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Society is broken?

kitty-551554_960_720No it’s not!

Teenagers are hooligans!
No they’re not!

Kids today – they don’t know they’re born!
Erm…

It was better in my day!
No it wasn’t!

Old people are always whinging!
No they’re not!

Mental health is at it’s worst!
You may have a point.

I want to correct a few myths: there are no more violent criminals, sex offenders, murderers, losers or wasters than there were before. Read a Shakespearean history or tragedy and you’ll see that those times were far more dangerous than now.

What is different is that we are all better educated. We’re literate. And my goodness that literacy has gone wild – it’s everywhere, newspapers, magazines, social media, posters in shop windows… In addition, we’ve made leaps and bounds with technology and again wow – news on the television, radio, social media again, emails…

So what has happened is that we all know far more than we did before. Back in Shakespeare’s time, if someone murdered somebody in London, it was unlikely a person in Newcastle would hear about it. Not only did the news not travel far enough or fast enough, but the murders were likely to have been far more frequent and therefore not as shocking as it is today.

What has stayed the same is that bad news makes great gossip. Nobody cares that a teenager held the door open for me today as I struggled with too many bags of shopping, but they all want to know about the teenager who threatened another with a knife. Just as in the 1500s bad news is the news that travels. The difference is that it now travels at lightening speed all across the whole world. Therefore, it feels like our lives are constantly threatened by evil. Sometimes it feels that the whole world is wicked and nothing good is happening. On top of that, the wonderful computer algorithms can exacerbate that feeling. Yesterday, I was looking on line for a new bed – now, whether I’m on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Google or wherever, I keep getting adverts for a new bed. The same happens with bad news – if you open a document about a dog being stolen, the algorithms will suddenly inundate you with stories of stolen dogs until you feel it’s no longer safe to have a dog and make you completely paranoid if you already have one.

I don’t know if mental health is worse now, because it used to be a taboo subject. I’m sure it’s always been far bigger than we ever realised, but I do wonder if it’s even worse now, due in part to the way we are inundated with news (almost exclusively bad news) from waking first thing in the morning (I always check my updates once I’ve turned my alarm off), to going to bed (I always check my updates once I’ve got into bed). I know I’m not the only one obsessed with my phone!

Well that’s all pretty miserable isn’t it! But don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be. Remember those algorithms? They can work in your favour too. Search for a happy kitten and you’ll be inundated with happy kittens, search for a hero story and you’ll be inundated with hero stories. Top tip: I love the Good News Network on Facebook for this. You can play a part too – try to share lots of positive thoughts. If you’re having a good day, let people know. It will make someone else’s day and then they too may share something positive for you to see. It will pop up in your Facebook memories and make you smile again on that day each year for the rest of your Facebook life. 😊

Of course, if you’re having a bad day, we all know it can negatively affect your mental health to keep it to yourself. I’m definitely not saying to hide your feelings. If your way of dealing with it is to share on Facebook that’s your decision, personally, I find it more beneficial to speak to a friend or family member face to face when I’m struggling. But you know you and you need to do what’s right for you.

However, when we are having a good day, how can we make sure our perception of the world avoids negativity and focuses on positivity? It would be nice if, upon finding something we don’t like, we thought what we could do to make it better instead of just complaining and feeling down about it. Helping others and fixing problems raises your spirits and your self-esteem. If your local school committee is not doing enough for the children, join their committee. They are probably desperate for extra helpers. If the town’s full of litter, organise a litter-picking group – our borough council supply litter pickers and bags for the local town group.

If you do have to make a complaint about a business, be sure to balance the karma by sending a letter or card complimenting another business. You’ll make that business’s day and you’ll feel much better too. 😊

Take back control. Make your own little world a better place and watch the love spread. That reminds me of this awesome little video. Clearly designed for very young children but I love it and I’m a not-so-young grown-up! The Pig of Happiness

Keep smiling folks and spread the love. 😊

Your Guide to Buying Indie-Books

library-425730_960_720There is a wealth of books out there that will give you joy, terror, heart-break, fear, ecstasy, laughs, sorrow and every other emotion you want to feel.

There are also a lot of books that will simply bore you or annoy you.

