Ruth Doyle's new picture book, A Horse Called Now, explores children's worries with the help of a horse, Now. Ruth lives on Mini Motley Sanctuary with a flock of sheep, eight chickens, three dogs, two rescued miniature horses, six guinea pigs, two rabbits and two grown-up children, who all help inspire her stories.
Alexandra Finkeldey is a freelance artist based in Ottawa, Canada. She uses both traditional and digital mediums to capture her favourite subjects, which include animals, people, plants, and food. Alexandra's recent picture books include When the Storks Came Home and Talala: The Curious Leopard Cub.
A Horse Called Now (Nosy Crow)
In A Horse Called Now, author Ruth Doyle explores the idea of mindfulness for young children; how we can live the 'now' and manage our feelings, particularly fear. The story helps children understand that it is okay to feel fear, and explores ways to deal with their anxieties.
Review: 'A Horse Called Now is a story about overcoming worries and living in the present. Mental health is a huge topic at the moment and it is so important for children to understand from a young age.'
Q&A with Ruth Doyle and Alexandra Finkeldey
Ruth and illustrator Alexandra Finkeldey talk to ReadingZone about their picture book A Horse Called Now, and how you can use it to support children in exploring their anxieties.
1. How did you start writing / illustrating picture books, and what kinds of stories do you like to create?
Ruth: I write across genres but I began writing picture books after falling in love with their powerful combination of words and art. I've always enjoyed reading and writing poetry and Haiku and feel inspired by the challenge of telling a story and conveying ideas within a limited word count. I'm also conscious that the early years are so important in child development and I love the idea of being a part of a child's first exposure to words and stories.
Alexandra: I started illustrating picture books at the end of 2020. A publisher reached out to me directly with a script about a leopard cub. I was both flattered (I love cats) and extremely nervous (I'd never done anything like that before)! I never envisioned myself working on picture books, and doing a long-form project was very daunting. But I'm so proud of "2020 Alex" for saying yes and embracing a new challenge. These days, my favourite stories typically involve animals, plants, sustainability, mental wellness, community, and our relationship to the natural world.
2. Can you tell us about your new picture book, A Horse Called Now, and what inspired the story and illustration style?
Ruth: I've been studying mindfulness as a way of coping with trauma (as well as everyday stress and anxiety) for several years. Following the pandemic, we are experiencing a global mental health crisis and our children have been especially affected by this, not least because of all-consuming developments in technology and the dominance and influence of social media. I wanted to try to write a story that might help young children to understand that fear is something we all experience and not only is it okay to be scared but that we can find ways to help ourselves and others to deal with those anxieties. I'm lucky enough to share my life with many animals and they show me how to live in the moment, reacting as they do, to whatever is happening right now!
My horse Winnie was the inspiration for Now, the wise and mindful horse. Through stressful and turbulent times, her powerful yet gentle presence has provided me with strength and sanctuary. I wanted to share her comforting influence with children and their care givers. This story is the result of that wish.
Alexandra: A Horse Called Now is a sweet and gentle story about mindfulness and self-compassion, written by the wonderful Ruth Doyle. Our main character, Now, is inspired by Ruth's own white horse, Winnie. In the early stages of the project, Ruth kindly sent me reference photos of Winnie, which I used to develop the look and feel of Now. I wanted Now to have a sturdy-yet-soft feeling to her, given the subject matter of the book.
For the backgrounds, I studied photos and landscape paintings of rolling English countryside. The illustration style itself is inspired by classic children's book illustrators such as Roger Duvoisin, Richard Scarry, and Mirko Hanák. We worked hard with book designer Manda Scott to achieve a "vintage" feel by using a 4-colour Pantone printing method.
3. How do you use the picture book to explore the idea of focusing on the present, rather than our fears, for young children?
Ruth: Now the horse lives in the moment. As she grazes, she notices, 'the tiniest blinks of magic' and listens to 'the music of the air and earth.' By focusing on the small details around her, she is grounding herself in the Now, rather than worrying about what might happen next. This is in stark contrast to the other animals, who are panicking about perceived threats. When they come to Now with their fears, she calmly asks them to explain what they are afraid of.
Their fears all centre on what might happen if their predators are near. Now brings them back to the present by asking what they can see in this moment. This makes the others realise that their fears are based on worst-case scenarios, on things that 'might' happen. She reminds them that it is just as possible that their fears 'might not' come true and encourages them to concentrate on finding things that they can enjoy doing in this moment, like eating dandelions. Now reassures the others by reminding them that, 'At this moment, all is well.' This refrain is repeated as a calming and reassuring mantra, throughout the book. She also uses the storm to tell them that, "nothing lasts forever" - not even the most frightening experiences.
