A Letter To… my mum by Jo Olney

 

mum68
Mum (right), 1968
It’s been one year since The Muse launched and almost everyone I have mentioned the blog to has given the same reply… “You’ve got to feature your mum! Mother to seven women, SEVEN!”.

So, Mum, here goes…

A Letter to my mum

Dear Mum,

There’s nothing quite like treading your own path as a mother to make you reflect on your own dear mum. As you lay your head on your pillow only to hear the baby start up again, as you breastfeed whilst enjoying the spoils of norovirus, as you wipe another bum, another tear, another yoghurt splattered floor and think, my mum did all this – and she did it in days before dishwashers, iPhones, Ella’s Kitchen, disposable nappies and wipes (and yes, I know many people manage fine without these things, but I am not one). So first off, let me say thank you. When I think of all I do for my babes and think of what you did for us, THANK YOU! Lord knows it’s a largely thankless experience, but let it be known that I am SO thankful – for the birthing, the feeding, the clean clothes, the nursing, the teaching, the encouragement, the love.

In so many ways you set the bar high; you made our school dresses, you won every mothers’ race on sports day, you read to us every night even though you nodded off mid-story, you returned to work after raising us all and caring for your mum and you can turn out a mean roast for 20 people at the drop of a hat.

Mama G
Mum with six of us, that’s me at the bottom.
But do you know one of the things I am most thankful for? It’s that you let us see you lose it, that you got cross, and told us to shut up when we were bickering and later apologised for it. That you got stressed driving us around when we were scrapping furiously in the back! Every day there are moments when I regret the way I handled something with the kids and I am so glad you kept it real. I know that it is fine not to love every minute, to lose it, and to believe that when things get bad, it’ll get good again.

I can’t talk about my thanks to you without mentioning the birth of my sweet firstborn. What a long old night that was. That shock of your first. You gave me the confidence to believe I could have my baby at home and you were the one by my side as the seemingly endless night became day, telling me I could do it, and I did. And as we went off to the hospital to check on our poor meconium ingested babe, who stayed home to restore order? You, dear mum. Leaving a clean tidy home to return to and a note I will always treasure thanking us for letting you share in that experience. From that day your greatest gift to me has been to trust my instinct and make my own way.

Mama G and me
Me and my mum
But I feel it is selfish to keep all the wisdom of Mama G to myself, so I have a few things I’d love to ask if you’re game:

Going back to work – back at my desk after my third maternity leave, trying to find my feet and my voice again, I am even more in awe that you returned to work after a 15 year break. Was that hard? Did you struggle to find the confidence? If you did, I never knew.

I always had in my mind the idea that, at some point, I would like to return to teaching in some capacity. I remember walking as a new first time mum past a noisy school playground and thinking that I missed that environment. I didn’t think then that it would be seven children and so many years later before I took that step back to work!

To build my confidence I initially worked as a teaching assistant, gradually building my experience by working in three different schools, with pupils with a range of needs. So it was a gradual process back to teacher status and finally to coordinating the special needs provision in one of the schools.

Then it was the juggling act with which so many women are familiar, trying to run a home, meet the needs of family (including my elderly mother) and go to work!

2017 vs 1977 – I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on my generation of parents, so many books to read, so many labels to give yourself and rods to make for your own back depending on whether you choose to sleep train, baby led wean, bottle feed or cloth bum, work or not work. I love Instagram, but as a parent you have a much wider circle of women to compare yourself to and we are not always the kindest on ourselves. Are we all overthinking it? Did people just get on and raise their kids back in the 70s?

I think your last comment is quite accurate and there was really no option but to ‘just get on and raise your kids’ back in the 70s’. You are also right that there is a lot of pressure on parents now for the reasons you give. It was such a different world then. When we brought our eldest home from hospital in 1972 there were no car seats. I sat in the back of our tiny Austin A35 with her on my lap!  We had no phone or television in the house. There were no disposable nappies and most babies started off wearing terry towelling nappies and soft cotton nighties, as babygros were only just starting to appear.

Hugh Jolly Book of Child CareThere were a few child care books to which people referred. Probably the most well known was ‘The Book of Child Care’ by Hugh Jolly. (So very dated now!) There were clinics that babies were taken to where there were health visitors, but I didn’t find them very helpful. Unlike you, I was not bombarded with a confusing array of ‘methods’ on how to raise your baby and decided very quickly that no one knew my baby like I did and rightly or wrongly, followed my instincts. I didn’t have use of a car at home in the day time, so just got together with friends in a similar situation, or visited my parents who lived nearby in the early years. There were no baby classes to attend.

I’m sure that there are good things about the vast array of baby activities that are available now and indeed the choice of equipment. You are right, however, that there is the danger of feeling inadequate if you don’t join in all these things, or can’t afford to. Similarly the range of baby equipment is overwhelming. I certainly did not have the pressure to be seen with the ‘right’ pram of an acceptable make.

When does it get easier? – With a 5 year old, 4 year old and 1 year old, I’ve never felt more in the thick of it. This stage of motherhood is so physically demanding and exhausting, but is this the hardest bit? How do different stages of motherhood compare? My fear is that it is harder when they leave home and you’re just left worrying about them.

