Paddlefoot (A story for the little ones)

Paddlefoot was feeling glum. He was tired of being the biggest dragon in the world. His enormous feet broke boulders every time he walked. When he sneezed, he blew trees right out of the soil. Worst of all, his wings were so big and heavy, he couldn’t lift them off the ground. Which meant he couldn’t fly. Whoever heard of a dragon that couldn’t fly? It was a terrible shame.

A tiny magician heard of Paddlefoot. He came to Paddlefoot’s cave, with his wand held high.

“I am Fionn the magician,” he said, “I’ve heard tales of your troubles, and I wish to help you.”

How can a tiny magician like you, help a huge dragon like me?” Paddlefoot asked, puffing steam out of his nostrils like factory chimneys.

“I will cast a spell, and swap you my size. If I was the biggest magician in the world, everyone would respect me. In return you will become as small as I am. You will enjoy the world without the fear of knocking it apart.”

“I really am tired of being so big,” Paddlefoot said, “Let’s do it.”

The magician waved his magic wand and whispered a spell beneath his breath. He didn’t want anyone to hear his words, in case they stole them. After all, words are very precious; especially magic ones.

A great flash of light made Paddlefoot close his eyes tight. He felt himself shaking and bubbling and shrinking. When the shaking stopped, he heard a loud swishing noise. He opened his eyes again, and realised the swishing was just the wind, now so much louder in his tiny ears. He coughed and coughed, until he got the hang of taking tiny breaths, now that he needed much less air.

He looked down at his body. His wings were as small as daisy petals. His tail was like a blade of grass, and his legs as thin as strands of hair. He laughed and yelped, for he was now the smallest dragon in the world. No matter how hard he walked, he would no longer cause any hurt to the world.

As he was dancing on his little legs, the ground began to shake, and he was thrown from his feet. He couldn’t see what was causing it to shake, so he spread his leaf sized wings and flew into sky. At last, he was a dragon that could fly. He twirled and whirled in the wind. He had never felt so free.

But then he heard thunder. Loud and roaring, it smashed through the air. He looked around, and saw Fionn the magician in front of him; a huge giant tumbling about. His footsteps were the cause of the ground shaking, and the thunder was his laughter. Fionn blew out a great puff of air, and a gust of wind threw Paddlefoot into a cluster of trees, that were almost ripped from their roots. Fionn knelt down to a river and slurped it all up, leaving the fish jumping on the dry land.

“Stop!” cried Paddlefoot, “You’re ruining the world!”

Fionn laughed louder, and the mountains crumbled to the ground. He inhaled deeply, and swallowed all the clouds.

I said STOP!” Paddlefoot shouted.

“I’m the most powerful being in the world,” roared Fionn, and Paddlefoot had to hold onto a branch to stop himself being blown away, “You can’t tell me what to do.”

Paddlefoot knew he had made a mistake. He loved being small more than anything. But he knew that if he stayed small and Fionn stayed big, then the world would be in terrible danger. When Paddlefoot was big, he had moved gently. He had learnt to be careful as he grew, to protect the world around him.

“Where is my wand?” Fionn asked, “I must have dropped it when I was growing.”

Paddlefoot scanned the ground until he saw the wand, gleaming from the grass. Fionn bent down and tried to pick it up, but his fingers were too big and he couldn’t grasp it.

“Who needs magic when you’re as big as me anyway?” Fionn said, walking away and knocking over a hundred trees.

Paddlefoot flew down and picked up the wand. He hid it behind his back and flew up to Fionn’s ear.

Your magic is so clever,” Paddlefoot said, “Please tell me the words of the spell so I can admire your greatness.”

Fionn smiled and puffed up his chest with pride, causing such a wind, that a passing seagull was knocked into space.

“I can’t tell you the spell,” Fionn said, “You might cast it on us and reverse everything!”

“Oh no, I want to stay this small and free forever. Besides, there can be no magic without a wand. And a little dragon shall never have a wand.”

You’re right,” said Fionn, “In that case, the words were:

Tricks Trocks Hicks Hocks,

Put me into that man’s socks.