Buying any book is always a risk; you may or may not enjoy it, but hey, it’s a very low cost risk – most paper books are well under a tenner. Nevertheless, you don’t want to waste your hard-earned cash, so when you decide to buy a book from an indie-author, how do you know if you’re backing a lame-horse?

There have been many times when I’ve picked up a book and not enjoyed it. Perhaps I haven’t liked the writer’s style, or the plot doesn’t do anything for me. Maybe I didn’t buy into the main character or it was just wasn’t my favourite genre. That’s okay, I can deal with that. I don’t buy another book from that author or in that genre and I move on. There are no hard feelings – art is subjective.

What makes me furious though, is when the writer has not even tried. If I read a book and find spelling mistakes and grammatical mistakes, or the plot doesn’t make sense, it makes me furious. I feel that the writer has not respected me as a reader and then I feel cheated. It’s no longer about the content of the book – it’s become personal. Readers deserve respect and writers who don’t give respect don’t deserve respect in return.

So how do we find the really great indie-authors? The professional indie-authors? It’s easy. The first thing I do is judge the book by its cover. Does the cover look professional? If it doesn’t, I guarantee the contents are not professional either. Many indie-authors spend hundreds of pounds commissioning professional covers to make sure the reader gets the full experience – after all, there’s nothing quite like looking at the front cover of a book and knowing that you can’t wait any longer to read it. You were saving it for the weekend but…

Secondly, look inside at the back of the title page. Has it listed an editor? No? Wow! There is no author on earth who can produce a professional book without an editor. This includes traditionally published authors who are given an in-house editor and it includes editors themselves. It’s impossible for a writer to edit their own book, because they know exactly what they meant, so they cannot see the pitfalls, from plot-holes to spelling, punctuation and grammar. And no – asking their very clever friend or English teacher to read through is not enough. Editors are professionals and highly trained in their specific area. If the indie-writer does not respect the reader enough to have their book professionally edited then that is a big red flag.

Thirdly, check out their website and social media. You’ll quickly get a feel for what kind of person they are. Do they have a professional presence? Do they live and breathe reading and writing, or are they just putting anything out hoping to make a quick buck? Do they care enough about their readers to interact with them or do comments go ignored? If relevant, are they an expert in their field, or just someone who once did something? It’s amazing what you can learn about someone just by looking at the memes and photographs they upload. If they interest you on-line, they’ll more than likely interest you in their book too.

So what are you waiting for? Now you know how to buy indie-books safely, without buying drivel, you have millions of books just waiting for you to read!

Why I Wrote About Badgers in my Story

badger clan

Badgers seem to be one of the most misunderstood animals in the British countryside. Ignorance breeds fear and fear breeds hatred – I believe that’s where a lot of racism, sexism and disableism stems from. Badgers are secretive animals that mainly only come out at night and live below ground, therefore, very few humans have had the good fortune to see a real live badger with their own eyes. On top of this they have frighteningly sharp claws and powerful jaws making them sound like a terrifying Gruffalo rather than the peaceful pacifists they really are.

Like any wild animal, a threatened badger will fight for its life, or to protect its young – they’re just more capable than the average animal. Sadly, to blood thirsty individuals, this makes it an exciting rival for fighting dogs. Thus, the reputation of the badger as something wild, aggressive and dangerous has spread across Britain like a belligerent cancer. Without people being able to watch them regularly and see how they really behave, this rumour has continued unchecked.

When badgers were blamed by the government and some scientists for spreading TB among cattle this further fuelled the unfounded hatred of badgers. Farmers losing livestock were told that the badgers were to blame and a cull began. There were small pockets of resistance but with the badgers’ baseless reputation, the sympathy did not spread far. Of course, farmers need to protect their stock, but there are two big issues with the cull: 1) it has not been 100% proven that the TB is spread badger to cattle rather than cattle to badger 2) there are vaccinations available – why on earth kill when you can vaccinate? I refer you back to the aforementioned ignorance, fear and hatred.

Farmers are wonderful people. I grew up in the countryside and know many farmers. They are the custodians of the countryside. Without them, we would not have so many well-tended meadows, hedgerows and woodland, ergo we would not have such rich and varied flora and fauna. (Indeed, without them, we would not have food!) If farmers can be assured that the badgers will not harm the cattle, many would not support the cull. Unfortunately, the people at the top who decide whether to cull or vaccinate do not have the farmers’ or badgers’ best interests at heart.