A dear friend said to me in my early days as a mother that ‘every age has it’s compensations’ and I have found that to be true.

There are many advantages of having a large family one of them being that you learn that challenging phases actually pass very quickly. The demands of a new born or the challenges of a toddler are gone in a flash and that recognition can change the way you approach things. You can even learn to appreciate and enjoy these aspects of a child’s development!

I certainly remember having four children aged five and under as being the most demanding time! Getting a five year old to the school bus stop at the right time every morning with three others in tow was very challenging!

In some respects with young children, it does get easier when they are old enough to play cooperatively. When subsequent children arrived there was more choice of playmates, which may be easier than having two who can’t stand each other! I felt that falling out with others within the security of a family was a good preparation for the harsher elements awaiting at school and beyond.

I never did find the teenage years to be the ‘terrible teens’ (although the ‘A’ level years had their challenges!). Perhaps there was safety in numbers and I watched with pride as you all became the wonderful women that you are today. Does it get easier? No it does not! Being in control of things when you were little was probably the easiest bit. Then you have to let your adult children go with love. Once you are a mother you are a mother for life and their pain is your pain whatever their age.

The sisterhood
The sistehood
Your village – One thing I observe in our generation is that there’s a well-trodden path for a lot of parents on leave – NCT to make friends, playgroups, baby sensory, baby swimming, baby signing, baby yoga. How did you meet other mums? I guess we are making our own urban village now, whereas maybe you had an actual real village of support!

In the absence of all the baby classes and groups, my ‘village’ consisted of family, friends and good neighbours. Sunday lunch was often a way we got together with our friends who had young families like us. After lunch we would all visit a local playground or park or walk in the woods.

No one really had a large network of mum friends and I was content to be in touch with our friends who were in a similar situation to us at that time. There were no mobile phones of course and not everyone had a phone in their house. It could be quite an effort to be in touch with people if you had to walk to the local phone box!

Raising women – Being a mother to seven women, did it feel like a big responsibility at the time to be our role model as a woman? Did you have a sense of how you wanted us to grow up?

I don’t think that I actually focussed on the fact that I was being your role model. Had I thought of it like that it would probably have been rather overwhelming! I was always aware of the times when I fell short of my own standards of parenting and I hope I always apologised at the end of a bad day for being a grumpy old cross patch!  Fortunately children are very forgiving and always seemed to forget about these things long before I did.

In answer to your question, yes I did have a sense of how I wanted you to grow up. I am sure you would all have a different take on how successful I was with this!

As you became adults I did try to dissuade you (not always successfully!) from making permanent changes that you may regret.( e.g. hair dying fine, but tattoos to be avoided!) Also, to be blunt, I really hated the idea of one of my daughters being someone’s one night stand. I decided that you have to have faith in the effort you have put in when raising your children and I would tell them that I trusted them to do the right thing. I was told years later that that approach had been more effective than threats!

I wanted you all to feel good about the amazing women that you are, although sadly there were inevitable wobbles along the way. Self worth is so important.  I knew that if you believed in yourselves you could achieve your ambitions, do a job that you wanted to do and you would also know that you deserved lovely friends and a kind respectful partner.

I am so proud that the sisterhood is strong and that you will always support each other.

I also wanted you to grow up secure in the knowledge that the love your dad and I feel for you all is totally unconditional. While we are able, we will always be there for you all and our beautiful grand children.

I will always consider my seven amazing daughters as my greatest achievement in life.  I love you all.

Mum and Dad with two of their nine grandchildren
Mum and Dad with two of their nine grandchildren.

In Conversation with… Nadia Shireen

Nadia Shireenchildrens book author and illustrator

Nadia Shireen mainly writes and illustrates children’s picture books, (although she does write and illustrate other things as well). She lives in London.

1) How did you end up doing the job you do?

I took a very long-winded route to get here. I’ve always loved drawing and writing, but when I went to university I thought I should be sensible and get a law degree. My English teacher was furious. She glared at me, shook her head and angrily whispered, “That’s it… you’re going to be a bloody lawyer!” (Mrs Aldridge, if you’re reading this… I’m not a bloody lawyer.)

It became clear about half an hour into my law degree that I hated it. But I pointlessly slogged through it. In fact, I carried on and did an MA in Criminology… which was even more pointless!

I eventually moved down to London, rented a very cheap room from a kindly relative and started working in the magazine industry. Everyone told me it would be impossible to get a job, but I just kept turning up to the same office, trying to make myself useful and essentially refusing to leave. I wore them down in the end.

I worked as a sub editor and production editor on a variety of magazines for the next 10 years. I had a lot of fun… but eventually it had become a bit of a drag. The work was unsatisfying and I was bored. I started doing evening classes in illustration to perk the week up. Then I found an illustration course in Cambridge where I could study part time, allowing me to continue working four days a week in London. It took two and a half years. At the end of it there was a degree show, where I displayed my end of term project – a dummy of ‘Good Little Wolf’. To my utter shock and disbelief, some publishers liked it and offered to publish it. I can’t tell you how surprised I was – it was a bolt from the blue – but it was fantastic and it changed my life.

2) What are you working on right now?