With the words fresh in the air, Paddlefoot waved the magic wand with all his little might.

Back came the flash of light, the shaking and bubbling. This time Paddlefoot felt himself stretching and growing. Very quickly, he was back to his old enormous self. Fionn the magician had shrunk, and was shrieking and shaking his fist at Paddlefoot.

“You tricked me!” he cried, his face as red as lava.

Paddlefoot laughed, very carefully, the way he knew how to, so that he wouldn’t knock any birds out of the sky.

Power is safest with those who don’t crave it,” Paddlefoot said, throwing the wand on the ground.

He lifted his huge foot and stomped down on the wand, cracking it in two. A little earthquake cracked the ground just beneath Fionn and he ran away, moaning and sobbing. Fionn the magician was never again seen in that part of the world. And Paddlefoot never again wished to be smaller.


The Draw of Picture Books

The more I read picture books, the more I question why some work and others don’t. When talking about novels, people almost universally agree on what it is that keeps the reader reading; the voice, the characters, the pace, the story etc. Sometimes you’re hooked from the first line, sometimes it takes time to warm up but you keep reading because you’ve heard it’s a great book, or you love the author’s other work.

But picture books are short, they need to capture their audience in an instant. There can be no opportunity to lose them. They need to leave their mark to make sure the young audience will ask for the same book again and again. But with such short word counts, is it still the characters, the voice, and the pace that makes the reader keep reading? There is not always time for character development. The word count controls the pace, to an extent. So is it all up to the voice? Or perhaps it is a very careful balancing act to get the story across. Not forgetting the illustrations, which are often what attract us to the book in the first place.

I have heard many parents say that their child loved a particular book, and they couldn’t see why. What seems like a mundane story to an adult can be a comfort to a child. What seems like an amazing story to an adult, can lose a child’s interest on the second page, with those dreaded words “This is boring.” I have often been surprised by buying award-winning picture books, only to find my daughter wandering off half way through and coming back to me with an alternative book that gets shoved in front of the award winner. This I find intriguing. Is it always an adult who judges these books, or are they handed out to children to see their response?

I recently borrowed “The Monster Machine” by Nicola Robinson (author and illustrator) from the library. I picked it out because we were due a book about making monsters less scary, and the illustrations were fun. But to my three year old, this was no ordinary book. We read it five times that day, and then almost every day for the 2 week loan allowed by the library. I cannot tell you why she loved it so much. Something about it just gave her that special feeling that made her want more and more of it.

That, I think, is the key to a good picture book. Not just the story, or the pictures, but the feeling you get when you read it. More importantly, the feeling the child gets when they are read it. Childhood is the beginning of feelings, with new feelings arriving almost on a daily basis, with each new experience. A book than can make a child understand, re-live or experience a new feeling is, to me, a success (especially if that feeling is warm and fuzzy).

I read an interview with Julia Donaldson, who said she didn’t write to teach children what she thought adults wanted them to know, but she writes to give children a good story. Story is fundamental to picture books. Without a story that stands out, the child won’t want to hear it, and the parent won’t want to read it a hundred times. But I do believe in teaching through stories. When I first read Polly Dunbar‘s “Flyaway Katie”, I thought it was sweet. My daughter, 2 at the time, loved it, so I had to read it again and again. I no longer think it is just sweet, I now think it is marvellous. It took me awhile to realise all that is going on in that short book of so few words and pictures. Not only does the book teach colours, but also emotions, creativity, positive thinking, imagination, and sounds. All with the added bonus of fantastic illustrations. Now my youngest daughter, just turned 2, has discovered this book, and I can honestly say that I am delighted to be re-reading it all over again.

To capture such feelings in so few words is not easy. I first wrote a picture book thinking it would be simple, sure anyone can do that. 300 words? No problem. But it is not as easy as it looks. I have decided that is actually easier to write a 50,000 word novel than a 300 word picture book that leaves the reader with a warm feeling every time they read it. So I take off my hat to Polly Dunbar, and Julia Donaldson, and Martin Waddell and all those other picture book authors, who can create a world, a magnet, and a feeling in an instant.

