The New Dinosaurs

Recently, I got around to reading an article in the Winter 2017 SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Bulletin—a quarterly publication. It had been in my bathroom for, oh, at least seven months. The title of the article—“Signing Books in Cursive?”—has a subtitle, “Children Might Not Be Able to Read It.” In the article, an author mentioned how she stopped signing books in cursive after her daughter and other teens warned her that kids wouldn’t be able to read her writing. The article went on to discuss how many teachers have stopped teaching cursive writing.

As I read the article, I was a little dismayed. I wondered how children who aren’t taught to read cursive writing would ever sign a check. And then it dawned on me: many people don’t use checks. They pay online with a credit card. Maybe by the time these kids grow up, they won’t even order checks.

I still use a check to pay rent and some bills like car insurance. And I sign the back of a check when I deposit it at the bank. (Beats chiseling rocks like we did back in the Stone Age.) And—something else that’s new—I don’t have to physically go to the bank to deposit checks. I can deposit them through my phone. (Though I choose not to do that. I’m still old school in some ways.)

It’s interesting to note what is now considered a relic of the past like the dinosaurs. I never imagined that cursive writing would be considered a thing of the past.

Contracts have changed also. Twelve years ago, I received a book contract in the mail—ten pages of legalese on 8½ × 14-inch paper with spaces for me to sign in cursive. Last year, I received a contract attached to an email that required a code to open. I “signed” it on the document (printed my name, really).

How times have changed.

What are some things you’ve been made aware of recently that are considered to be relics of the past? How do you feel about that?

Cursive writing image from handwriting8.blogspot.ca. Photos by L. Marie.

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Life Off Camera

Happy Eclipse Day—the first total solar eclipse in 38 years that we’ll be able to see here in the States! Some friends traveled to Carbondale, Illinois for this occasion since that’s the place where it can be viewed the longest.

Try as I may, I’m not always able to capture, via my phone’s camera, all of life’s amazing moments. Like the time aliens took over New York, but were stopped by the Avengers (thus freeing us to all have shawarma at the end). Or the time when the evil peace-keeping robot (what an irony) threatened to destroy the world, and the Avengers had to help out again.

Okay, those events happened on the big screen, instead of in real life.

But I can’t help thinking of last week when I witnessed a territorial fight between two male hummingbirds. I immediately thought of Jill Weatherholt, a blogger/author you undoubtedly know. Lest you get the wrong idea, I didn’t think of her because of the fight. Jill has shown me photos of the hummingbirds around her house.

I was seated near the balcony at the home of some friends after their hummingbird feeder had been refilled and placed on the balcony. The usual ruby-throated hummingbird soon landed on the feeder. Let’s call him HB-1. I mentioned “usual,” because one of my friends told me this hummingbird usually came to the feeder. But this day, a rival came too—HB-2.

Oh no, he didn’t!

Oh, yes he did!

Pretty soon, tiny wings beat the air even faster, while long beaks jabbed. After a bob and weave, HB-1 got the better of HB-2 and forced his rival to fly away. Sadly, my phone was nowhere near me at the time, so I did not get pictures.

Nor was I able to capture something that happened at a birthday party I went to recently. The birthday child was a little girl who turned one. Over forty kids were present. One of the games they played was one involving a box wrapped with about fifty layers of wrapping paper. The kids sat in a circle and passed the box around, each unwrapping one layer, hoping to be the one who reached the last layer. That kid would have the privilege of claiming what was inside the box.

The kids gave that box the care and attention a neurosurgeon would give a patient. Every time the kids thought they’d reached the end of the wrapping paper, still more layers would appear. Without knowing what was in the box, they were fully invested in solving the mystery of what was inside. I was the one tasked with picking up the discarded wrapping paper, so I didn’t have a free hand to snap a photo. But I loved the fact that the kids were riveted by a wrapped box, rather than some expensive video game. (Lest you think I dislike video games, let me admit to you now that I play them. Just sayin’.)

Neither of these moments has the awe-factor of a solar eclipse, I know. But life has these little moments of mystery and wonder—moments too quick or too powerful to capture on film. Like the time a two-year-old hugged me around my knees. Like the laughs I shared with friends last week. I’m glad I was fully present, enjoying those moments, instead of fumbling for my camera.

But I was able to capture this butterfly not too long ago. He sat still, allowing me time to photograph him (though I wish I’d managed a closeup).

What moments have you enjoyed recently that took your breath away, but that you weren’t able to record on your camera?