My next picture book, which is about a plucky young girl with black curly hair who challenges a big, horrible, powerful monster… Any similarities between any persons living or dead, etc etc…

3) Who or what has been your biggest source of inspiration to date?

Music has always been the thing that takes my brain to new and unusual places, so I’ll go for the pop stars that formed my musical foundations: The Beatles, ABBA, David Bowie and The Pet Shop Boys.

4) Who would you most like to work with?

Well, it’s not something that can ever happen, but I always loved those ridiculous Monty Python annuals. I think I liked them more than the tv programme. I love all the funny annotations, the way they’d mess around with layout and type and all that. And obviously Terry Gilliam’s drawings and collages are brilliant. I wish I could have drawn a few bees and hedgehogs for them way back when. It might be fun to collaborate with some funny writers and create something similarly silly.

5) Where do you feel most inspired ?

I get really inspired by being outside, ideally in wild, quiet places… places far away from noise and humans, where the sky feels huge and open. That’s when I feel relaxed and insignificant. It’s liberating to remember how little we matter, in the grand scheme of things. I grew up in Shropshire, and you can get to the Welsh border in about 20 minutes. I think about the places we would go to when I was a kid, like Lake Vrynwy, Church Stretton, a little place called Inwood. Now I live in London and don’t really get out into the open much, and I miss it. The closest I get is having a very slow jog around Hampstead Heath. I hate running but also secretly quite like it. I like it when my legs get muddy and achy, and the wind stings my cheeks. It’s good when I can allow my brain to drift into a different gear, so that creative ideas can breath and move around a little.

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6) What did you want to be when you were little?

I wanted to be a cartoonist and then I wanted to work for Smash Hits magazine. I’ve sort of managed both, so I’ve got nothing to complain about.

7) What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

Always start with the strongest colour, or the most extreme idea. You can tone it down later if you need to.

8) What has been your career highlight to date?

I never thought I’d have a job that would take me into schools, but now I do. When I see children getting enthusiastic about drawing or writing stories, it gives me a huge buzz. Once I watched a class perform a play based on one of my books, where they had winningly adapted ABBA’s ‘Money, Money, Money’ into ‘Honey, Honey, Honey’! How good is that? I feel privileged to do what I do, and meeting young readers has been a hugely rewarding aspect of this unexpected career.

9) What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day to day?

I procrastinate a lot, which feels like an even bigger sin now my working hours are mostly dictated by childcare.

10) Who is your favourite fictional female character?

It’s a toss-up between Rizzo from Grease and Darlene from Roseanne.

Right Now I’m….

Watching: Hey, Duggee and Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom (not entirely my choice, but they are great.)

Reading: The Sellout – Paul Beatty;  The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole 13 3/4 – Sue Townsend; Head On – Julian Cope.

Listening to: I typically start the day with the Lauren Laverne show on BBC 6 Music. And then I play around on Spotify for the rest of the day. There is so much music, and not enough time to listen to it all, and that makes me anxious and annoyed.  At the moment, my most recently played albums are by: Solange, The Blue Nile, Eluvium, Julianna Barwick, Childish Gambino and Anna Meredith. I also enjoy making comforting playlists full of the same old songs in slightly different orders.

Pass it on:
Who would you most like to see featured on this blog?

Anna Phoebe, violinist @annaphoebe

Chloe Lamford, Set designer @chloelamford

Harrington & Squires, letterpress studio @bobandhorace

In Conversation With… Georgina Atwell

Georgina AtwellGeorgina Atwell is the founder of www.toppsta.com the children’s books website where children review books and share their recommendations. After a career in publishing and running the ebook store for iTunes, she now mostly works from her home office and tries to forget about the snacks calling her from the kitchen. She lives in Oxford with her husband and two children and loves jumping on the train to come into London to meet publishers and discuss children’s books.

How did you end up doing the job you do?
I came up with the idea for Toppsta back in 2009 but just as I was setting it up I got a call from Apple, offering me my dream job of running their ebook store. I just thought, I’m never going to get this opportunity again, I need to do it. But after 4 brilliant years and with two young children, it just didn’t offer me the flexibility I needed and I knew that one day I wanted to run my own business. So I quit. Lots of people thought I was crazy but I’ve not regretted it for a second. I love what I do – the publishers I work with, the books we promote, the parents and children we help and all of it around my personal commitments as a Mum. I’m still working 7 days a week and all hours but it just doesn’t feel like a job anymore.Toppsta

What are you working on right now?
We’ve produced this amazing reading list of children’s book reviews written by our reviewers. I’m incredibly proud of it, it took a long time to put together and we’ve had brilliant feedback from parents, grandparents, teachers and publishers. I’m looking at how we can get it out to schools and parents and whether this is something we can put together on a regular basis.

Describe your first job
My first job was working in a deli near where my parents live in Oxford. I’m a complete foodie so I loved every minute. Particularly when my parents came in and I’d be suggesting all the yummy food they should buy.

My first work in publishing was very different. I was doing work experience for a publisher who had just published a book on pornography to accompany a tv series. They needed to return some of the images to picture libraries but they didn’t know which pictures belonged to which galleries. So I had the very dubious task to phone up various picture libraries, describe the pictures over the phone and see if they recognized the description. I was about 18 and absolutely mortified. I swear the other people in the office must have thought it was hilarious. Anyway, it toughened me up and is certainly unforgettable. I think that anyone coming to Toppsta for work experience has it pretty easy in comparison!