Kitty’s Garden: A short story for adults

Kitty looked out her kitchen window and shivered at the state of the garden. The recent warmth had caused an explosion of growth. It was disorganised and tatty. Tom would turn in his grave if he saw it. She wondered if he could see it. For the past few months she had felt his presence in every room, both comforting and haunting. Every night going to bed Kitty promised herself she would sort out the garden when she got up. Every morning she lacked the energy to find the trowel, let alone use it.

She added an extra spoon of sugar to her tea hoping it would give her the energy she needed. This was her fourth cup this morning and she was still waiting expectantly for the kick.

The door bell rang. The only person who ever rang at this time was the postman, but Kitty wasn’t expecting any parcels.

She opened the door and there stood a scruffy young man. His trousers were green with bits of grass and his hands were thick skinned and mucky. Kitty took a step back and chastised herself for not putting on the safety chain.

“Good morning, and a fine morning it is,” he said in a quick and eager voice.

“Yes?” Kitty said, her eyes skirting around the street to see if any of her neighbours could see her.

“I’ve noticed your lawn could do with an old trim, no offence or anything. I’m just checking if you’d like me to sort it out for you. Here’s my card,” he said.

She feebly took the card. “John O’ Shea. House and Garden Maintenance”, it read.

“I think I’ll manage it myself,” she said.

“No problem,” he said, “Keep the card in case you change your mind.”

Kitty nodded as she closed the door. She took a deep breath. Safe again.

“Oh Tom,” she whispered to the air, “How could you have left me?”

As Kitty washed her solitary plate after dinner the phone rang. Suzie always rang at this time.

“Hi Mum, how are things?” Suzie asked.

“Fine thanks. How are the boys?” Kitty said.

“Oh you know, up to mischief as always. Did you go out today?” Suzie said.

“I didn’t need to,” Kitty said.

“Mum, you can’t hide at home everyday. You need to get out there. It’s summer for goodness sake.” Suzie said.

“I go out every Tuesday for my groceries. I’ll go out tomorrow.” Kitty said.

“I know Mum, but you need to have a life too, something other than grocery shopping,” Suzie said.

“I’ve had a fine life,” Kitty said.

“It’s not over yet. Just because Dad’s gone doesn’t mean you are too. Do you think he’d want you moping around all day?” Suzie said.

“That’s not fair. You make it sound like I’m hurting him by staying at home, when we both know he can no longer be hurt. He’s gone. He’s the one at peace and I’m the one hurting.” Kitty said. She covered the phone and took a deep breath to stop herself crying.

“I know you’re hurting. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.” Suzie said, “Listen, we’re going to come visit at the weekend. The boys can’t wait to see you. It’s been way too long.”

“There’s no need to visit. I know how busy you are.” Kitty said.

“The boys are dying to see you. Jack is moping about the house waiting for the exam results. He’s terrified he won’t get the results he needs for College. A distraction would be great for him. And the other two are already bored of the summer holidays. They’d be much happier being able to run around your garden. You know our garden is the only the size of a shoebox.” Suzie said.

Kitty felt a knot growing in her stomach.

“The garden is a bit of a mess love,” Kitty said.

“Dad’s garden?” Suzie said, “Don’t be silly, Dad’s garden could never be a mess. It takes care of itself. His pride and joy.”

Kitty wondered if Suzie had simply forgotten that Tom was too unwell last summer to tend the garden. Or perhaps she had been so preoccupied with her dying father that she hadn’t noticed the garden turning into chaos.

Kitty heard Ben, Suzie’s eight year old, shouting in the background.

“You’d better go love. I’ll see you at the weekend. I’ll make lunch for your arrival,” Kitty said.

“Great, I can’t wait to see you,” Suzie said hanging up.

