Blogmas 2018 · christmas · Q & A

Q&A: Sophie Anderson, author of The House With Chicken Legs.

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About The House With Chicken Legs: 

Marinka dreams of a normal life, where she stays in one place long enough to make friends, but that isn’t possible. Her house has chicken legs and her grandmother, Baba Yaga, guides spirits between one world and the next. 

Marinka is destined to become the next Yaga, but she rebels against this and sets out to change her destiny. 

The House With Chicken Legs was one of my favourite titles this year. I loved the interpretation of Yaga (a character from Russian folklore) and the unflinching narrative about mortality. The characters are the sort that stick in your head, and I will return to their story over and over just to spend time in their company.

I am delighted to have Sophie Anderson here on my blog to talk about fairy tales, stars and Christmas traditions. 

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Do you have any favourite fairytales set in winter/snowy landscapes? What draws you to these stories?

Wintry landscapes glitter with magic and invoke a chilling feeling perfect for dark fairy tales. My favourite is the Russian fairy tale Snegurochka or The Snow Maiden. There are different versions, but most begin with a childless couple building a little girl out of snow. She comes to life and seeks out happiness at every opportunity, but sadly in most versions she melts at the end of the tale. As a child I used to find this heart-breaking, but over the years I have come to accept it as a message to live fully, as a short, full life is preferable to a long, empty one. One of my favourite books is an adult reimagining of this tale: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.

 

Winter is a time when stories were traditionally told around the fire. What are your favourite storytelling traditions?

I love bedtime stories with my children. However busy our lives get, we always make time for stories at the end of the day. We each take turns reading a chapter of a book we like and because my children all have different tastes we usually have three or four quite different books on the go!

 

Both the Nativity Story and your story feature stars. What inspired you to write about stars?

Carl Sagan! I love his work. The idea of our souls returning to the stars after death came directly from one of his quotes: “We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

 

How might Marinka’s house be decorated if she was celebrating Christmas?

Holly and mistletoe would grow in great curls from the House’s roof and oranges studded with cloves would blossom from the beams. The scents of mulled wine, roasted chestnuts and rum soaked fruit cake would plume into the air as Baba cooked up a sweet spiced feast. And skulls lit with candles would adorn every surface, throwing a warm light into all the dancing shadows.

 

Marinka learns and inherits lots of traditions from her Grandmother. Do you have any special Christmas traditions, or any you would love to try?

My grandmother served Rumtopf with ice cream every Christmas. Rumtopf is made by soaking seasonal fruits in a stoneware pot filled with rum, and because it takes months to make I’ve never got round to doing it. Perhaps 2019 will be the year I finally start filling my Rumtopf pot!

 

If you could receive one gift from a story, what would it be and why?

The wardrobe that leads to Narnia. I’d love to see if I’m brave enough to go through it!

 

A huge thanks to Sophie Anderson for your time.

What are your favourite Christmas traditions? Let me know in the comments below.

Blogmas 2018 · christmas · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Little Robin Red Vest by Jan Fearnley

Review: Little Robin Red Vest by Jan Fearnley

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Little Robin is excited about Christmas. He has seven warm vests washed and ready for the festive season. When he sees his friends shivering in the cold, Little Robin gives away all his vests. His generosity has left him warm inside but freezing cold. Is there a present for Robin this Christmas?

There are two things at the heart of this story – an origin story for how robins came to have a red vest, and a message about sharing and generosity. This beautiful edition has been printed to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the story. With its warm take on the festive season, it is little wonder that this book has endured.

With so much emphasis on receiving, Little Robin Red Vest reminds us that the thing which will leave us warm inside is giving to those in true need. The animals Robin gives to are without warm clothes. This would make a lovely, gentle introduction to the difference between need and want, and the difficult fact that a lot of people are currently going without the things they need.

Blue and grey snowscapes make a lovely soft background. Robin’s red vest stands out bright and warm in the cold, just as it does when we see a real robin on a snowy day. The animal’s facial expressions speak louder than the words -desperate, longing eyes turn to hugs of joy and gratitude as the animals receive the warm clothes they need.