What was your B plan if this career didn’t work out?
There was never ever a plan B. But to be honest there wasn’t much of a plan A either!

Where do you feel most inspired?
After two years I finally have my own office, with a desk. Somewhere permanent for my computer and my books, as well as a door to shut if I need a bit of peace and quiet. It’s pure bliss after working at the kitchen table and having to shift everything back and forth.

But for inspiration, I’m a walker. If I’m stuck on something I’ll grab my coat and just go for a walk and have a think. I honestly believe that we think better when we’re on the move. Sadly I don’t live in a particularly rural area but even a few minutes walking around the block seems to clear my head.

What did you want to be when you were little?
It’s funny, I was a huge reader when I was young, I remember hiding under the covers reading the Famous Five with a torch and I studied English Literature at University but I never had any ambition to work with books. I’ve always enjoyed the business side of jobs; the sales, marketing and products and I think I thought that publishing was all about editing. I went for the graduate scheme at The Financial Times but was encouraged to apply for the graduate scheme at Penguin instead, as they thought I was better suited to publishing.

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
Never assume. They were my grandfather’s words of advice and I think it’s good advice for life. Never assume it’s a bad idea, just because it didn’t work out first time. Never assume you’re going to close the deal until you’ve actually signed on the dotted line. Never assume a friend doesn’t want to see you just because they haven’t replied to your text. Never assume the kids can’t do something just because they haven’t done it before. Never assume.

What are you most proud of?
I love and I mean really love the emails and messages I get each day from parents via our website or social media. Some of them have really brought a tear to my eye. The mums and dads who have been struggling to get their kids to read but through our giveaways, they’ve been getting excited about receiving books in the post in a parcel addressed to them. The teachers who say that a child in their class has gone up a reading level, encouraged by seeing their reviews published on our website. It’s amazing to think that this idea of mine, run from home is actually making a difference. 90% of our Facebook audience are based outside of London, so we’re genuinely nationwide.

Which one thing would you like to change about your industry/working life?
Publishing is a predominantly female industry but I feel that since the financial crisis it’s become more conservative in the way that it works. I hear an increasing number of stories of requests for flexibility being turned down; people made redundant whilst on maternity leave; and there are sadly precious few women at the top of the publishing houses. That just seems crazy for our industry. Other, more traditionally ‘male’ industries like finance and law are trying really hard to get more women through the door and are offering more flexibility and initiatives, but in the meantime I feel publishing has gone backwards.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day to day?
Not working round the clock. I have a tendency to work 24/7, I genuinely just enjoy the job but I’m trying really hard to fit it all in during the day and then read or watch a film in the evening. It’s a struggle, there’s just so much to do but I think for my own sanity (as well as my family life!) it will really help if I can manage it.

Right Now I’m….
Watching: The Crown (yes I know, I’m always late to the good series…)
Reading: Outline by Rachel Cusk for my bookgroup
Listening to: All the Single Ladies by Beyonce. My daughter (4) is obsessed with playing it and singing along.

Pass it on:
The talented Timma Marrett who works with @women_ahead helping women in sport and development.

A Letter to… Our Last Embryo

author picRachel Cathan is a writer from Bedfordshire. In 2001, a mutual friend introduced her to a part-time pub DJ in Southend-on-Sea. A month later, they had moved in together, around seven years later they tied the knot, and a little while after that – just like so many couples before them – they made the exciting and terrifying decision to start a family. And then, like a growing number of couples today, well…not a lot happened.

Throughout the subsequent years of fertility investigations and failed treatments, Rachel kept a diary of her experiences, and it’s from these first-hand encounters in the world of infertility and IVF that her first book, 336 Hours has been adapted.

Rachel is mum to Ruben and Delphine.

Website: www.rachelcathan.co.uk

 

Dear Speck of Dust (for that was the size of you when we met five years ago),

You might never know how we used to talk about you, even wave to you on occasion as we drove past the turnoff for the fertility clinic where you lived.

‘Hello, little one’ we would call out, and just for a moment my heart would lurch in recognition of the life that could one day be mine. But then I would check myself, realise my foolishness, and feel the searing shame of knowing that this was as close as I could get to calling myself a mum.

Six months had passed since the day you were conceived, and finally the day had arrived to thaw you out from your frozen state and bring you back to your home.

You won’t recall any of this, of course. And nor will you recall the trusty weekend staff who had given up their Sunday morning to perform your transfer; a compassionate gesture since your mother had (typically) ovulated on a day that was not conducive to normal opening hours. But I can see them gathered around us still, the embryologist holding out a miniature straw, no bigger than a sewing needle, containing our last embryo.

‘Mrs Cathan’ he told me, ‘I need you to confirm this is yours.’

I can feel the sweat trickling down my arms and prickling the skin behind my knees, as your transfer was performed to the sound of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 in D-Minor. As we laughed uncomfortably at the dramatic choice of soundtrack, I attributed my sweat-drenched self to the uncharacteristic 32- degree heat outside. But we were in a state-of the-art, fully air-conditioned laboratory, and the truth is I was as scared as I had ever been.