Kitty sat down on her armchair and noticed she was shaking. She looked across at Tom’s chair with it’s perfectly plumped up cushion, as if it was still waiting for him to sit down. Kitty didn’t want her daughter to visit. Every time she visited, Suzie lectured her and tried to change how she did everything. Her only daughter always thought she knew best. Thinking the garden looked after itself was a fine example of how much she had to learn. Suzie hadn’t noticed the amount of hours Tom had lovingly put into the garden, carefully planting each plant from seed and painstakingly removing each weed almost the minute it appeared above ground. When they were first married she had loved gardening too, spending just as much time out there as he had. It was she who had planted all the fruit trees; spindly stalks that had now become sturdy apple and pear trees. It was when she got pregnant that she had handed the garden over to Tom, what with the exhaustion in the last few months before the birth. When Suzie was born it had been the custom for the woman to do the majority of child-rearing. She was always inside with Suzie or taking her on outings. Tom had invited her out a few evenings to garden with him after Suzie was in bed, but by then Kitty was so exhausted that she politely refused, telling him he was better at it anyway.

Kitty wondered why she had never gone back to gardening. She imagined that every marriage fell into patterns that weren’t necessarily built on good reason.

Now the boys were coming to visit and would want to play in the garden. Kitty knew Suzie would have a melt down if she saw the garden in the state it was in. It would bring how much she missed her father right back to her. The thought reminded Kitty that she was not the only one mourning Tom. There was a whole family suffering. Her role as the mother and granny meant she had to do something to uphold their expectations. Kitty went to the hall and found the gardeners card. It was a coincidence that he had come today. Or maybe it was a little sign.

The next morning Kitty rang her nephew.

“Friar Street Garda Station,” a man answered.

“Can I speak with Brian Smith please?” she asked, “Tell him it’s Kitty.”

There was a moments silence and then she heard Brian.

“Hello Kitty, everything alright?” he said.

“Everything is fine. It’s just that Suzie is coming for the weekend and I need a gardener. A young man came by yesterday, named John O’Shea. He left a card. Do you think I can trust someone who just knocks on doors?” she asked.

“I know John. He’s doing all the gardens around the place this year. He’s a decent lad. If you’d like I’ll swing by on my lunch break and make sure everything is going well.”

“Only if it wouldn’t put you out. I’ll make up some sandwiches for you,” Kitty said.

“That’d be great thanks. See you then Kitty,” he said.

After he had hung up she remembered that today was grocery day. She had enough for Brian’s lunch at least, but it didn’t sit well with her that now she’d have to do the shopping on Wednesday. Wednesday was a much busier day in the supermarket than Tuesday.

Kitty waited by the door anxiously. John was five minutes late and she wondered had he changed his mind. She unlocked the front door and walked out. A woman pushed a buggy past her front gate. She didn’t look over to say hello.

Kitty waited until a car pulled up with a scruffy trailer at the back. There was a lawnmower in the trailer. Kitty felt a bit weak at the knees seeing a huge chainsaw in there too. She reminded herself Brian would be around later.

“Good morning Mrs. Cleary,” John called, looking delighted with himself.

Kitty smiled back, wondering if she had ever had as much energy as oozed from this young man.

“Let’s have a look around then,” he said, “Make a plan. You said there’s a lot of work to be done.”

“I don’t know where to start. I need it in order by Saturday.” Kitty said

“No problem,” he said, “Can I see the back?”

She led him around the side of the house, and he gasped when he saw the garden.

“What a treasure!” he said, “You’d never think you had such a huge garden. There must be close on an acre hidden back here.”

“I thought if you could clear away the overgrowth first I would at least be able to see some of the flowers that must be hidden. Then you could make a start on the grass.” Kitty said.

“Sounds like a plan,” he said, “I’ll grab my tools.”

Kitty watched from the safety of her kitchen window as John pulled out weeds and cut away the overgrown hedge. She was in awe of the happiness he carried about him.

At lunchtime she was so fascinated watching him that she had forgotten about Brian’s visit until the doorbell rang.

“Everything going well Kitty?” he said.

“He’s doing marvellous work,” Kitty said, “He’s turning the place around. I’ll get out the sandwiches.”

“It needed the work alright. You should have called me over last weekend. I’d have been happy to help.” Brain said.

“I didn’t know Suzie was coming until last night. Anyway, you’ve enough on your plate with the two little ones.” Kitty said.