Every time I see a robin now I think of this story. It captures the joyful spirit of this bird and uses it to remind us that generosity will bring us greater happiness than want. A true Christmas classic and one I recommend to all my friends.

 

Thank you to Nosy Crow Books for my copy of Little Robin Red Vest. Opinions my own. 

Blogmas 2018 · Chat · Guest Post

Guest Post: Amy from Golden Books Girl tackles the Christmas shake-up Q&A.

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Christmas shake-up Q&A:

What is the Christmas shake-up Q&A? Basically, it is a little game I devised where participants mix things from different books to create a festive situation. So clothes from three books to make a party outfit or objects from one book gifted to a character from another. 

Today’s answers come from Amy from Golden Books Girl

Amy is one of my earliest blogging friends. She’s the one who keeps me sane when I have 460 blog posts to write on a Friday evening. Her knowledge of middle-grade fiction is second-to-none and she has cheered on my writing from the early, shapeless stories through to the third edits of a 45,000-word manuscript. 

I love Amy’s blog too – it’s a mash-up of Disney and middle-grade fiction and exceptionally cute dogs. 

Thanks to Amy for your time. 

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Gift an object from one book to a character from another and explain why.

Oooh this one is definitely the hardest! I think I’d give a certain very expensive spoilery object from the Children of Castle Rock to Joni’s family from Skylarks so that they could sell it and have a really special Christmas with the proceeds.

You’re hosting a Christmas party – pick your fictional guests and explain why you put them together.

I want a party with basically all the Geek Girl characters, Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells from the Murder  Most Unladylike books because I think they’s be brilliant company and Ade and everyone else who lives in his tower because they deserve a really special Christmas because they go through so much in the book!

If you could try a Christmas tradition from any story, what would it be?

I loved the sound of the royal Christmas in Maradova, and I’d love to give those a go! We see them in Princess in Practice, and they sounded wonderful! Or some of the Covey family’s from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before!

Pick the setting from one book and a celebration from another. Why would you host that celebration in that setting?

Much like Fergus from the Children of Castle Rock’s decision to sabotage Alice when she first arrives at Stormy Loch, my choice for this question is inspired by literally nothing other than to see what would happen: I want to move Daisy and Hazel’s present opening scene from the end of Mistletoe and Murder to a fantasy world. Really any, but I think something where the animals speak like in Narnia, would be HILARIOUS to see Daisy especially navigate. I can’t imagine her putting up with the White Witch for long!

Make your New Year’s resolutions with messages from three books. 

I need to embrace what Gracie learns throughout You Only Live Once- you need to have a healthy balance between doing school work and other things you love.

‘Nobody ever really metamorphoses’- this is from Geek Girl (I’ve mentioned them SO many times in this post alone, but they’re such faves so why not?!). It’s something I try to remember constantly- you can’t really change yourself that much, and as such you really should like yourself.

I also liked the Great Diamond Chase’s message of trying your best to be good to the people around them and do the best thing for them, so I’ll go for that as my last one I think.

Make up a Christmas ball outfit with clothes and accessories from different books. 

I think for a dress I’d go for the polka dot dress from the Polka Dot Shop by Laurel Remington, or perhaps one of the party outfits from A Sky Painted Gold- which all sounded gorgeous! For jewellery, I seem to recall Harriet wearing lovely expensive earrings in one of the Geek Girl books, so I’d have those too, and for shoes I’d probably go for strappy sandals (which are mentioned in loads of books, and I’m almost certain they pop up in several of Cathy Hopkins’) even though it’s December, because I can’t wear high heels. I can’t think of any characters off the top of my head who wear red lipstick, even though there are probably loads and I just can’t remember them, but I’d finish off the look with that because I wear it with just about any outfit it even vaguely goes with!

 

Do you have a great answer for one of these questions? Let me know in the comments below.

Blogmas 2018 · christmas · Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller

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Extract:

Torvil’s was most definitely one of the town’s richest elves. In fact, as the owner of its only toyshop, he had done rather well for himself. But whereas most people who make money are happy to share it with their family and friends, Torvil kept his fortune all to himself. 

(The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller. P19.) 

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Synopsis:

Jackson has always wondered where Father Christmas came from. How did he come to be the man who delivered all the presents around the world. 