I feared so badly that you were destined to be only a dream, like a beautiful town, glimpsed from behind the closing doors of a train, whose imagined possibilities would haunt me for a lifetime.

Is this what you would come to represent? The road untravelled; the opportunity missed; the one that got away?

The next two weeks passed in an agonising time-warp that seemed to last for months. Like Schrödinger’s cat, you were hidden out of sight, arguably both dead and alive. I analysed every twinge, every pulse and every pinch. Even quantum physics could not bend my mind like the days that would determine your fate.

But that was five years ago. It’s 2017, and I now know the result that those two weeks would bring.

All I can say is it’s just as well that the embryologist couldn’t tell us too much when he introduced our embryo in a straw. He couldn’t tell us that what he held between his thumb and forefinger was a time-travelling collector of dinosaur relics, a superhero fanatic, and a swashbuckling leader of a mutinous pirate crew: the infamous Caption Walrus.

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He omitted to mention that, if successful, this embryo would be leaping from armchair to sofa by day, a cutlass whistling through the air above his head. And then sprawling diagonally across our bed each night, a tattered blue rabbit fiercely tucked under one arm.

I’m so grateful that there was no information sheet explaining how the contents of our straw would grow. Because how could I ever have borne the responsibility? How could I have survived the two weeks before the pregnancy test, and indeed the nine months that followed, knowing the scale of catastrophe if I didn’t get you into this world?

You had to be here; it’s so obvious to anyone now. How could our planet ever have been complete without that miniature John Travolta dimple in your chin? How could I bear to be awoken without your face a millimetre from mine, demanding I answer an urgent question about the dubious superpowers of Popeye?

It’s just as well, too, that our embryologist was at a loss to share the less enchanting traits of your character: your stubbornness, which would turn every remaining dark hair on my head a solid grey, and your night-time alertness of a bat.

IMG_2794

They offered me no advance warning on that fateful August day that you would be a plunderer, not only of treasure, but also of sanity and sleep. I didn’t realise that the world and its many failings would soon be solely my fault, or that I would so often be walking the plank.

But just as you have no idea of your beginnings, you are probably also unaware that I am secretly enjoying these things to which you drive me each day: every eye roll, every coffee, and every sigh.

I will be forever thankful that you pulled me through those closing doors and on to the other side. And that, whatever happens from here on in, I would every minute choose the reality over the dream.

336 Hours cover copy

Rachel’s first book 366 Hours is available now from Amazon and all good bookshops.

Right Now I’m….

Watching: Andy’s Prehistoric Adventures on CBeebies and Catastrophe on Ch4 (not with the same viewing companions, I should add)

Reading: The Unmumsy Mum Diary and Hurrah for Gin (must-have reads for bad parenting days)

Listening to: BBC Radio 2 (I’m no longer fighting the fact that I’m old)

Pass it on:
Who would you most like to see featured on this blog? Please suggest 3 people with their Instagram or Twitter handles

Rachael Rogan: @RogansBooks
Rachael owns a fabulous independent bookshop in Bedford and made a trip to London to meet with Lucy Mann and Sophy Henn last year. She would be a great contributor to The Muse!

Rosanna Slade: @RosannaSlade
Rosanna runs her own yoga practice in Bedford – inspiring woman with a great outlook on life and now a new mum.

Delyth Johnson: @Thischangedme
Delyth is the co-creator of the app, This Changed Me – an inspirational way to use technology to create a better work/life balance and achieve personal goals.

 

 

In Her Words…. Sarah Topping

sarah-t-the-museSarah Topping is a freelance creative copywriter at Playing with Words. She lives in London with her husband, son and more books than they currently have room for.

http://www.playingwithwords.info


The Child that Books Built

Last week I asked my four-year-old what he’d like to be when he grows up.

‘A SPACESHIP!’ he cried.
‘You mean a spaceman?’ I asked.
‘No! A rocket launcher!’ he replied.
‘Okay . . .’ says I, ‘anything else?’
‘A caroderodontasaurus!’ he exclaimed, before running off.
‘Okay,’ I said again, before Googling the above and calling after him ‘It’s carcharodontosaurus!’ (but 10/10 for even knowing what one is).

Aside from the fact it’s physically impossible for him to be either of these things, I like his enthusiasm. As my parents wished for me and my brother, I wish for him to be whatever he wants, as long as it makes him happy. Though not a drug addict. Or a criminal. Dream big, little one, and see where it takes you. Because you never know, one day, that thing you loved so much as a kid could become your career, if all the necessary ingredients fall into place to make your dream happen.

pile-of-books

In these increasingly fathomless and downright scary times we face whenever we see the news, I’ve been thinking about dreams a lot; specifically, escapism. I’ve deleted the Twitter and Facebook apps from my phone because the bombardment of incomprehensible news is too much. And when it comes to escapism, I’ve realised how fortunate I am. I deal in escapism on a daily basis, for I am an avid, ardent, hopelessly devoted lover of books and reading. I thank my lucky stars this is the case. On the day things here began to seem so weird and uncertain, June 24th 2016, I found myself sitting on our sofa clutching this pile of books with an ice-cold G&T in my hands. I held them and concentrated very hard on what they represent. On this day that was so fuelled by lies and scaremongering, to me, these books stood for imagination and magic and humour and kindness and charm, wonder and adventure.