“There’s a heap of sandwiches here,” Brian said, “I’ll never eat them all. Why not ask John in for some and I’ll suss him out for you?”

After lunch Brian went back to the police station and Kitty felt suprisingly calm. Perhaps it was because she knew that John was aware she had a policeman nephew, or perhaps because she realised he was a decent type. He had even left his dirty shoes at the door when he came in for lunch, and had washed his hands with a nailbrush he carried around in his pocket before eating.

Watching John through the window made Kitty feel a glow in her belly. A longing to be out there too.

His bouncy youthfulness was energising.

She changed into some old slacks, a loose t-shirt and Tom’s old gardening clogs. They were huge on her feet and she enjoyed feeling the indentations of his feet under her soles.

“I’ve decided to come and help,” she said to John, “There’s too much here for one person, and only four days to do it.”

“Do you enjoy gardening?” John said.

“I used to when I was more fit and able,” she said, “As for now, we’ll have to wait and see.”

She knelt down next to a flowerbed and felt her knees crack beneath her.

She began pulling out weeds, cautiously at first. It had been so long since she had felt earth on her hands that at first she was nervous something would bite her or prick her. She avoided the big dandelions because she didn’t have any gardening gloves for their spiky leaves.

One by one she cleared away the weeds to reveal the rose bushes. She felt the sweat creeping down her neck.

After about two hours she stood up for a break. Severe pins and needles pierced her legs. She walked briskly about to try and get rid of the sensation. Her old body wasn’t used to this. Once the pins and needles passed she looked at the bed she had cleared and felt a smile creep over her face, first to her lips, then to her eyes. Nothing had given her more satisfaction in months. She felt the pride that came with achievement and she knew Tom would be pleased if he was watching.

“You’ve done powerful work there,” John said, and she realised she had forgotten he was even there. She looked at the rest of the garden.

“You’ve done fine work yourself. I am beginning to see the outlines of the garden again.” Kitty said.

“I’m going to do the lawn now if that suits you. You could take a rest now while the mower will be loud.” he said, and she was touched at a young man having such thoughtfulness.

“I will. I could use a cup of tea,” she replied.

When John was gone and her dinner dishes were washed up, Kitty walked out into the garden. She inhaled the smell of cut grass and felt her heart lighten. It was like a little piece of Tom had returned.

“How did I let the garden become such a mess?” she asked herself. She wondered if she hadn’t been able to face it because it was a reminder that Tom was gone. Did that mean she was getting over it, learning to cope again? She immediately felt a wave of guilt. She didn’t want to get over it. She didn’t want to stop mourning because that would belittle the whole marriage. As if it hadn’t been important if she could move on with her life after less than a year after his death. She rushed back into the house and closed the kitchen blinds.

The next morning Kitty woke aching all over. Sudden work after years of inflexibility. She hobbled downstairs and opened the kitchen blinds, determined not to be overcome by emotion today. She needed to get the garden done for Suzie. She was surprised to see John already at work with a big shears, chopping back overgrown hydrangea bushes. She wondered if summer was the right time to cut them, but thought it didn’t really matter because they were so overgrown that something had to be done about them. She had never been fond of hydrangea bushes, feeling they took up too much space. No matter what he added to the soil, Tom could never get them that nice rich shade of magenta pink he wanted. They always ended up a slightly obnoxious light pink that neither of them liked.

“Are you going to give it another go today then?” John asked wiping sweat from his forehead.

“I’m on a mission to succeed,” Kitty said, “For Suzie.”

It was easier working in the morning without the midday sun beaming down. It seemed quieter and fresher at this time. She noticed John had pulled up the dandelions that she had bipassed yesterday.

She walked to the middle of the garden to clear the circular centre-piece flower bed. She got a waft of a familiar smell and couldn’t place it. She walked around the bed and spotted a flash of colour; purples, reds, whites. Her heart gave a jolt. She knelt on the grass and carefully cleared the overgrowth to reveal a dense cluster of Sweet William flowers. Tom had always brought Kitty a bunch of Sweet Williams on their anniversary. She had often asked him to grow them himself and he had said he would, one day. Kitty’s eyes filled with tears that she tried to blink away. She wondered when he had planted them. She knew they were perennial. She took a steadying breath when she realised he must have planted them just after his cancer diagnosis. He knew he wouldn’t live much longer and he must have secretely planted her favourite flower when he knew he would no longer be able to bring them home. Tears spilled from her eyes, a mixture of nostalgia and happiness. Even from the grave Tom was still doing the small little things to make her happy.

