Seabirds and Scotland

posted in: Gabby Grant, Jon Mitchell, Lynne Rickards | 4

When my kids were in infant school they were both (at different times) in the class known as “Puffins”, and so I’ve a soft spot for these exotically-beaked sea birds, which feature in a trio of lovely stories written by Lynne Rickards (@LynneRickards): Lewis Clowns Around, Harris the Hero (both illustrated by Gabby Grant) and Skye the Puffling (illustrated by Jon Mitchell @teardropxmode66).

puffintrio

Although each book can be enjoyed as a stand-alone, all three feature a puffin called Harris, with first his brother Lewis and later his child Skye. They explore what it feels like when you don’t feel you fit in or meet others’ expectations (Lewis Clowns Around), the value of teamwork and leadership to solve a problem (Harris the Hero) and a story of adventuring, kindness and growing-up (Skye the Puffling).

Rickards’ stories are great fun to read aloud. Whilst they explore themes that are relevant and meaningful to – well, actually to all of us, but especially to young children, the “message” is always wrapped up in fun or excitement, and delivered in rhyme encouraging joining in with the text and bringing an natural anticipation for what comes next. The character driven illustrations are full of simple charm, and although it’s not the same illustrator for the whole series, the same uncluttered, easy-going feel is maintained throughout.

A vignette from 'Lewis Clowns Around' by Lynne Rickards, illustrated by Gabby Grant
A vignette from ‘Lewis Clowns Around’ by Lynne Rickards, illustrated by Gabby Grant

What I especially liked about these books was their very specific geographical setting, something which gives the stories a flavour and feeling that makes them stand out from the crowd. Set in and around the Firth of Forth, but with the birds’ names echoing Hebridean islands, and with a delightful host of Scottish seabirds and other wildlife as supporting characters, these books make much more authentic and meaningful cultural reading for me that some of the more obvious “experience Scotland” type picture books you might find on sale in tourist information centres.

A vignette from 'Skye the Puffling' by Lynne Rickards, illustrated by Jon Mitchell
A vignette from ‘Skye the Puffling’ by Lynne Rickards, illustrated by Jon Mitchell

And for the first time in I don’t know how many thousands of picture books, I’ve found gannets! And GLORIOUS ones at that. These spectacular seabirds are wonderfully captured by illustrator Mitchell, showing their grace and power in an understated way.

Unlike many picture books on the market today, these aren’t flashy, highly-produced coffee table books. Instead, they’re books which will excite and delight young listeners, giving them the reassurance that they can overcome difficulties they might face, at the same time as offering them a genuine sense of place; In a day an age where it seems many publishers want to avoid as much cultural specificity as possible, opting for generic locations in order to facilitate international co-editions, I think books (and publishers) who relish individual flavour are to be treasured.

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We wanted to make our own colony of puffins and decided to use some peg doll blanks and a little bit of air drying clay to do so. We used the clay to make triangular feet, beaks and tails, which – once dry – we glued onto the unpainted peg dolls.

puffins1

When the glue was set, we used acrylic paint to bring the puffins to life.

paintingpuffins

We also whipped up some grey wool pompoms (using this easy-peasy method) to stand in for pufflings, and our colony was complete:

puffinscomplete1

Livng about as far from the sea as you can ever get in the UK, we had no handy cliffs for our puffins to burrow in, but they did explore the garden.

puffinscomplete2

Contrary to appearances, we think they had a good time!

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Whilst making our puffins we listened to:

  • Quite a lot by the Peatbog Faeries – a Skye based contemporary folk band we rather like. Here’s their Myspace page.
  • Fingal’s Cave” from Felix Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture, Op. 26
  • Get Low by Stornoway, from their album Bonxie. Stornaway is the biggest town on the Isle of Lewis (though the band aren’t from Stornaway), and bonxies (better known by some as Great Skuas) are fabulous seabirds that could have featured alongside the puffins in Rickards’ books. Admittedly, they are not as picture-book friendly as puffins, being known for their pretty aggressive dive bombing, but they’re beautiful birds to watch in flight.


  • Other activities which might work well alongside reading this trio of puffin stories include:

  • Transforming paper plates into puffin heads – simple and very effective! I also like this use of paper plates to make standing puffins.
  • Baking puffin pies…. no! Not with puffin inside (though puffin is considered a delicacy by some in Iceland), but rather cream and chocolate….
  • Making puffin prints and reading Nights of the Pufflings by Bruce McMillan, as we did a few years back.

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    Disclosure: I was sent free review copies of these books by their author.

    4 Responses

    1. Simone Fraser

      One can never have enough puffins. I love that one book features a puffin named Skye. This is my fourth sister’s name and its beauty I’ve grown to appreciate so much.

    2. Although two of these titles are available from Amazon, I’d encourage people to buy them direct from the Floris Books Website, where they will post the lot out to you for £3.50 (UK addresses) and throw in a lovely extra free book as well!

    3. Lovely post about lovely books! Pleased to say that Lynne is a friend and I got yo go to the launch of the last one.

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