It helps to seek comfort in what you love, so I found reaching for the bookshelves a natural thing to do. But where did it begin? I have my parents, my English teachers and professors, and without a doubt, my school library and our local village library to thank for fostering and encouraging in me this unconditional love of stories and words (and spelling. Oh, spelling!). The hours I spent in that old Grade II listed building, with its nooks and crannies perfect for curling up in, with a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys or Point Horror, Sweet Valley High, Adrian Mole, Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton to name a few, are immeasurable. I didn’t know it then, as a frizzy haired kid with crooked teeth, but one day, my access to so many authors and illustrators and their imagined worlds would very much become my reality.

Because now, it is my pleasure and privilege to not only be a lover of books, but to have made books my career. For ten years, I worked at Penguin Books in London, moving from Penguin to Puffin and what is now Penguin Random House Children’s. When I see that Penguin or Puffin on book spines’, I see in my mind a place where book magic is made. A place where I spent hours surrounded by books, thinking about books, writing copy for and talking about books. When I read picture books with my son, I don’t just see the names of certain authors and illustrators; I remember a train journey I took with them or seeing them draw live at an event (yes, it’s Quentin Blake I’m thinking of here and it will forever be a Total. Life. Highlight.).

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As someone who adores books, you can guess what a special place it was to be. Since becoming a freelance creative copywriter in 2014, I have delved into the wonderful world of Harry Potter via Pottermore, I’ve discovered How to Train Your Dragon, written about motherhood for Ladybird and how to celebrate World Book Day. I’ve happily revisited the worlds of the BFG, Matilda, Charlie et al, amongst many other delightful projects, for both adult and kids’ books. I’m not throwing these names around lightly either, please know that. I’m more than a little overwhelmed to know that this year, my blurbs will feature on some of Enid Blyton’s most iconic series’; stories I still have the bumper hardback editions of, complete with sellotaped spines and inscriptions from my family wishing me luck in my 1988 ballet exam. For that little girl, whose recently rediscovered 1988 school report notes ‘Sarah is a keen reader. She always has her nose in a book’, it’s a childhood dream come true.

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It is a special and privileged thing to be able to do what you love, and love what you do. I know that. This is why, taking all of the above into account, it’s so unbelievably sad and frustrating that libraries up and down the country are faced with cuts and closures. Talented and dedicated librarians are losing their jobs and future generations of readers are being punished. And it truly is a punishment, when these community spaces are not valued enough for what they offer everyone who steps inside and into a room filled with shelves of life-enhancing information and imagination enriching stories. Beyond that, they are being denied the experience of these books; yes, an eBook is convenient. But what about the smell and feel of the physical book? Beautiful, enchanting illustrations that sweep you away? You can’t lovingly smooth the pages on the Kindle app. Tap vs touch; it doesn’t compare.

Yesterday this quote by Professor Stephen Krashen, illustrated by Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell, made me stop and stare. So simple, and so true. ‘Reading for pleasure, reading for life.’ It strikes such a chord because I am a case in point. I was, and still am, lucky enough to have access to so many books, as does my son and our new baby will too. I cannot imagine my life, or my children’s lives, without books. I’m so delighted when I see my little boy independently sitting with a book in his lap, gazing at the pictures and ‘reading’ the words he knows well, or when he asks me at 6.30am for a story. Well, obviously not delighted straight away because I’m so bleary-eyed, but once I’ve had coffee the answer is yes. It could never not be.

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When it comes to reading, the doors it opens can’t be underestimated. And a love of reading cannot be supported if library doors are being slammed shut. ‘Ssssssshhh, we’re in a library!’ is a fond and familiar refrain, for these are places to be treated with respect and love. But there’s nothing to be quiet about when it comes to saving our libraries. Never mind ‘Sssssshhh!’. It needs to be a deafening roar.

Right Now I’m…
Reading: Most recently I loved Little Deaths by Emma Flint – devastating, mesmerising and I’ll have to read again, and Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough – can’t stop thinking about the ending.
And when it comes to children’s books, the top five picture books we return to time and again are Kicking a Ball by Allan Ahlberg and Sebastien Braun, Sir Scallywag and the Golden Underpants by Giles Andreae and Korky Paul, Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton, Something Else by Kathryn Cave and Chris Riddell and Captain Jack and the Pirates by Peter Bently and Helen Oxenbury.

Listening to: The ‘Hypnobirthing Relaxation Audio Colour and Calmness’ app with Katharine Graves.

Watching: The last series I binge-watched was The Missing series two, v chilling. And over Christmas we watched Hunt for the Wilderpeople on Netflix and I’ve been recommending it to anyone who’ll listen ever since.

Pass it On…  Nominate up to three women that you’d like to see featured on The Muse:
Katya Shipster @chaletdesoie
Katya is Deputy Publicity Director at Michael Joseph, mother of two small boys and co-owner of the stunning Chalet de Soie in Morzine, which she and her husband renovated from the ground up in 2013, whilst living and working full-time in London.
Blog: http://chic-happens.net/

Helen King
@hegsking
Helen is the former Head of Education at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre and Head of Campaigns for the National Crime Agency. Helen is now Director of External Relations for Pause, which works to help women who have had multiple children removed, as well as being mum to four young children. That phrase ‘I don’t know how she does it?’ Totally applies to Helen.

