First there was ROSE, then there was SOPHIE, then there was ELISABETH… and now I’m delighted to introduce you to LOTTIE!
LOTTIE THE LITTLE WONDER is my latest book for Barrington Stoke’s super-readable Little Gems series. If you’re familiar with these books you’ll know that each of them is inspired by an amazing real-life heroine from history. This time I’ve taken inspiration from the extraordinary athlete Lottie Dod.
The youngest ever Wimbledon Ladies Singles tennis champion, she first won Wimbledon in 1887 aged just 15 and went on to win again in 1888, 1891, 1882 and 1893.
But as if an incredible tennis career wasn’t enough, she also went on to excel at a whole host of other sports, including playing hockey for England, was the British Ladies National Golf champion and won an Olympic medal for archery! She also loved cycling, ice skating and mountaineering, among all kinds of other sporting interests. But LOTTIE THE LITTLE WONDER, we go back to her childhood to take a look at how her tennis career and love of sport might have first begun…
“Girls can’t play tennis as well as boys? What a lot of NONSENSE!” Lottie Dod is DETERMINED to show that girls can be just as good as sports as boys. She runs and jumps and leaps after the ball – playing tennis makes Lottie feel WONDERFUL. After beating her brothers, she eventually goes on to reach the finals of the most important tennis competition of them all – WIMBLEDON! Can she continue her winning streak to become the world’s first female sports SUPERSTAR? NEVER underestimate what little girls can do!
This book has gorgeous artwork by amazing illustrator Ella Okstad
which I can’t wait to share more of! Ella has done such a fabulous job of bringing Lottie and her world vividly to life.
In my book, A Dancer’s Dream, one of Stana’s favourite Christmas traditions is eating gingerbread angels, and drinking tea with jam. If you’d like to have a go at recreating this treat – for yourself, or to share with family and friends – here’s how:
This recipe is based on Felicity Cloake’s gingerbread biscuit recipe, which is a big favourite in our house. If you don’t have an angel shaped biscuit-cutter, you could make snowflakes, stars, Christmas trees or any other festive shapes.
- Put 225g softened unsalted butter in a bowl, and beat with a wooden spoon
- Add 340g of soft brown sugar and beat again
- Add one beaten egg to the mixture. Continue to beat gently (don’t worry if it begins to curdle – just add in a little plain flour)
- Mix 340g plain flour, 1 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt, 2 tsp ground cinnamon, 3 tsp ground ginger and 2 tsp mixed spice in a separate bowl, and then add to the butter, sugar and egg mixture
- Stir until the mixture comes together in a smooth dough
- Spread out some clingfilm on your work surface, and put the gingerbread dough on top. Cover it with another piece of clingfilm, then roll flat with a rolling pin until the dough is about 3mm thick
- Transfer your dough onto a chopping board and pop it into the fridge for 30 minutes
- Heat your oven to 190 C and lightly grease your baking sheet(s)
- Take out the dough, remove the top layer of clingfilm and use an angel-shaped biscuit cutter to cut out your biscuits
- Arrange your biscuits carefully on the baking sheet, remembering to leave space between them, as they will spread when they are in the oven
- Bake for 10 minutes or until lightly browned, and then transfer to a wire rack to cool
I like to eat my gingerbread angels just as they are, but you can also decorate them with white icing if you prefer.
Russian tea with jam
To accompany your gingerbread angels, try this traditional Russian way of drinking tea. You can use any loose-leaf black tea you like, but I like this Russian Caravan blend from my local tea/coffee producers Atkinsons.
- Boil some water in your kettle. Put a small amount of hot water into the bottom of your teapot to warm it, then discard.
- Put some loose tea-leaves into the teapot – use 1 heaped teaspoon per cup, plus an extra spoonful ‘for the pot’.
- Add 2-3 tablespoons of berry jam to the pot – try strawberry, cherry, raspberry or blackcurrant.
- Leave the tea to brew for around 5 minutes, allowing the flavours to develop
- Using a tea-strainer, pour the tea into your cups. You can serve some jam in a little dish alongside your tea in case anyone would like to add another spoonful to their cup.