Solar eclipse image from Wikipedia. Avengers poster from nzgirl.co.nz. Hummingbird from free-background-wallpaper.blogspot.com. Wrapping paper from zazzle.co.uk. Monarch butterfly photo by L. Marie.

Still Beckoning the Lovely

My continuing quest to beckon the lovely took me to the gym of a church this past Saturday, where I helped organize the games for a five-year-old’s birthday party. (If you have no idea what beckoning the lovely means, click here for the post that provides more information.) Picture twenty-one shrieking kids eight years old and under (most around four years old or five years old), racing at top speed across a gym—sometimes colliding with each other—and you’ll know what my day was like.

    

   

Sorry. I’m just showing photos of decorations. No one gave me permission to show his or her kids on this blog.

I know what you’re thinking. You and I are close like that. You’re thinking, How is being in a room with twenty-one children lovely?

Well, I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I can’t have biological children. But I appreciate the miracle that is a child.

That doesn’t mean I have a Pollyanna view of children. I know kids can be cruel to each other. After all, I was not a nice child. I remember how a friend of mine and I made up a mean song about a girl named Jennifer, whom we didn’t like for some reason. We sang it with gusto in her presence. See? Not a nice kid.

Plus, I’ve been around kids all of my life in some capacity or another. I’m related to some, I’ve taught others, babysat them, scolded them, and planned parties for them. Their sense of wonder and their skill at getting on your last nerve are what inspire me to write books for and about them.

So, helping out at that party, as tiring as it was, is what I would describe as lovely. Seeing how much fun the kids had, as well as the dads who courageously allowed groups of small children not necessarily their own to dress them as jellyfish, reminds me of the creative ways adults can be present in the lives of children.

Speaking of present, that’s my cue to segue to the winner of Second Chance Romance, a novel written by your friend and mine, Jill Weatherholt. Jill is giving away a signed copy as a present to a commenter. (See what I did there with present? . . . Okay, I’ll stop.)

  

The winner is . . .

Is

Is

Is

Laura Bruno Lilly!

Laura, please comment below to confirm. I will then pass along your email address to Jill. Thank you to all who commented!

Where the (Super)Girls Are

Happy Labor Day! Here in the U.S., we have the day off. Sounds ironic, huh? For more information on the holiday, click here.

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The other day, I listened to a TED Talk by a media studies scholar: Dr. Christopher Bell. Though the talk was given in 2015, it caught my attention, because I’ve discussed on the blog before an aspect of what Bell talked about. Click below for that video. Warning! It’s about fifteen minutes long.

After talking about his athletic young daughter who likes to dress up as her favorite characters, Bell said

Why is it that when my daughter dresses up . . . why is every character she dresses up as a boy? . . . [W]here is all the female superhero stuff? Where are the costumes? Where are the toys?

It’s not that Bell wanted to diss male heroes. On the contrary, his daughter had several favorites among the male heroes. Bell went on a hunt for female superhero costumes and toys, because his daughter also loved characters like Princess Leia, Black Widow from the Avengers, and Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy. But after searching the stores for costumes, he came up empty. He also discovered that these characters were missing in the toy aisles as well.

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I know what you’re thinking: there are plenty of female heroes. You can also find female villains who do heroic things. After Bell’s talk, Wonder Woman appeared in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and will have her own movie next year. Harley Quinn and Katana were in Suicide Squad. Supergirl has a show, now on the CW. Jessica Jones has a show on Netflix. There also is an animated show for kids that has become a favorite of mine—Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir, which features a Parisian teen named Marinette Dupain-Cheng, who turns into a superhero called Ladybug. She works with a crime fighting partner—a dude named Cat Noir—to foil the nefarious plans of Hawk Moth, a supervillain.

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And Raven (below right) and Starfire (below left) are on Teen Titans Go.

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But, as Bell pointed out, if you look at the lineup of superhero movies in the upcoming years, only two females—Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel—will have a starring role. (If you have heard of others, please comment below.) Kinda sad, but some progress at least. And Gamora and Black Widow will costar in some movies.

As for costumes, after Bell’s talk was given, Star Wars: The Force Awakens debuted and provided inspiration for costumes. Like Rey. A little girl I know plans to dress as Rey for Halloween. Online, I saw a Princess Leia costume—the iconic white dress with the bun hairdo—at Target, which also has an adorable Captain Phasma costume. (The one below is from Halloween Costumes.com.) Since Felicity Jones will star in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, perhaps her character will be popular enough to have a costume in stores.