Shannon Cullen @imwreckedmother
Shannon is a Publishing Director at Penguin Random House Children’s, mother of two and her brilliant new book, I’m Wrecked, This is My Journal, which she recently wrote on maternity leave with her newborn son, publishes in March.

In Conversation With… Sophy Henn

Sophy HennSophy Henn lives and works in Sussex, England. She studied Fashion at Central Saint Martins, accidentally had a London-based career as an Art Director in advertising, then completed an MA at University of Brighton in Illustration. Now she writes and illustrates children’s books in her studio, with a large cup of tea by her side, and can’t quite believe her luck.
Where Bear?, her first book, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2015. She is also the World Book Day Illustrator for 2015 and 2016. Her latest book, Edie, published 2nd February 2017.

What are you working on right now?
I am working on a book about a little white rabbit who is struggling with his self belief. I wanted to write a book about this as I have seen so many children adamantly refuse to try things or play games with others as they are so worried they are going to get it ‘wrong’. They stop before they have started. But the joy in all of these things is often in the doing and not the result, and we never know what we are capable of unless we give it a go. I can still relate to this as I get such huge nerves before books come out, these feelings never leave us. But we just have to remember to enjoy the doing, be a little braver and have a little more faith in ourselves.
Sophy Henn working in her studio

Describe your first job
I grew up in a smallish town and my first job was a Saturday job in a shop called Robertsons. It was the most amazing shop and was rightly proud of having been described as a miniature Fortnum & Masons.

It had the classic Victorian double fronted shop front and inside carved wooden shelves went right up to the ceiling with gold hand lettering on the surrounds. There were two old fashioned glass shop counters on either side and a big central display. In one of the shop windows there was a coffee roasting machine, where Mrs Roberts the elderly (though marvellously fierce) owner would roast sacks of coffee beans (there must have been at least 10 different varieties), filling the shop and pavement with the smell of coffee.

Now this was very nearly 30 years ago and fresh coffee was something of a rarity, so it was quite the novelty. We had two coffee grinding machines and would grind the beans to the customers requirements (finer for filter, etc) and there was a rather perilous bag clipping/vacuum system for catching the ground beans which would occasionally result in a fine coffee mist!  I had to put in about 6 months on the chocolate counter before I was allowed near the coffee!!!

Oh, and there were no tills, just wooden drawers, with notepads and pencils for adding up. I think my maths peaked at this point as come Christmas people would pop in to buy their Christmas hampers. With so many items to add up and Mrs Roberts’ love of specific prices (£2.73 or £9.56 for example) it was quite the challenge. But there was a constant supply of coffee, chocolates and delicious biscuits and for all her fierceness, Mrs Roberts remains one of my favourite ever bosses.

Who or what has been your biggest source of inspiration to date?
My daughter. I know, I know that sounds utterly cheesy, but it is true. If it hadn’t been for her and her love of stories I would never have ended up doing this, my dream job. It was reading picture books to her that planted the seed of the idea that I could have a go myself. Combined with the fact I have used situations she and her friends have found themselves in for the basis of some of my stories, I really couldn’t have done it without her! She is also super supportive and I really try to be better and braver (specifically when doing the surprising amount of public speaking I find I am asked to do) so she can be proud of me!
Sophy Henn's Studio

What did you want to be when you were little?
Firstly a ballerina, obviously, then a detective. That ambition stuck with me for quite some time, fuelled by The Secret Seven, The Famous Five and Nancy Drew. I still LOVE a murder mystery and haven’t ruled out a Miss Marple style retirement!

What advice would you give your children (or nieces/nephews/young people)?
Well, it’s not exactly original, but ‘do what you love’ is advice I have come to appreciate more and more. So much time is spent working, that to enjoy what you do and get satisfaction from it is surely something to aspire to.
Also…don’t always assume that those older than you know more than you. I spent so much time thinking this, and now I am that older person I realise that’s not the case at all!!!
Sophy Henn's Studio

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Don’t listen to any advice” from my wonderful friend Lisette. I was pregnant at the time and this gem specifically related to the avalanche of advice you get as soon as someone finds out you are with child! I have passed it on to every expectant mother I have come across, probably moments before giving them loads of advice!

What are you most proud of?
Being a mum. It’s the most stressful, wonderful, hilarious, upsetting, fraught and satisfying thing I have ever done. I have never tried my best this consistently at anything. The second is having a book published, and for all the same reasons!
Sophy Henn's Studio

What has been your career highlight to date?
I am not sure how you can ever beat the thrill of seeing your first book on the shelf in an actual book shop! But another huge highlight was walking through Brighton and being stopped by a Dad and his little girl, they recognised me from an event I had done at a book shop in Hove and wanted to tell me how much the little girl had taken to Pom Pom. I think she was a bit confused as it was very much Pom Pom she loved ( I know my place in these things!), but to hear her HARRUMPHING away happily made me a smidge emotional! AND she went to school as Pom Pom on World Book Day last year! I am pretty sure I cried again, happy tears!