Then, one magical night, Father Christmas arrives and takes Jackson on the ride of a lifetime. Along the way, he tells a story. A story about a stingy elf who never thought of those less fortunate, until one night three strange beings showed him a different way of thinking. 

A Christmas Carol meets the magic of the North Pole. 

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Join Jackson on the adventure of a lifetime as he searches for the answer to the ultimate question – how did Father Christmas get his position? 

There are two parts to this story – the strand in which we see Father Christmas and Jackson, and the story of Father Christmas’s – or should I say Torvil’s – life. It is this second strand where the action and development takes place, so the story is about Torvil and not Jackson. 

Let me be clear – this is a retelling of A Christmas Carol. Although the landscape is different and there are some minor changes (Torvil, does not, for example, face his own grave,) the plot builds in just the same was as the original Christmas classic. What Ben Miller has done is made it accessible to younger children, and added a bit of Christmas sparkle for bigger kids. 

This narrative has never been more relevant – young Torvil’s claims that he will grow up to help the poor fade as he grows older and greedier. At a time when politicians are putting their own personal feuds and whims above the increasing number of Foodbank users, it is important for children to understand why the wealthy and powerful need to think about others. 

The world is full of magic – think snowy hills and starry skies and reindeer. 

Accepting that this is a retelling, I think it brings the story to a younger audience. Snuggle up and listen with wonder to the story of Father Christmas himself. 

Blogmas 2018 · christmas · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Silent Night by Lara Hawthorne

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Silent Night, holy night;

All is calm, all is bright …

Join in the traditional carol with this beautiful new edition. Angels fly over the stable and animals gather on the hillside as Mary and Joseph await the birth of their Son. Recall the earliest Christmas story and celebrate the magic of the nativity story.

 Silent Night is one of the best-known and best-loved Christmas carols of the past hundred years. It is also one which children learn at an early age, which makes it a lovely introduction to the nativity story. Whether you are a practising Christian or just exploring one of the best-known stories of all time, this edition captures the atmosphere of the nativity story.

The artwork is stunning. Black skies and white hills and buildings make the perfect backdrop for angels and animals and shepherds on the hills. The simple background means the eye is drawn to the characters and the activity of the story. There is very much a sense of the story happening on a hillside long, long ago – which of course is exactly where it begins.

The story follows Mary and Joseph from their arrival on a donkey to the moment where everyone gathers to pay respects to the baby. Jesus’s birth is marked by a stream of stars and an announcing angel. This would be a lovely book to read ahead of a nativity play.

An information section at the back tells us the history of the carol, from the moment it was composed in Austria in 1818 to the time it was sung by troops on all sides of the conflict in WW1. The folk-history of a beloved carol would be a lovely way to explore – without pushing any messages – the unity between European nations. 

A striking book which captures the magic and joy of the nativity and of the Silent Night carol. This deserves to become a staple for many libraries.

 

Thanks to Quarto Children’s Books for my copy of Silent Night. Opinions my own.

 

 

 

Blogmas 2018 · Non-Fiction

Review: Bestiary by Christopher Masters

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Exploring the collection of The British Museum, this book looks at objects relating to animals. From porcelain jugs to spear-throwers, jewelry to watercolor-paintings humans have included other animals in their art for centuries. 

Divided into five sections – wild animals, domestic animals, exotic, symbolic, and mythical creatures – the book uses the museum collection to explore the different relationships humans have held with the natural world over the centuries. One of my favourite things about the format is how it encourages readers to look at museums differently. It is easy to trail around a museum or to do a gallery, but museums were designed to preserve human knowledge. Entering with a question or a theme (‘What do we know about human relationships with animals?’) encourages us to get so much more from a visit. 

The introduction tells us how the relationship with animals has developed over time. I was particularly fascinated to learn about early societies where there was less distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ than there is in the modern day. It gave me a greater empathy with and understanding of societies which believed in spirt-animals. 

The book is beautiful, full of high-definition photographs, including many full-page pictures. If you left this book out on a coffee table or in a school book-corner it would be picked up and thumbed through. It has high ‘flickabilty’. Much of the pleasure is in thumbing through the pages to look at the images. 