I did a lot of research into badgers and discovered all sorts of fascinating facts – not least that they’re really loving and playful towards each other and make a variety of gentle noises as they groom each other or play. Also, that badgers are very clean and regularly air their bedding! Importantly, if a badger senses danger, it’s first instinct is to run away and hide – not an animal that is looking for a fight.

It struck me that there are a lot of similarities between the misunderstanding of a badger’s true nature and the misunderstanding of many young people, boys in particular, who are also assumed to be aggressive by nature and therefore feared and hated. I already had the idea of a story of one such unfortunate boy in my head and by including a badger clan, I hoped I could dispel both myths at once whilst also educating the readers about such boys and badgers.

Returning to my theory that ignorance breeds fear and fear breeds hatred – I used to be scared of butterflies! Yes, I know it seems strange, but the fluttering unpredictable movements sent me into a blind panic leaping and yelping like a mad woman whenever one came close. As a childminder, I liked to do projects with the children during the summer holidays and one summer I decided to teach the children the rather interesting life cycle of a butterfly. We began with a trip to Butterfly World, where another childminder had to take my children round because I was too frightened to go in. To cut a long story short, we studied butterflies intensely, discovering different types of caterpillars, their movements, their plant preferences, the chrysalis and then all the most common varieties of butterfly in the UK. We made some up of our own, built them from playdoh and bread, decorated cakes like them, etcetera. By the end of the summer holidays we visited Butterfly World again and guess what … I managed to go in. I was still a bit jumpy, but what a massive improvement. I credit my progress solely on the education and familiarity: I was no longer scared, and I no longer hated butterflies.

I truly hope that readers of The Boy Who Couldn’t will learn to love badgers and want to protect them. Vaccination is such a kinder option than killing. If you would like to learn more about badgers, there are lots of fantastic websites: the best one to start with is https://www.badgertrust.org.uk/

(Illustration credit: Michael Douglas Carr)

The Holidays are Here! Don’t Panic!

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Many mums, dads, grandparents and carers who are lucky enough to be off work when their children are off school, love school holidays, but at the same time, they may be worried too. What will the weather be like? How can I think of something to entertain the kids every single day? How much is this going to drain my bank account?

Worry not. I have a plan. And the first part of the plan is to plan.

You need one large sheet of paper folded into four and then unfolded:

  • Label the top left “Free” and “Outside”
  • Label the top right “Free” and “Inside”
  • Label the bottom left “Costs” and “Outside”
  • Label the bottom right “Costs and “Inside”

Allow your children to help come up with lots of ideas to fill in each square. It’s an activity in itself and a great reminder of previous fun days and activities. Here are some of my ideas to help you.

FREE OUTSIDE:

Top left is the golden square. Free AND outside – perfect!