Drink and enjoy with a gingerbread angel on the side – perhaps while listening to the music of Tchiakovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’, or leafing through your copy of A Dancer’s Dream?
(The picture below is from my own trip to St Petersburg a couple of years ago, when I was researching Spies in St Petersburg. Many Russian treats were sampled as part of the research process!)
Self Portrait in a Straw Hat by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun
My third book for Barrington Stoke’s super-readable Little Gems series is Elisabeth and the Box of Colours. Like the other two books I have written for Barrington Stoke, it is inspired by a real-life character from history – in this case, the French artist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, who was born in Paris in 1755.
Élisabeth loved drawing from a very early age: she described herself as having ‘an inborn passion for art’. She went away to a convent boarding school aged 6, and while there, she often found herself in trouble for drawing. In her memoirs, she wrote:
During that time I scrawled on everything at all seasons; my copy-books, and even my schoolmates’, I decorated with marginal drawings of heads, some full-face, others in profile; on the walls of the dormitory I drew faces and landscapes with coloured chalks. So it may easily be imagined how often I was condemned to bread and water. I made use of my leisure moments outdoors in tracing any figures on the ground that happened to come into my head.
Her father, Louis Vigée, was an artist and encouraged Élisabeth’s love of drawing. Seeing a drawing she had made at the age of only seven or eight years old, he reportedly exclaimed: ‘You will be a painter, child, if ever there was one!’
My story takes particular inspiration from Élisabeth’s childhood, including her close relationship with her father. I have made a few changes to Élisabeth’s real story: in my version, Louis dies when Élisabeth is away at school, whereas in real life, he died around a year after she left school, when she was 12 years old. However, just like in my story, her sadness and grief affected her very deeply, leaving her unable to draw for a while. ‘So heartbroken was I that it was long before I felt able to take to my crayons again’ she wrote later. But after a little time, she returned to making art, as a way to help herself cope with her ‘sad thoughts’.
With help and encouragement from her father’s friends, Élisabeth continued to pursue a career as an artist. She set up her own studio by the age of 15, by which time she was painting portraits professionally. Although she was young and had no formal training, she quickly became very successful. She painted many of the most important people in Paris, and even became one of the very few female members of the French Royal Academy.
In 1778, she was invited to the Palace of Versailles to paint Queen Marie Antoinette. She soon became one of the queen’s favourite painters, as well as her friend. In total, she painted over 30 portraits of the queen, including many of the images of her that are the most familiar and recognisable to us today. Among these were an image of Marie Antoinette in a straw hat and a plain white muslin dress (1783) – which has become probably the most famous image of the French queen. At the time, the portrait was considered highly controversial because of the informal, simple style in which the queen was dressed: she was criticised for appearing in a public portait ‘wearing a chambermaid’s dust cloth’ and even accused of mocking the dignity of the French throne.
Another of Élisabeth’s most famous paintings of the queen was Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787) which showed the queen at home at the Palace of Versailles surrounded by her children. The painting was intended to help improve the queen’s image, by making her seem more relatable to ordinary people, and show her in a sympathetic light.
But in spite of such efforts, just two years later, Queen Marie Antoinette and the rest of the royal family were arrested during the French Revolution. Élisabeth and her daughter Julie escaped from Paris, and travelled around Europe, living in Italy, Russia and Germany. Élisabeth continued to work as a portrait artist, painting many of Europe’s most important people, as well as painting landscapes and history scenes. Today, her work can be found in art galleries and museums all over the world.
Towards the end of her life, Élisabeth returned to France, and when she was in her 80s she published her memoirs (Souveniers). It was the intriguing and vivid recollections from her childhood that are included in the first part of these memoirs which helped to inform my story, Elisabeth and the Box of Colours. Here’s a little more about my version of Élisabeth’s story, which has been gorgeously illustrated by Rebecca Cobb.
Elisabeth loves to paint, just like her papa. She spends hours making her own pictures of everything she sees – and the more colourful, the better!