Bestiary would make a lovely Christmas present – for fans of Newt Scamander, for museum-goers and for people who are insatiably curious. A beautiful look into the collection of The British Museum which encourages us to think deeper about museum collections. Brilliant. 

 

Thanks to Thames And Hudson for my copy of Bestiary. Opinions my own.

Blogmas 2018 · Non-Fiction

Review: Vintage Travel Posters by Gill Saunders

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Review: Vintage Travel Posters by Gill Saunders.

By 1900, almost every town in Britain had a railway station linked to an extensive rail network. The seaside holiday, already popular in the 1800s, became big business. Resorts expanded as daytrippers and holiday-makers flocked to the sea. With the rising numbers visiting the seaside, and the expansion of the tourism industry, came a new form of art – the travel poster. 

The travel posters of the early 1900s are now highly collectible. They evoke a time when the world was expanding – when people were becoming more adventurous – but also an era when things were simpler. In the age of budget airlines and cheap package-holidays and an ever-increasing workload, it is lovely to recall the guest houses and piers of the early 20th Century. 

Vintage Travel Posters brings together 30 such posters which depict the sea. This would be a lovely book to inspire art about the sea because it shows how different one destination can look from another. From cruise ships cutting through the Atlantic to the sun reflecting off the Venice Lido, the range of posters shows how different the sea is in from one place to another. 

This is also a brilliant look at the images the tourism industry wanted to sell. What exactly were people looking for when they set out for a resort? Short paragraphs on the page opposite each poster explain the history behind it and give us an insight into a different time and place. 

I fell in love with this book. I studied seaside holidays on my very first undergraduate module and it has always been a ‘pet subject’ (AKA a random interest which makes me smile whenever I learn something more.’) This book would appeal to historians, artists and people with itchy feet. It also makes a lovely coffee-table book. Nostalgia isn’t quite the right word because it is not a time or place I have ever known, but anyone who has ever spent the day in a run-down resort and looked at the relics of the Golden Age of the seaside holiday will love this book. 

 

Thanks to Thames And Hudson for my copy of Vintage Travel Posters. Opinions my own. 

Blogmas 2018 · christmas · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Snow Rabbit by Georgiana Deutsch and Alison Edgson

Review: The Snow Rabbit by Georgiana Deutsch and Alison Edgson

img_7519Bear is always angry. So angry that the other animals keep away until one rabbit decides to find out what will make bear smile. Could it be a snow rabbit or will it take something more? Something like a friend?

A story about friendship and empathy set during a snowfall. I loved the message of patience and understanding – Bear is growly and his temper which makes the other animals afraid. The animals stay away from him and whisper behind his back … which makes him even more unhappy. Something has to break the cycle. I liked how responsibility and blame were not landed on one party. It takes one of the animals to attempt friendship, and a very broken snow rabbit for Bear to figure out what needs to change.

The illustrations and design are as cute as a John Lewis advert. Bear may be grumpy but there is something sweet about his scowl. This is a book of cosy cottages, stripy jumpers and glittery snow-animals. It is a comforting landscape filled with woodland animals. I love how the jumpers and bobble hats provide splashes of warm colours in the frozen landscape.

The text uses both sentences and speech bubbles, which will give young readers a chance to voice their favourite parts and act out the text. The speech bubbles add an extra layer to the text – for all Bear is in the wrong, there are times when the other animals are melodramatic. This is countered by the little rabbit’s attempts to engage bear in friendship.

A familiar narrative made fun with glitter and sparkle. Cuddle up with a mug of hot chocolate and read this one together.

 

Thanks to Little Tiger Press for my copy of The Snow Rabbit. Opinions my own.

 

Blogmas 2018 · christmas · Young Middle Grade

Younger Middle-Grade – Christmas round-up.

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Unicorn Academy: Olivia And Snowflake by Julie Sykes. Illustrated by Lucy Truman. 

Olivia is happy to be at Unicorn Academy, but life would be even better if she could bond with her unicorn, Snowflake, ahead of graduation, otherwise her friends will leave her behind and she’ll be stuck with the horrible girls. Olivia is also hiding a secret. She doesn’t want her friends to find out her family is super-rich. Meanwhile, someone at Unicorn Academy is causing trouble with dangerous spells. Can Olivia and Snowflake save the day?