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Also, Mattel developed a line of DC female superhero dolls (see below)—a fact also mentioned by Bell, who cautioned against only marketing these to girls. Boys too could benefit from learning about female heroes. As Bell mentioned,

It’s important that boys play with and as female superheroes just as my daughter plays with and as male superheroes.

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Interestingly, though an actress played Captain Phasma in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the costume shown above is marketed for kids, rather than girls only.

Bell’s point is not without its supporters and detractors. I mentioned in a previous post how a little boy I know was criticized for liking the color purple, because, he was told, it was a “girl” color. In his talk, Bell brought up the tragic results after a boy who loved the My Little Pony show was ridiculed for loving it.

Some people are of the mindset that it’s okay for a girl to want to emulate a male hero, but not okay for a boy to emulate a female hero. Note that I said some people, rather than all, so please don’t yell at me if this is not your viewpoint. I think it’s sad that we live in a world where a kid is bullied for any reason.

So to wrap up, I found Bell’s talk interesting. I’m working to produce the kinds of stories that a kid—male or female—will want to read, and characters with whom they can identify. Other authors are too. But I hope we get to the point where no one has to ask where the female superheroes are.

What would you say to a kid who greatly admires a show heavily marketed to the opposite gender?

Labor Day image from wallpaperspoints.com. Ladybug and Cat Noir images from fanpop.com and sidereel.com. Teen Titans Go image from the Teen Titans Go wiki. Rey costume from costumeexpress.com. DC superheroes from TechTimes.

Fireflies

Happy Independence Day to those who celebrate it.

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Is there an image that is the quintessential summer image for you? On a night like velvet not long ago with a soft breeze and the moon like a pearl in ink, I rejoiced at the tiny pinpricks of light flickering by the flowers yards away. Fireflies. They fluttered too fast to document on film (especially with my phone buried in my purse). But fireflies always signified summer to me.

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Last summer, I saw very few fireflies. Maybe even two. This year, I saw three on one night. I welcome the return of these tiny treasures.

When I was a kid, my brothers and I chased fireflies (or lightning bugs, as we called them), seeking their capture in rinsed jelly jars with holes drilled in the lids. But mostly, we sought to capture the magic of a summer’s night and hold it forever. Sadly, we weren’t gentle in our handling of these tiny creatures. Not with our tendency to poke and push.

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Isn’t it funny how we try to hold on to things, as if we could freeze time in a jar?

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But I realized, watching the fireflies’ bioluminescence light the night, that something had been captured for me: a little bit of the magic of childhood in the graceful flight of a firefly.

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The flowers in the yard are lovely this time of year. Hope to see some fireflies tonight!

Firefly photos from nativeplantwildlifegarden.com and Pinterest.com. Fourth of July image from healthline.com. Clock jar from sbcanning.com. Flower photos by L. Marie.

Cute Collectibles: Making a Heart Connection

Are you the kind of person who goes wild over collectible figures? About four years ago, I used to buy Squinkies for my second and third grade students as rewards. They loved Squinkies! What are Squinkies? Tiny collectible figures by Blip Toys based on themes (like the ocean; aliens and space; animals). But one day the stores stopped selling them. My students used to ask about Squinkies, but I had no idea why they disappeared. Was that the end of their story? Read on.

In the last couple of years Shopkins have racked up mega sales in the toy section. What are Shopkins? Tiny collectible figures by Moose Toys. I’ve shown a photo of some of them on this blog before. There are hundreds to collect, in categories like common, rare, ultra rare, and limited edition (quite difficult to find).

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Shopkins

So is it any wonder that this year, Squinkies are back with a reboot and categories very similar to the Shopkins categories? Success breeds competition in the battle for the attention of children (and the shrinking wallets of their parents)! I don’t own any of the new Squinkies, but you can click here to find out more information if you’re curious.

If you’re a parent/grandparent/aunt/uncle, maybe you’re cringing right now, as you imagine your child/grandchild/niece/nephew demanding toys like this. Or perhaps you remember a painful moment when you accidentally stepped on something like this—tiny but made of hard plastic—in the middle of the night. If so, you might wish to skip to the end, where I talk about writing. (There. There. It will be okay.)

Squinkies and Shopkins aren’t the only small collectible figures in town. There are also Num Noms by MGA.

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Each of these (with the exception of the pink motorized one under the brown choco swirl on the right) is a little over an inch tall.

I’m not exactly sure what they are, besides small collectible figures. They’re scented though. One smells like chocolate cherry, while others smells like caramel and strawberry.