  • Play Park – no, not just your local park that they go to all the time. Why not hop on the bus and go to a different park? You could do a new one each time and let the children give them marks out of ten. Choose their favourite one to visit again at the end of the holidays. They could even write reviews. 😊
  • Country Park – great big spaces to kick a ball about, fly a kite and play games such as tag or hide n seek.
  • Forest – lots of forests have free events on such as bug catching. If there are no events on, you could do things like build dens from fallen wood (don’t break off living branches).
  • Litter-picking – you’d be amazed how much children love litter-picking. Make sure the children don’t touch litter with their hands though – litter pickers are the safest way and quite a skill to learn. If there are a few of you, you could ask the council if they’ll lend you litter-pickers and bags. Our council does 😊
  • Beach – it doesn’t have to be the one you usually visit, ask friends for recommendations. Remember to pack a picnic or it gets expensive and this is supposed to be one of your free days.
  • Geo-caching – you need to download the app then you hunt for hidden treasure anywhere in the world (but if you want it to be free, I’d stick to your local area!) The treasure is usually a sticker or an interesting pencil! When you find it, you note down your name and date you found it, take out the treasure and replace it with some treasure of your own that you brought with you, then hide it back in the exact place you found it for the next person to find.
  • Rock hunting – find the rock hunting Facebook page for your local area, usually the town name followed by “Rocks” so “Stockton Rocks” for example. You’re looking for interestingly painted rocks which can be hidden anywhere – next to pavements, in a crack in a wall, on a tree branch… When you find a rock, you take a picture of it, post it on the Rocks Facebook page and then either hide it back where you found it or in a new place, for someone else to find.
  • Hills/Moors (hiking) – There’s something very liberating about hill tops and moorland. There’s nothing else higher than you for miles around. Make sure you stick to well-marked footpaths so you don’t get lost and don’t disturb wildlife.
  • Footprint hunting – they can search for footprints in their own garden, parks, beaches, countryside, woodland and forests. If you place a tray of wet sand at the edge of your garden with some food in the middle over night, you might find some very interesting footprints the next day. I might just happen to know of some good books you can buy for very young children to identify the footprints of animals that may visit your garden! 🙂
  • Bike ride – if your children are very young you can put them in a bike seat or on a tag along. If they’re old enough take them to the local off-road tracks in the woods and in parks. Lots of canals have lovely bike rides along side them. It’s worth asking where the best routes are at your local bike shop.
  • Streams – paddling in a tiny river, feeding ducks, picnicking on the village green – a lovely taste of village life.
  • Paddling pool – in your own back garden! Throw in the bath toys and a couple of water guns and they’ll have endless fun. Show them how to paint the fence with water too – that’s a never ending creative task as the sun drys it and so they can do it over and over again.
  • Castle ruins – some are still free to explore. Great for firing up the children’s imagination and loads of space to run all off that energy.
  • Dog walking.
  • Park runs.

FREE INSIDE:

Top right is okay too. It’s still free, but inside if the weather isn’t great.

  • Decorating rocks for rock hunting. The paint needs to be weather proof. If your children are very young, use poster paint and then seal it with varnish. If your children are older they can use old bottles of nail varnish. (Top tip – if you paint the rocks white first, the image will show up better). It doesn’t matter how good or bad the images are – every rock hidden and found is exciting!
  • Friends’ and relatives’ houses – It’s great to take turns hosting with all the kids together – they can entertain each other.
  • Museums. You’ll be surprised how many are free. Train museums are especially popular with mine.
  • Art galleries – they often have art and craft activities for children in the holidays, either free or a nominal amount such as 50p.
  • Country Halls/Houses. Some are free or a nominal amount and again they often have activities on for children during holidays.
  • Library – obviously lots of great books to choose and read, but also they usually have some kind of summer reading challenge on where you can collect stickers and prizes.
  • Playdoh – you can make your own from flour, water, oil and food colouring.
  • Baking – if you choose to make bread you can play with it like playdoh, then bake it and eat it! No awful models left around to “admire”! Cake decorating is another favourite that lets the children be creative. We love to make our own pizzas. We cheat and use the bottom of a muffin for the base, but the children love smearing on the tomato puree, selecting from lots of toppings I’ve prepared, and then sprinkling (smothering) the pizza in grated cheese. Then I just put it under the grill and they’ve made their own lunch!

COSTS OUTSIDE:

  • Lots of sports clubs have reasonably priced holiday activity clubs such as football, tennis, cricket, etcetera.
  • Country shows – easily spend the whole day there looking at farm animals, farm machinery, arts and crafts tents, etcetera. Be careful because the big ones can be expensive to get in and food and drink can be expensive there too – take a picnic! If you plan far enough in advance your children could enter some of the craft competitions or enter your family dog into the fun dog competitions such as the dog with the waggiest tail.
  • Horse riding at your local stables.
  • Air trails – great way for the children to push themselves and they get a great feeling of satisfaction from what they’ve achieved. It’s a safe way of allowing “risk taking behaviour” which is a natural part of growing up.
  • Go-Karting – great adrenaline filled activity.
  • Car shows – vintage/custom/modified.
  • Petting farms.
  • Camping/caravanning. This could be free if you know a friendly landowner, but do not trespass. Organised camps are safer and better equipped.
  • Fruit picking – what better way to persuade children that fruit is great to eat, than tell them they’re to pick it but not eat it! We always have to pay the farmer a bit extra for their bulging bellies! They love making it into a pie later too and it all gets eaten up!

