Driving through Cottam to meet with Rachel Ann Walmsley, a rapidly emerging children’s author and co- founder of Baobab Tree Books, I was struck by two things: 1. Some of these potholes have been here so long they could apply for heritage status and 2. Cottam has so many new builds and estates it’s starting to look like someone copied and pasted a suburb over several miles.Advertisement
However, Rachel’s second children’s book, Dotty the Dogwalker, shows there’s still sparks of originality to be found in PR4, with its delightfully lo-fi art style and accessible and creative text. Rachel originally trained as a solicitor, which might not seem a natural fit for writing for children, but she explained: “I started in the law and I retrained as a primary school teacher. Unfortunately, as I had an auto-immune condition, I had to give that up just before Covid. I took up writing so I could still interact with children because I loved being a teacher and missed not being in a classroom.
“Today for example I’ve been at St Clare’s Catholic Primary School reading and exploring the book with the children, which is quite nice as I still get to do all the artistic and imaginative activities.”
As I’d recently been to a parent’s evening, I was briefed – well, robustly warned, more accurately – on how eye-wateringly expensive the bespoke curriculum reading books for young children are to replace. I was curious as to whether these can also be used to complement the school’s reading curriculum.
“I would say you can use this book across a range of ages with differently differentiated activities,” said Rachel. “I was with Key Stage 1 children today and we were exploring the describing words and the way that the story is written in rhyming couplets allowing them to be inspired by the story.
“With Dotty the Dogwalker there’s still a lesson and theme but it’s more vocabulary rich and we tried to choose an area that children are interested in, and they do love dogs. I did think about closely following the national curriculum but that made it take on a slightly false air; this way allowed the text to flow and still include lots of adventurous vocabulary for the children to explore.
“I believe that reading is the building block for all learning and helps children to better understand humanity and the world around them, and being involved in this process inspires me.”
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When I asked whether she gets her ideas from feedback from the children, Rachel responded: “I like to think it’s more fluid than that and I get inspiration from a range of different things. Sometimes I’ll think of something that might be a genuinely useful tool for parents and teachers, so the focus in the next few books is on developmental skills for children. The next one is called Listening Ears, and it’s about a boy who goes on a quest to find better listening ears after being chastised for not paying attention.”
As a parent of three young children, I find this relatable in an almost painfully profound way. Rachel continued: “Just even walking past a building site, I’m thinking ‘kids love diggers, how can I make a story about diggers’ – and so Don the Digger Who Doesn’t Like the Dirt came to be.
“You’re looking for inspiration all the time. People will recommend things and obviously I’m always reading to my two kids so I get a lot of ideas from discussions with them.”
Rachel’s first book, Christmas Cabaret, was released late in 2021 with all proceeds going to the Lancashire Teaching Hospitals Children’s Appeal. As with Dotty the Dogwalker, Rachel’s sister Helen McKnockiter illustrated the book.
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As it’s been less than a year since that was released – and with the next book hopefully coming out within three months – I suggest Rachel and Helen have probably learned a lot of new skills in the interim.
“It’s been a very steep learning curve because we didn’t know anything about self-publishing,” said Rachel. “We did try the traditional route of finding a publisher and an agent but all the advice was that they wouldn’t take an author and an illustrator as a duo – they would only take me as an author or Helen as an illustrator.
“But she’s my big sister and it was important for us to do this as a joint venture, to bounce ideas off each other. So, we went down the indie route instead, which does mean you can turn around books quickly. Hopefully once we’ve built up an identity as a duo then agents and publishers will see it as a successful venture.”
I owe my sister £20 so I’m keeping a low profile with the family at the moment, however it’s nice to see a sibling partnership flourishing, and Rachel was happy to expand on their working relationship: “Helen is an artist in her own right, she lives on the borders of Scotland doing oil painting and watercolours that she sells at art fairs. She also has an educational background, which comes in handy, as some of the literary features in the book are straight from the national curriculum so having experience working with children does help.
“She’ll tell me and I’ll tell her – that’s the thing with siblings, there’s no filter. I give her an idea but she really brings it to life, and as we go on this journey we’re thinking more about how it’s placed in the book and how the images intertwine with the words so it’s constantly a learning experience for both of us.”
At this point, Rachel produces a copy of Dotty the Dogwalker and I’m struck by the knowing simplicity of the artwork; a lot of children’s books I see can charitably be described visually as blandly competent computer renders so I’m curious if this more striking ‘back to basics’ look will be a stylistic through-line for all future books.
“Dotty the Dogwalker is more of a standalone, though the next ones will be a little more ‘lessons’ orientated so I think there’ll be more continuity between the styles,” said Rachel.
“Helen purposely doesn’t use digital imaging to do her pictures so she’ll literally just use pencils to do the images. This was a conscious choice as she wanted to show kids that you too can have a go if you pick up your pencils at home.”
As Rachel has been something of a mainstay at a few local primary schools and community centres talking about the book, I’m curious what feedback she’s been getting. She said: “What has been nice is that people have noticed there’s some quite adventurous vocabulary in there. I was speaking to a mum and she said all the way through the book her daughter was asking what this word means.
“Kids also seem to like the simplicity of the lesson itself. Dotty loves dogs but isn’t too keen on people initially. When she loses a dog, the whole community comes together to help her so she likes people at the end, too. It’s loosely based on a true story I saw on the local Cottam Community Facebook page. We have also purposefully made Dotty a quirky character, and that helped us talk to the kids about inclusion and how it’s nice to just be you.”
At this point, she reaches into her bag and produces a neatly crocheted doll of Dotty that local business Denise Designs sent to her after her granddaughter enthusiastically told her about a reading of the book at a local library. As far as feedback goes, that’s hard to top.
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As a grizzled investigative journalist, I did a quick Google search as preparation and spotted Baobab Tree Books aren’t on Amazon, so I ask what Rachel’s plans are for expansion. “We’ve got the website to buy directly from us, and we’re selling through a couple of independent bookshops in Berwick and Plackitt and Booth Booksellers in Lyham.
“We’re kind of doing everything. We’re by no means an expert in any of those areas but as we have to do it all ourselves we’re learning about the research aspect, the writing, the graphic design, the printing. That’s why we started doing the blog on the website, so if we gave people a little more of the backstory then it might give what we’re doing more context.
“I think the selling of the book has been the toughest part by far; I love writing books and going into schools and reading them – it’s just the selling part that I’m eager to improve now.
“When it seems insurmountable, I try and remember all the small victories. Like today I gave a little girl a copy of Dotty the Dogwalker and her teacher said ‘put it in your book bag’ but she just couldn’t put it straight in there. Even though I’d just read it to her, she wanted to sneak another little look. It’s little moments like this that make all the hard work worthwhile.”
Dotty the Dogwalker is available from the Baobab Tree Books website. A percentage of each sale will go to the Guide Dogs UK charity. You can follow Baobab Tree Books on Facebook.
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