And then there are the erasers by Iwako. A friend sent a bunch to me from Amazon.com. These are just a few:

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These also are a little over an inch tall.

And there is the queen of small collectible figures: Hello Kitty by Sanrio.

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She’s about a quarter of an inch taller than the Iwako erasers.

And then there are these: My Mini MixieQ’s by Mattel, which debuted this year at the Toy Fair in New York. So far, the only comment I’ve heard about them is a consistent one: “Awwwww. They’re so cuuuuuuute.”

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These figures are about three-quarters of an inch tall.

And there are dozens more. But I know what you’re thinking: These seem awfully girl-centric (though I know some boys who like Shopkins and some girls who hate this sort of thing). What about stuff for boys? Well, there are Star Wars Micro Machines and tons of other Star Wars figures (Hasbro), Five Nights at Freddy’s figures (Funko), Hot Wheels (Mattel), DC and Marvel action figures (Mattel and Hasbro respectively), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Playmates Toys), Minecraft (Mattel), and dozens of other collectible figures. (Girls like these too.)

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So what does this have to do with writing? Well, I’ll tell you my reason for paying attention to toy trends (besides liking them). Toy manufacturers know what appeals to the soul of a kid; for example, the desire to nurture or to be on an adventure. I once held up one of the Shopkins while talking to someone and soon had several people (kids and adults) crowded around me with sparkling eyes. This is the kind of rapt attention you want if you’re writing for kids, teens, or adults—the kind of attention that means you’ve made a heart connection.

Granted, translating this connection to the printed page is a challenge. Yet authors like J. K. Rowling and Rick Riordan have met the challenge. (So it is possible.) But they connected to what was in their own hearts first, instead of attempting to guess what might appeal to a kid. For example, Riordan loved his son and wanted to write about a kid with dyslexia and ADHD like his son. He was also a fan of Greek and Roman mythology, having taught these stories to middle schoolers for years. Thus, Percy Jackson and other series were born. Rowling’s mom died. Writing Harry Potter was her way of dealing with her own grief. She also loved The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, which combines fantasy and reality as does the Harry Potter series.

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What do you love? How does that translate to what you’re writing now?

Book covers from Goodreads. Minecraft toy from minecrafttoy.com. Star Wars Micro Machine blind bags from action figuren24.de.

Check This Out: The Lost Celt

Happy Memorial Day! I’m back on the blog finally! And I’m not alone—I’m with the awesome A. E. (Amanda) Conran, author of the middle grade novel, The Lost Celt, which was published by Gosling Press/Goosebottom Books this past March. This book is very appropriate for a holiday like this. I’ll tell you about the giveaway for it at the end of the interview.

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El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Amanda: I’m originally from Leicestershire, England. It’s a county suddenly in the news, as you’ll know if you’re a historian or a soccer fan. (Richard III and Leicester City!)

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I moved to the Bay Area when my first child was six-weeks old. My husband had been offered a job at Industrial Light and Magic working on the new Star Wars films. It was his childhood ambition to work for Lucas. We only came for two years, but that’s what everyone says when they move here.

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I have a scar on my nose from being hit by a field hockey ball. I needed 12 stitches.

I’ve done a catch on the flying trapeze.

El Space: Wow! How did you come to write a middle grade novel about two boys—Mikey and Kyler—who think they have found a Celtic warrior in the twenty-first century?
Amanda: The Lost Celt is about how people return from war, how their return affects their families, and how we deal with this in society as a whole. It was inspired by a conversation with two emergency room doctors at a local VA Medical Center. They told me there were always more admissions in the ER on “certain nights,” when war stories or natural disasters were in the news. One friend remembered a man with red hair and beard, acting very much as I describe my Celt. My friend, who was truly worried for his patient, could not help but think he was witnessing a warrior, a Viking, in the ER. That idea, of the continuity of the potential effects of war through history, stayed with me.

There are many other factors at play in the inspiration for this story. I was fascinated by ancient history as a child. I painted tiny Roman and Celtic soldiers and visited historic sites across the UK, including walking Hadrian’s Wall. I read a lot of historical fiction, especially the works of Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece, as well as Greek classics like Homer. Most of these were stories about living through, and returning from, war.

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Add to this the fact that I grew up in a small English village where there were still veterans of the First World War and the Second World War. We even had a German ex-POW still living in our village working on the farms just as he’d done when he was a prisoner. Their stories surrounded us. One great uncle survived the trenches in the First World War only to die as he returned home. He was so eager to see his family that he jumped out of the train before it stopped at the station. He was trapped between the train and the platform and died two weeks later of his injuries. My Grandma’s favorite uncle joined up for the First World War at age sixteen. He was recommended for a medal for commandeering a tank, but refused to accept it. He said he acted only out of anger, not bravery, because his friends had been killed around him.