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day to day?
Time management. Isn’t that everyone’s challenge though? And if it isn’t, who has got it sussed and please can you tell me how? I think it’s specifically the hours between 2-5pm, where do they go?
Sophy Henn's Studio

Who is your favourite fictional female character?
Probably Clarice Bean! Though I love many fictional females… Aunt Mame, Milly Molly Mandy, Tank Girl, Mrs Pettigrew, Miss Marple, both Sophie and her Grandmother in The Summer Book, and any number of Nancy Mitford’s creations (special mention goes to Linda Radlett). Quite a mix.

Right Now I’m….
Watching: Modern Family – box set heaven and sit-com perfection.
Reading: Patti Smith – The M Train – I read Just Kids last year and loved it.
Listening to: The Beastie Boys – always! Oh and Amerie – Gotta Work, after Caitlin Moran reminded me of it on Desert Island discs, it’s great for motivating you through a tricky work patch. And yes, there is a dance routine to go with!

Pass it on:
Lucy of @LaLaandPom who is an utter joy and creates such gorgeous pompomed wonders.
Nadia Shireen for being a total wit, much cooler than I will ever be and brave enough to admit to not liking cheese (I know???).

Stay up to date with Sophy’s wonderful work by joining her over on Twitter and Instagram.

Edie by Sophy Henn

 

In Her Words… by Jo Olney

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Jo Olney is one of seven sisters, mother to 3 children and works as a digital marketer in the world of children’s publishing.  She is also co-founder of The Muse.

On Marching

As the fifth of seven children, I’m a natural born diplomat. Happier to maintain the order and keep all parties happy, than speak out at the risk of upsetting others. The last time I think I was actively engaged in a movement, was after watching Free Willy and finding myself enraged at the plight of the orca. I may have done a sponsored silence in their honour. So, it came as something of a surprise to find myself at the women’s march on London with tears pricking my eyes, seeing thousands of people united in love trumping hate, in upholding dignity and equality for all, and determined to safeguard our freedoms and our rights.

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Women’s March on London

When I became a mother 5 and a half years ago, I looked my tiny girl in the eye and promised her, as I’m sure all parents do, that I would love her, care for her, give her the best I could in every way. The world was her oyster. Her gender never even crossed my mind to be a barrier to be overcome, that she’d ever grow up in a world where she had more to prove than her male counterparts to achieve the same – maybe I was naïve.

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Olive and her Girls Rock! placard
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Flo on Jo’s shoulder (let’s have a  moment for those panda gloves)

Being one of seven sisters I had a ready-made sisterhood. I don’t ever recall being aware of my gender in any way other than it being a fact – yes I am a woman, and? With so many kids, my parents were equally hands on, quite literally as I recall hair washing night! And beyond that early sisterhood, my career in publishing has been so female-dominated that 14 years in and I’m yet to report into a man. That gives a certain false sense of security perhaps. Until of course you attempt to work flexibly, and depressingly my sector was no more flexible than many others, at which point you see the talent haemorrhage out of the building at around the age of 35.

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Jo and Dan with Olive

So it was with some embarrassment that I tried to explain to my 5 year old why I thought we needed to go and march in London on Saturday. To explain that a man who was publicly mean to women (massive understatement, clearly), to the disabled, to pretty much anyone not exactly like himself, so much so he wanted to build a wall to stop others coming in, was now President of the United States. To explain that some people think that women are not as good as men, that they shouldn’t earn the same money for doing the same job, that some girls don’t get to go to school and learn like she does and that we needed to march and say this is not ok. I was thinking she kind of got it, that all people are human and all humans are equal, until she countered, “No they’re not, statues are not human”. So yep, we still have some work to do.

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The Olney family march London

So off we set, my husband and I, with a 5 year old, 3 year old and 1 year old, and not without trepidation. Kids walking in the cold rarely ends happily for us, but they were amazing because the whole damn vibe was amazing. That feeling of the power of unity, of standing together, of not just being a witness, but taking part and being counted. And as we stood in the sunshine in Trafalgar Square and she sounded out, as 5 year olds do, the placard resting on the lion “I. Am. Woman. Hear me ROAR!” To which she and her sister of course both ROARED, I felt those tears pricking again. I felt hope that their future would be good, that their generation would keep pushing on and making this world one of fairness and tolerance and kindness, celebrating our differences and not letting them divide us. I hope that as they sat on our shoulders looking out over the crowds, somewhere in their hearts and minds we planted something of an understanding that we are all citizens in this society and it is our responsibility to change it. But I also very much hope that 30 years from now, they’re not getting their placards out for this shit because I did not think in 2017 a pussy grabbing president could even be a reality and I sure as hell hope in 2047 it isn’t.

Right Now I’m…
Reading: The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson
Watching: I’ve just been to see La La Land
Listening to: Kisstory

Pass it On:
(Please nominate up to three people that you’d like to see featured on The Muse)
Sophy Henn: @sophyhenn – Whose latest character Edie would definitely have been marching on Saturday!
Sarah Topping: @sarahtopping3 – An ex colleague and good friend, Sarah is an exceptional copy writer