This will capture the attention of all young readers who love unicorns and sparkle, but more to the point it is a well-written story. We care about Olivia and Snowflake, and want to see them graduate alongside their friends. There are also messages about kindness and empathy which will resonate with young animal-lovers. 

 

Snow Sisters: The Silver Secret by Astrid Foss. Illustrated by Monique Dong

The Keepers Of The Lights keep everything in balance. It is their job to guard the Everchanging Lights which shine in the sky. Triplets Magda, Hanna and Ida know that one day it will be their responsibility. The Shadow Witch has returned and she is determined to steal the lights from the sky. When their parents fall into trouble, it is up to the girls to hunt for the three snow globe which will keep the Lights safe. If they don’t act fast, the Kingdom will fall under an evil power. 

The first in a new series, this story is full of the same magic as Frozen – lights in the sky and arctic animals, a palace with stained-glass windows and sisterly love. The world is clear from the first word and young readers will want to join the sisters as they venture through this landscape. A strong quest-narrative which will keep the reader hooked across the series. 

 

Snow Sisters: The Crystal Rose by Astid Foss. Illustrated by Monique Dong

With The Keepers Of The Light trapped buy the evil Shadow Witch, it is up to Magda, Hanna and Ida to protect the Everchanging Lights from harm. With one orb found, the girls have two to find before they can save their Kingdom from harm. Their mother’s clue sets them on the trail of the crystal rose and the blue orb. 

This book is the second in the series, and continues the quest began in The Silver Secret. This is a very strong quest story for very young readers. There is enough threat to build suspense but nothing which would overwhelm the audience. The world is enchanting and we learn more about the main characters as they develop. 

 

The Dog That Saved Christmas by Nicola Davies. Illustrated by Mike Byrne. 

Jake hates Christmas. There’s no routine, everyone acts differently and the flashing lights fill his head so he never has a break from them. Even school is disrupted by preparations for the Christmas show. Nobody cares about all the facts Jake can contribute to the nature show – they just want the kids to dress up in animal-costumes. Jake decides to take on Christmas … and causes a lot of damage in the process. Then Jake meets a stray dog, and Christmas no longer feels so unmanageable. 

This story shows how Christmas can disrupt the lives of people on the autistic spectrum. It also shows that, although people with autism sometimes behave in a way which appears frightening, it is often because they themselves are overloaded, confused or frightened. The bond between Jake and Susan shows the instinctive empathy many autistic people have with other animals, and slowly the people around Jake begin to see how Christmas feels from his perspective. 

A brilliant read for empathy. 

 

Frost by Holly Webb. Illustrated by Artful Doodlers. 

Cassie thinks the Foxes that live near her block of flats are beautiful, especially Frost, the fox with the white-tipped tail. One night, Frost leads Cassie out of her home and into the streets of 1600s London. The Frost Fair may be fun, Cassie needs to return to her home and help her neighbour. 

A winerty time-slip adventure which captures the magic of London’s historical frost fairs. 

I loved the relationship between Cassie and Mrs Morris. It begins with misunderstanding and grows into true empathy and a shared-secret.

 

One Snowy Night (Anthology). Illustrated by Alison Edgson. 

Why pick one wintery animal story when you can have ten? This charming anthology brings together some of the strongest writers of younger middle-grade fiction including Sita Brahmachari, Linda Chapman, Holly Webb and Candy Gourlay. From a trip to Mongolia to see snow leopards in the natural surroundings to the story of a baby-panda who gets separated from her mother on the journey down the mountains, this anthology is full of animal tales. 

Some of the stories are about humans who come into contact with animals, while others focus on animal-characters. All are well-written and my favourites were the ones which taught us about real animals in real habitats. As an anthology for very young readers, it could not be better – there is something to suit everyone and every one of these stories would be a perfect read in assembly or ahead of bedtime. 

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow Books, Stripes Publishing and Barrington Stoke for the books featured in this round-up. Opinions my own.