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It’s strange, but the fact that my generation was brought up by people intimate with the effects of war did not fully strike me, however, until I came to live in America. One particular incident really hit home. My mum was visiting and we went for a meal with a group of friends my age. When we left the restaurant, my mother burst into tears. “They ordered so much food,” she said, “and they didn’t even eat it. There was more food on that table than we had for our entire family for a week during the war . . . and they didn’t even eat it.”

There was definitely a disconnect between my mother’s experience, my own upbringing, and that of my friends. I think it was this that led me to make one of my main characters a veteran of a recent war. I hadn’t planned to, but as I listened to the news, I became aware how deeply the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were affecting a relatively small portion of our society. Unlike the experience of previous world wars in Europe, it struck me how large a gap there was between those who were serving and their families and those of us who were not. That did not feel right. I wanted to write a book that addressed that gap a little. Stories were not being shared, as the stories of earlier wars were shared when I was a child, or even the stories that the ancients told. I sometimes wonder whether the ancients were more willing to tell it, and accept it, how it is. Their understanding of a hero was more complex and maybe more helpful than ours today. As Grandpa says, they were all closer to war than we are.

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El Space: Mikey and Kyler play the type of videogame that a lot of my friends love to play—military strategy. Are you and/or your kids gamers? Did you have the game in mind when you first developed the book? Why or why not?
Amanda: Yes, my son really enjoys playing military strategy games, particularly Rome Total War. It was a subject of some debate/ambivalence in our household, which I reflected in Mikey’s mom’s attitudes in The Lost Celt.

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In earlier drafts Mikey played with toy soldiers. The video game only came into the story when my editor asked me to make Mikey absolutely sure he was seeing a real live Celt from the word go. Immersing Mikey in a video game world that pitched Romans against Celts was the obvious choice. I could move his focus directly from the screen to the world in front of him in the VA and make the connection very easily.

El Space: You deal with a subject I haven’t seen much in middle grade books—PTSD. Without giving spoilers, why is that important to you and/or for young readers to learn about?
Amanda: I was brought up by children of war whose parents experienced and fought in both the Second and First World Wars. I think we are only just acknowledging their experiences, how they dealt with them and how some trauma/issues may have been passed on. At the time, everyone was in the same boat and they just got on with it.

According to the VA, 7–8% of the general population will experience PTSD at some point in their life. Depending on the conflict, 11–30% of service members will experience PTSD at some point. It’s really important to recognize that most service members don’t return from war with PTSD, but it’s also important to recognize that your mental health is important and there’s nothing wrong with seeking help. I don’t want to think of children or adults dealing with the after effects of trauma on their own. I think that is the key: being in a community, not alone.

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El Space: If you could go back in time to witness any event in history, which would you choose?
Amanda: I’d like to see my village before and after the Roman invasion. There’s a Roman villa on the hill above my village and, although it’s hidden underground, artifacts come up to the surface after every ploughing. I’d love to know who lived there.

El Space: What kinds of stories delight you?
Amanda: The Owl Service by Alan Garner, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, or The Butterfly Lion by Michael Morpurgo epitomize the sort of story I adore: books that resonate with a sense of place and the strength of our connection with the past, both real and mythical/magical. All the books I read as a child were like that: When Marnie was There by Joan G. Robinson, Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, Elidor and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner and the historical fiction of Rosemary Sutcliffe, Henry Treece, and Roger Lancelyn Green.

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El Space: What are you working on next?
Amanda: I’m working on two projects. The first is a middle grade based in France in World War One. The second is a historical middle grade based in a town much like San Rafael in the 1870s.

Thanks, Amanda, for being my guest!

You can find Amanda at her website, Twitter, and Facebook.

The Lost Celt is available at these fine establishments:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Goosebottom Books
Indiebound

But two of you will get a copy of your very own. Just comment below to be entered in the drawing! Winners to be announced on June 6.

Book covers from Goodreads. Star Wars logo from hr.wikipedia.org. Rome Total War image from gamehackstudios.com. PTSD image from talesfromthelou.wordpress.com. Iraq/Afghanistan Memorial from old.mcallen.net. First World War Memorial from oxfordhistory.org.uk. Hadrian’s wall from medievalhistories.com. Leicester City Football Club logo from ebay.co.uk. Richard III from abc.net.au.