really gave them – and the whole story – personality!

The kids are all going to receive their final pictures and finished books after the Easter holidays. I’m looking forward to finding out what Cameron and his classmates think about them! It’s been a fab thing to be involved in! :)

it’s a spring thing

yellow flowersDo you find your creativity fluctuates with the seasons? We’ve had gorgeous weather here in Northumberland these past few days and, in response, I’ve felt a tug from the creative part of my brain the likes of which I haven’t felt in months. An awakening, a stretching and an unfurling of sorts. A throwing aside of winter wrappings.

Sitting in the garden this weekend, bathed in the sun’s rays, stories suddenly started running through my head. Well, story fragments at least – they need building on before they become fully-fledged ideas but still…stories, poetry and creative words have alluded me for months. It’s good to feel they might be on their way back.

Of course, I haven’t had an entirely creativity-free winter: far from it. I’ve been focussing a lot on my illustration course and on some very exciting commissions… but even those, under the weight of winter, felt a bit of a slog. No, not a slog – I love drawing – but sunshine, bursting buds and birdsong (oooh, right now I can even hear a wood pigeon!) just make things feel lighter don’t they? The fun stuff feels more fun and the hard stuff feels more achievable.

I’m going to go off into the sunshine with my sketch pad now. I’ll blog again soon, though. I thought I might share some of my drawings here. Some work from my course, perhaps, and from another project I’m working on.

In fact, tell you what, I’ll leave you with an illustration that was part of my last assignment. It’s a very old limerick by an unknown author. I originally drew ‘Nan’ as a rather traditional, long-skirted figure running across Nantucket, then I thought, nah – if you’re going to steal a bucket of cash on an island you’d definitely escape on a jet ski!nantucket limerick illustration

Illustration news!

I’ve been quiet online recently for various reasons but, listen up, I’ve got some exciting news to share!

Remember how I said I’d been working on an illustration commission? Well, I can now announce that ‘The Mystery of the Disappearing Underpants‘ by Nikki Young will be published on April 28th, complete with illustrations from my very own pen!

Nikki’s book is aimed at 9 – 11 year olds and centres on Harry, his best mate James and neighbour Stacey who form a spy club and spend their summer holidays solving mysteries. Things start off fun and light-hearted but then events take a sinister turn…

You can find out more about the book (and see my own review of it) here but I can certainly recommend it. My nine-year-old son is desperate to read it and I can’t wait to give him a copy!

dog and people final for instagram

 

Nikki has also written a short story introducing the characters from her novel. This is called ‘A Special Day’ and is available as a FREE ebook over on Nikki’s website with cover illustrations by yours truly. Why not pop over for a read?

I’ve loved creating the illustrations for both books, and working with Nikki was a joy. I can’t wait to attend the launch of ‘Underpants’ (as it is affectionately known) next month! It might be worth keeping an eye on my instagram feed as I practice making underpants-themed cupcakes… undercakes? Cup pants? Erm… maybe I’ll just stick to biscuits.

onwards!

track“February! Great to see you! Thank God you’re here – did you not hear me calling you last week?And the week before? I could have done with your intervention really…

See, some bad shit went down last month, I’m afraid. I know, I know, you heard the same about January last year, but seriously, my dear February, seriously, that was nothing compared to what this January threw at us. And me. Yes, personally, nationally and internationally it wasn’t a good month.

Do you think when you’re finished here you could perhaps have a little word in the ear of January 2018? We’d like thirty-one days of loveliness please – world harmony, kittens, that sort of thing.

Impossible? Oh ok, just a few weeks of semi-loveliness…

Too much to ask? Ok, I’d settle for some garden-variety mundanity. Nothing at all showy just the sort of month that doesn’t leave me gazing at the news in horror or at social media with my head in my hands… can you do that?

Yes? Good. We’re all set then.

Ok, I’ve finished talking to February now ;)

It’s been nearly a month since my last post and, yes, it was a bad month but – imaginary conversations aside – the arrival of February has given me pause to reflect and find some good things to focus on. Like the fact that I’ve completed another assignment for my illustration course and am now working on a whole new module. And, even better, I’ve just finished another illustration commission – a book cover this time – which is very exciting! I’m also planning to design a website for my illustration soon which is a project I’m looking forward to. AND there’s this business idea I’ve been working on which both my friend and I are keen to get our teeth into.

And then, while I was eyeball deep in January, an email plopped into my inbox  (I didn’t even spot it until February had arrived) saying I was one of Feedspot’s ‘Top 20 Creative Writing Blogs And Websites on the Web. Chuck Wendig is in the list – Chuck Wendig! I love his blog so much! To be in the same list is… well, a bit baffling if I’m honest but just amazingly fabulous at the same time. I really have loved how – through the #WhatImWriting linky – this blog has become a little hive of writerly connection… or that’s how I like to think of it anyway! Good stuff.

Of course, ‘What I’m Writing’ itself is something that makes me very happy indeed. The community of writers is wonderful and the mutual support has made a difference, I think, to all of us over the past few years. I have realised though that it’s time for some (only some!) changes in this area. Having had time to think since my new year post, I’ve decided to stop running the linky. It’s been going for well over two years and during that time masses of different writers from different countries have linked up hundreds (and hundreds) of posts. I’ve loved it all but I’m finding myself continually more stretched time-wise to the point where it’s not viable to run it any more.

BUT (and here’s the crucial bit) the most important aspect of the linky for me has always been the community – to create and nurture one was the original and vital aim and, on that count, ‘What I’m Writing’ has far exceeded my hopes. And our community is still very much thriving and will continue to do so. We have a Facebook group where we share posts and ponderings and we continue to organise meet ups too for those who fancy it. I’ll be updating the linky page soon to explain things more clearly but basically, if you’re a writer at any stage of your career – published, unpublished, wondering if you dare pursue your dream, or already jumping in with both feet – you’re welcome to join us. Drop me an email and I can add you to the group. It’s a place of friendship and support – just what the doctor ordered at the moment!

So, this was really just me touching base because it felt weird not to blog for so long… and also to let you know things are ok in Writing Bubble land. January may have been awful (and I think this year has more to throw at us yet) but there’s lots to look forward to as well. I’m determined to pour energy into writing and drawing and family and friends in order to squeeze every drop of happiness out of 2017.

Let’s do this.

Writing Bubble

art and the broken heart

sunset-skyI just watched Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech. It’s fantastic. The way she exposed the awfulness of the US president-elect’s behaviour without even mentioning his name…

But what struck a chord most was her final sentence where she quoted something the late Carrie Fisher said to her:

“Take your broken heart, make it into art.”

I love that. It totally sums up where I am at the moment. So much bad stuff happened last year – horrible stuff, sad stuff, stuff that we know is going to cause problems for years to come.  It broke my heart. It broke many people’s hearts.

But it’s made me resolve to throw my passion and my energy more into the people I love and into art – in all its forms. I want to write and draw and illustrate. I want to learn and explore new creative skills. I want to experience art created by other people, to read and watch and see and feel and listen and devour art in all its glorious forms.

“Take your broken heart. Make it into art.”

That. Just, that.