At the end of the story, we learn that the predators the little animals have been so scared of, are in fact, scared themselves. This reminds us that being scared is a normal and universal feeling, as well as the reassurance that many of our fears turn out to be nothing we should ever have worried about!
Alexandra: Since we only used four colours for this book, I tried to use them strategically to indicate the tone of each scene. For example, during the storm and barn scenes, the colour blue is meant to evoke a sense of both tension and calm. I also ensured that Now was highly contrasted against her environment and companions. I wanted her to be a strong, sturdy, and calming presence to both the barn animals and the reader. Her size and gentle presence reflects our own inner strength in the face of fear. She reminds us that we can always return to our own breath, our own inner resources whenever we are faced with difficult thoughts or events.
4. Why did you choose a shire horse as your main character for this story, and why is she called Now?
Ruth: My inspiration for the main character was my horse Winnie, who is a Connemara X Irish Cob, not a shire. I think that the illustrator has focused on some of Winnie's cob characteristics (such as her lovely feathers) to create a horse who does look very shire! Shire horses are known for their calm and patient natures, so it's lovely that Now looks like a gentle giant. She is the personification of living in the moment, which is why I called her 'Now'.
5. How important is having a country setting for this story and what do you feel children can gain from having time in nature? How do the images bring the country setting to life?
Ruth: I think it's helpful to have animal characters for children to relate to, especially when exploring 'big' or emotive issues and I like to show animals exhibiting natural behaviours in their native environments. I think this natural setting emphasises that we are all connected.
Our relationship with the natural world is deep-rooted and I believe, essential to our mental, physical and spiritual well-being. In recent years, children have become increasingly disconnected due to many factors - most obviously, the lure of gadgets. Deep inside us we still feel our connection to the land, a reminder of where we evolved from and where we will one day return to - for me, it's Home. I think time in nature reminds children that we are all related - the trees, the plants, the birds and animals. We are all trying to survive and thrive on planet earth and we're better off together. There is a unique sense of freedom outside - feeling the wind in your hair, jumping in puddles, racing the clouds, and the sense of acceptance and freedom from judgement - the chance to be purely ourselves, that is so special about being in nature.
Alexandra: I started by saving many photo references of the English countryside. I also referred to my own photos taken in 2018, when I enjoyed a train ride from Edinburgh down to London. I also studied some classic English landscape painters, notably those who focused on spring and autumn. Based on these references, I tried to capture the gentle, sweeping characteristics of a country setting. In particular, I used fine strokes of black line-work to add movement and drama to each spread. I've really grown to enjoy illustrating backgrounds, which made this book a treat to bring to life!
6. What sorts of questions can the book prompt children to ask, and what ideas would you like to see explored with them?
Ruth: What makes us feel afraid? What can we do to soothe ourselves and help to manage our feelings and fears? Do we waste time worrying about things that might never happen? I like the idea of talking to children about ways in which they can focus on what is happening now, to really listen and watch and immerse themselves in the present time, as a way of enjoying each moment.
The animals in the story are afraid of predators but come to understand that those perceived enemies are also afraid - and can sometimes even become friends. It's an opportunity to talk about empathy and how we are all more alike than unalike (as the great Maya Angelou said). And that being kind to each other and helping each other, makes us all happier and less afraid.
I think we should explore the understanding that animals have feelings just like us and the same needs - for security, safety and friendship too.
Alexandra: I believe the illustrations can prompt children to consider their own sources of worry and fear. I hope that Now and her friends encourage children to remain open and curious about their thoughts and feelings, without judgement. Scary thoughts and anxious feelings are a natural part of life. A Horse Called Now invites us to approach our worries with curiosity and compassion, rather than shame and avoidance.
7. Can you think of further activity ideas that adults might like to do to explore the book's themes further with children?
Ruth: Living in the Moment
• Take the children out into nature - to run and play and observe the world around them. Time in any outdoor spaces is beneficial - your garden, the park, by the sea. Encourage the children to open up about anything that is worrying them and suggest that they throw their worries away & send them off into the air.
• Stand close to a tree and think about its steady presence through the seasons and the years. Being amongst trees has also been shown to reduce stress and lower blood pressure.
• Draw or paint; sing, dance, walk, and read together of course! Talk about how these activities make us feel.
• Discuss activities that we do that allow us to be in the moment, times when we forget to think, or worry.
• Plant seeds and take time out every day, to care for them and watch as they slowly grow, in their own sweet time!