When Kitty returned from the supermarket on Thursday, finally having run out of milk, she panicked to find John had gone. She had been so nervous that he wouldn’t return that she had forgotten to unpack her shopping. But he did return, and with boxes of bedding flowers, already in full bloom. He beamed at her as he lifted them around to the garden.

“The garden needs a bit of colour don’t you think?”John said, “Too late to get a good display from what’s already in the garden, so I thought these would make the place look good.”

“They’re perfect,” Kitty said and then laughed, “Tom always thought buying flowers like that was cheating. He always insisted he had to grow them from seed to get the best result.”

John laughed, “Well, cheating or no cheating, they’ll look great for Saturday and isn’t that all that matters now?”

By Friday night the garden was like new again. It wasn’t as fine as when Tom had cared for it, because so many of the flowers had been starved of light. The roses were few and far between from a lack of dead heading. But the lawn was clear and ready for the boys to run around. The hedges were neat and orderly. Walking around the garden, Kitty rubbed the lavender and savored the smell. She gently touched the rose petals and spotted a fine bulk of apples growing on the tree. John was paid and gone with the promise to return weekly to do the grass and hedges. She was already looking forward to his return. She hadn’t realised how hungry she had become for human company.

She rooted around in the shed and found the secateurs. She knelt down and clipped off a few Sweet Williams to bring indoors. She left plenty still in the garden but it would be nice to see some in a vase in the house. Like old times.

Suzie, her husband Fred and the three boys arrived on Saturday morning. The hall was filled with noise and energy the minute they arrived, and Kitty felt giddy with their presence.

“You look great Kitty, better than you have in ages,” Fred said.

“You certainly look better than you’ve been sounding on the phone,” Suzie said, “I was getting a bit worried about you. But seeing you now, I was worrying for nothing.”

“Can we go out the back?” Ben asked, “Flynn and I brought our bats but Jack said he’s too old for playing ball games.”

“You’re never too old to play ball games,” Kitty said, turning to Jack, ” Don’t you know you don’t stop playing because you get too old? You only get old when you stop playing?”

Suzie and Fred laughed but Jack looked at her confused.

“Go on out. Enjoy the garden,” Kitty said, “I’ll bring you lemonade.”

“Great idea Mum,” said Suzie.

Kitty carried the jugs of homemade lemonade out to the garden.

“You made it yourself?” Suzie said, “God, you haven’t done that since I was a little girl.”

“You used to love it,” Kitty said.

“So did you!” Suzie laughed and Kitty sat down on one of the wooden garden chairs. The next job would be getting these varnished afresh.

“This is the life,” Fred said, “Sitting out here in the sunshine.”

“The garden is just like it should be,” Suzie said, “I though you said it was a bit of a mess?”

“I did a bit of work on it,” Kitty said, smiling to herself.

“Thank goodness. Dad’s garden was always my favourite place in the whole world. It was my sanctuary when I was teenager.” Suzie said.

Kitty was quiet as she watched the boys hitting the ball to each other. Jack sat on the grass looking bored, in typical seventeen year old fashion.

“It’s not just Dad’s garden Suzie. It belongs to all of us.” Kitty said.

“Dad would be delighted you’re taking such good care of it,” Suzie said.

“I know love,” Kitty said, “But I’m not going to keep caring for it just for Tom. I’ll do it for all of us. Especially for myself.”

“That’s the spirit,” Fred said.

“You’re right,” Suzie said.

Ben hit the ball into the flowerbed , scattering some rose petals.

“Boys!” Suzie called, “Be careful. Show some respect for Granny’s garden.”

Kitty smiled. It had never been anything but Tom’s garden, Dad’s garden. But now it was her own and she was going to enjoy it.