Blogmas 2018 · christmas · craft · Guest Post

Craft: 3 simple festive crafts

 

Craft: 3 simple festive crafts – a collaboration with Lisa’s Notebook

There’s no better time for quick crafts than in the run-up to Christmas. Whether you’re looking to distract the children for half-an-hour, to make a last-minute gift or for a bit of time out, factor some craft time into your festive agenda. 

This post is a collaboration with Lisa from Lisa’s Notebook. I adore Lisa’s blog. With regular features about gardening, self-care and kid-friendly activities, there is something for everyone. Be sure to check out Lisa’s post and see how she got on with the same crafts.

We chose some crafts from Pinterest – collaborating was a lovely way to motivate each other to do the crafts, rather than just pinning them to our boards. It was also a great way of finding things we might not have picked ourselves. Our theme was ‘nature’ and I love how we interpreted this in different ways. 

The three crafts featured here are:

  • A pine-cone elf
  • Bird feeders
  • Star decorations made from twigs 

Check them out below, then have a look at Lisa’s post to see how her crafts came out. 

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Pinecone elf – 

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This was the first craft I picked. There are many examples over Pintest and by looking at these I decided I wanted to keep my elf simple, to add a jingle-bell to his hat and to have accessories in two colours. 

The fiddliest part was making the hat, but once I found a template it came together quickly enough. The result was very sweet and I think these would make lovely little gifts or table-favours. 

 

You will need:

  • Sheets of felt
  • One pinecone 
  • A wooden ball 
  • Jingle bells
  • A pen to draw on the face
  • A glue gun 

 

Instructions: 

  1. Cut out the hat. There is a great template here which shows you the shape to cut the felt. Stick the hat together using your glue gun and add a jingle bell at the top. 
  2. Cut out the feet and scarf.  
  3. Stick the hat to your wooden ball, then stick the head on to the pine cone. Add the feet and scarf. When everything is dry, draw on the face. 

 

Bird feeders – 

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You will need – 

  • Dry mix: Birdseed, currents, sultanas, oats 
  • Fat. I used vegetable fat. 
  • Cookie cutters laid out on a baking tray. You need open cookie cutters, not the ones with patterns in. 
  • Straws (Paper ones work just fine.) 

 

Instructions –

  1. Measure out your dry ingredients. I used a ratio of 2 parts dry ingredients to one part vegetable fat, so I used 500g of dry ingredients to 250g of vegetable fat. Mix your dry ingredients together in a bowl.
  2. Melt the fat in a saucepan. When it is ready, pour it in with the dry mixture and stir until all the fat is soaked up. This step should be done by an adult. 
  3. Distribute your mixture between the cookie cutters, patting it down with a spoon. 
  4. When you’ve filled your cookie cutters, stick a straw in each one near the top of the cutter. This will form a hole so you can hang up your bird-seed cake when it is set. Leave your bird-seed cakes to set. 
  5. When your bird-seed cake is solid, remove the cookie cutter, tie the string through the hole and hang it on a branch. 

 

Twig star decorations:

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Never again will I judge a craft by the picture on Pinterest. When I saw this, I thought it would make a nice, easy extra. Little did I know how difficult it would be. The tricky part was cutting twigs to equal length and laying them out in a five-pointed star. They move so much that it was like a game of pick-up sticks. I am pleased with my final result and would try this again. 

You will need –

  • Twigs (we picked up longer sticks and branches and cut them to equal length. This should be done by an adult.)
  • A glue gun
  • Raffia or any ribbon or thread to wrap around the centre. 

 

Instructions – 

  1. Cut the twigs to equal length and lay them out in the shape of a five-pointed star. This is easier said than done. My advice is to draw the star out on paper and not overthink the layout. See how it comes together. 
  2. Stick your star together. Before you get the glue-gun out, look at where your twigs overlap and make a plan. I started with the overlaps nearest the bottom and worked up. 
  3. When your star is dry, tie raffia on to the twigs and wrap it around the decoration. This is a very kid-friendly part and you could use all sorts of ribbons and spare bits of thread. 

 

Final thoughts – 

Thanks again to Lisa for joining me in this collaboration. Our nature theme got me outside looking for bits and pieces, and it was lovely to take time out of the busy Christmas schedule for some crafting time. 

Have you tried any of the above crafts? Do you have any favourite Christmas activities? Let me know in the comments below.