But when she goes away to school, she finds herself in a world of grey: grey buildings, grey uniforms, grey rooms. She misses Papa and all the colours of home. And one winter morning, she gets some terrible news that makes her days darker than ever before. Will Elisabeth be able to find the colour and joy in her life again?
‘A small, elegant triumph’ – The Times, Children’s Book of the Week
‘Beautifully told in spare, resonant words… A transporting little tale’ – The Guardian
‘Absolutely gorgeous. Pure, wondrous joy … What an inspiring gem of a book’ – author Liz Hyder
A ‘modern-day Madeline… offering hope and encouragment’ – The Times, Ten Brilliant New Children’s Books to Enjoy on World Book Day
Buy it now from Waterstones, Bookshop.org.uk or Amazon
Find out more about the real stories that helped to inspire my other books for the Little Gems series – Rose’s Dress of Dreams and Sophie Takes to the Sky
Check out my list of more brilliant children’s books about art and artists
My latest book Elisabeth and the Box of Colours is out now!
Illustrated by the amazing Rebecca Cobb, it was published earlier this month, as part of Barrington Stoke’s Little Gems series.
The story is inspired by the childhood of French portait artist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.
Here’s a bit more about the book:
Elisabeth loves to paint, just like her papa. She spends hours making her own pictures of everything she sees – and the more colourful, the better! But when she goes away to school, she finds herself in a world of grey: grey buildings, grey uniforms, grey rooms. She misses Papa and all the colours of home. And one winter morning, she gets some terrible news that makes her days darker than ever before. Will Elisabeth be able to find the colour and joy in her life again?
I’d been interested in writing about the young Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun for a while, but it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that I understood what this story should really be about – how art helps us deal with sadness and loss.
It was such a delight to collaborate with Rebecca for this book. I’ve known Rebecca for a number of years, and we share an agent – and I’m a huge fan of her work and love sharing her wonderful books with my daughter, all of which made the chance to collaborate particularly special. Her beautiful illustrations have transformed the story and perfectly convey the idea at its heart – the power of creativity to uplift us, even in the darkest times.
Together, we dedicated this book to ‘all the young artists and storytellers’ — and to celebrate it, we shared some of our own own childhood artistic creations, which helped set us on the path to our future careers. (You can see them on Twitter or Instagram – just have a look for the hashtag #ElisabethandtheBoxofColours)
One of Rebecca’s gorgeous illustrations for the book!
We were delighted that the book was chosen as the Times Children’s Book of the Week, and got a great write-up from Alex O’Connell who described it as ‘a small, elegant triumph’.
Last weekend it was also included in the Guardian’s February children’s book round-up: ‘Beautifully told in spare, resonant words… full of Cobb’s delightful images… A transporting little tale.’
If you’d like to buy a copy of Elisabeth and the Box of Colours, you can get it from Waterstones, Bookshop.org or of course, your favourite local independent bookshop.
You can find out more about the artist who inspired the book here.
And if you’ve been inspired to have a go at creating a portrait yourself, this new activity sheet will get you started.
You might also like to check out my list of more brilliant children’s books about art and artists
If you follow me on social media, you might have spotted something exciting I shared back in August. Earlier this year I was one of the guests on Stephen Fry’s brand new podcast for Audible, Edwardian Secrets!
Here’s a bit more about the series:
Powered flight. Votes for women. Human sexuality. Mass migration. The psychology of dreams. The magic of the movies. Spies and detectives. Welcome to Stephen Fry’s Edwardian Secrets.
Perhaps thanks to TV period dramas, the popular imagination may picture the Edwardian era as an idyllic window between the wars, a time of manners and tea on the lawn. But below the surface lies a frenetic and often bizarre age where scientific leaps forward went hand in hand with belief in fairies, and secrets of sex, lies and murder simmered.
Across 12 episodes, in this sequel to his Victorian Secrets, Stephen Fry uncovers some of the startling and unexpected hidden histories of the Edwardians.
It was so much fun to be involved, and to put some of the endless research I did for the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Taylor & Rose Secret Agents to good use, talking about everything from the fascinating world of 1900s children’s literature to (of course) Edwardian lady detectives.
If you’d like to have a listen, check it out on Audible here.