• Breathing exercises - practice together, taking deep breaths in and slowly exhaling, while letting all the bad feelings come and then go…
• Spend time with animals - your own pets, or other people's, or wild creatures in the parks and fields, such as squirrels and sheep. Feel the benefits of just being with them. Watch how they relax into the moment and take joy in running and jumping, or their deep relaxation, as they suddenly flop down and surrender to sleep! Then play a game mimicking their actions.
• Create a bird feeding station (or a window feeder) and watch the birds as they go about their daily activities. Talk about the fears they may experience and the problems they have to overcome to survive.
• Make a worry jar. Talk to the children about their fears & then pop them onto a piece of paper and place them in the jar. At the end of the week/month, they can take the worries out and think about how many of them have been resolved, or didn't even happen. Was it worth feeling so fearful? Did anything change because of all the worrying?
Alexandra: Adults might consider facilitating mindfulness activities with readers of this book. Personally, I have a daily meditation practice focused on breathing. But young readers might be more engaged in activities that have a physical or sensory element. In my past experience as an occupational therapist, I found that the most successful activities were mindful eating, movement (yoga, stretching, etc), or outdoor activities. Adults can encourage readers to make a game out of noticing sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical feelings in the moment. These are useful tools to help us feel grounded and in the "now".
8. What have you most enjoyed in the illustrations? Do you have a favourite character or spread?
Ruth: Alex has created the most beautiful artwork for this book! I honestly love every spread. My favourite character has to be Now - Alex has given her such a characterful face - the perfect blend of kindness and strength. Its hard to pick a favourite spread but if I have to, I'll say the storm scene, where Now and the other animals are watching the stormy sky and the forks of lightning and talking about dealing with fear and how nothing lasts forever. Its stunning and so atmospheric.
Alexandra: Overall I'm really pleased with the sense of movement throughout the book. My favourite spreads are the ones with a bit more drama - the scene with the "BANG" of the thunder; the stormy walk to the barn; the blue barn scenes; the spread where the clouds finally roll away. I'm fond of limited colour palettes and rich textures, which I definitely got to incorporate in the middle section of the book! As for the characters, I can't help but love the rabbits as they were directly inspired by my darling cat, Mochi.
9. What do you do when you find something is worrying you? What are your favourite ways to find your 'Now'?
Ruth: I go outside and walk - the process of moving forward reminds me that everything is always changing and nothing lasts forever. As I walk, I try to quieten my mind, to listen to the sounds of the natural world and observe the birds, the movement of the trees, the changing sky.
I always find my Now when I'm with my little herd of horses. Winnie especially will come and stand with me and I'll rest my hand on her broad back, or my head on her neck, or sometimes we'll just stand together, experiencing that special connection and understanding that exists in the bond between animals and humans. This is the ultimate, 'At this moment, all is well' feeling for me.
Alexandra: When something is worrying me, the very first thing I try to do is find my way back to my breath. This starts with stepping away from screens and other distractors! Next, if I'm able, I try to move my body. This can look like a quick walk around my neighbourhood, a 5-minute dance break in my studio, or some simple stretching. That being said, my very favourite way to find my "Now" is to spend time in nature. There are few things that bring me "back down to Earth" better than nature-oriented activities. Hiking, birdwatching, swimming, gardening - anything outdoors that involves using my hands or body will help me feel grounded and connected.
10. Are you writing more picture books? Which picture books stood out for you in 2023?
Ruth: I am writing some new picture book stories. I'm writing another horse-led picture book about acceptance and I've also started working on a lullaby of nature.
I have a Christmas picture book coming out in October this year. I love Christmas, so this is a dream-come-true! I wanted to write about the true nature of gift-giving, and the importance of the gifts we all carry inside us (how even if we think we have nothing, we all have something special to share). My main character is a very brave and lost little donkey (another favourite animal of mine) and the book is called The Special Gift.
There are so many wonderful picture books but in 2023, I loved Mavis The Bravest and The Littlest Yak: Home is Where the Herd is - both written by Lu Fraser, who is such a wonderful picture book author, creating unforgettable characters and stories. The books are also brilliantly illustrated by Sarah Warburton (Mavis) and Kate Hindley (The Littlest Yak).
Alexandra: I'm grateful to share that I'm actively working on two picture books, both due to publish in 2025. I've also recently finished a book about mushroom foraging, which will be out in the summer of 2024. In 2023, a stand-out picture book for me was My Baba's Garden, written by Jordan Scott and illustrated by Sydney Smith. It's a rich and tender story of a grandmother and grandchild bonding over her garden. The illustrations are so warm and inviting. Both Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith inspire me to keep pushing myself as an artist.