COSTS INSIDE:

  • There are lots of village halls that run cheap activities for children such as arts and crafts, table tennis, etcetera.
  • Soft play.
  • Swimming pools – check out the family fun times where they might have large floating objects and the wave machine switched on. Our local one even plays music and has a disco light!
  • Cinema – some cinemas have greatly reduced films on early on a Saturday or Sunday morning. They’re old films but great for very young children.
  • Theatre.
  • Science Centres.

 

Those are just some of my ideas. You know your children and your budget and your local area – feel free to add ideas in the comments.

Enjoy your holidays – your children aren’t children for long 😊 xx

CHILDREN ARE NOT BORN BAD!

sad boyWhen my son was eleven years old, he was attacked at the park. The boy was a couple of years older than him and much bigger than him. Thankfully my son was 1st dan black belt karate at the time and also had the most powerful punch in his class. The attacker was badly hurt and ran away crying.

When my son came home and told me what had happened, I was upset for him, outraged at the child and joyful at the outcome. I laughed at the thought of this “bully” running off crying.

A couple of weeks later I was told who the boy was and a very thought-provoking piece of information – the day he attacked my son was the same day his father had returned home from prison. I was horrified – what had happened in that boy’s home to make him attack a complete stranger? I was ashamed of my initial reaction; I’ve worked with children for many years and I know how much home life and outside influences can shape a child’s behaviour. If the incident had happened to another child, not my son, perhaps I would have been more aware, but my mother instincts clouded my understanding and I had immediately judged the boy.

Unfortunately, the incident put my son off visiting the park for a long time in case the boy returned with a gang. About six months later, when my son eventually returned to the park, the boy was there – he walked over and apologised for his previous behaviour! That is not the hallmark of a child who is rotten to the core.

It made me think of a friend I had back in the 80s. He was known in his town as tough and he was from a tough family. They were all fighters. All except him. His dad would often try to arrange street fights for him but he was frightened and he would try to make up excuses to avoid the heavy shaming that would weigh upon him if he didn’t fight – the family’s honour was at stake. He was known as one of the hardest kids on the block but he would sneak away to cry in private. Shame and rage constantly coursed through him and he often lost control.

Teachers are often the unwitting victims of pent up rage in children. Some children arrive at their school with unbearable worries and pressures caused by their family life. They are not settled and ready to learn – they’re wound up and ready to attack. When their teacher has been up late the night before marking and gone to so much trouble to make the best lesson they can, they don’t always see the trouble inside the child – just a child making trouble. If you’re in a school and you have a “trouble-maker”, ask the SENCO why the child is behaving like that – you’ll be surprised and devastated. Some of the backgrounds of these children are heart breaking.

Good parents love and nurture their children. I’m not saying they get it right all the time. I don’t get it right all the time – ask my children! But good parents don’t beat each other up in front of the children. Good parents don’t beat up their children. Good parents cuddle their children when they’re physically hurt or when they’re sad because they fell out with their friend. They teach them that it’s okay to feel sad but it’s not okay to hurt someone else because they’re sad. A long time ago I watched Sir Robert Winston explain how, every time we sooth an angry toddler, their frontal lobes in their brain develop and this is how they learn to control their behaviour. Adults with anger issues have under-developed frontal lobes.

I’ve experienced life for almost half a century and I still don’t get it right all of the time – how can we expect a child, who has only experienced a slither of life, to get it right? Especially if their upbringing has been traumatic – neglect, bullying, violent, loss, substance abuse, etcetera and the adults around them have never shown them compassion or how to deal with disappointment, fear or sorrow.

Do you remember in the 80s we were told bullies were cowards? “Coward” isn’t correct – “frightened” is more accurate – they are children and they are frightened. They need help and support.

I wrote The Boy Who Couldn’t to show young readers the frightened, vulnerable child behind the bully. I hope adults will also read it. After my son read the first draft he told me “It’s really made me think. Next time someone’s being horrible, I’m going to think about why they feel like that before I get angry at them.”

I also hope that anyone in a similar situation to the antagonist can learn that your life is your choice: you don’t have to be the person others expect you to be; you can choose to be who you want to be.