Sea tales making waves..

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THEY weren't quite the readership that Julie Hegarty had in mind when she sat down to write a children's book with quirky sea creatures for characters and an anti-bullying message as its theme.

Yet thousands of miles away from Edinburgh under the scorching African sun, slum children from one of Nairobi's poorest areas sat hunched over her brilliantly colourful books.

A hundred miles north of the Kenyan capital sat another group of fascinated youngsters. Orphans with lives blighted by the scourge of HIV and Aids who had never before seen the sea, never mind a crab or a seashell – two of Julie's key characters – had seized her books and were gleefully taking inspiration from her characters to draw their own pictures and write their own stories.

Mum-of-two Julie gazed at the photographs of the children, their enthralled faces and the books she was so familiar with lying open on the desks in front of them, and couldn't help but feel humbled.

"These children have very little; some of them don't even have parents," she says quietly. "I looked at the photographs of them and thought 'oh my God' because it was so beautiful.

"They have never seen the sea, these children, but there they were poring over the books which are all about sea creatures and they wouldn't know what the things in the pictures were.

"It was really such a very humbling thing for me."

Julie had been asked if she wanted to donate some copies of her popular anti-bullying book Crabbit Comes to Stay, the first book she'd ever written featuring a little shell called Michelle. The brightly illustrated picture book about the underwater lives of a group of friends – the first of a series – carried a poignant anti-bullying message for its young readers.

"I was approached by Alison Scott on behalf of the Sumerian Foundation and happily gave her 50 books to take to Africa," recalls Julie. "Half were going to one primary school and the other half to an orphanage.

"When she wrote and told me how much the children enjoyed them, it was an incredible feeling."

Alison told Julie that the books were seized upon by children who pored over the pictures and story.

"She said that it was amazing to hear them talk about my characters, Michelle and Mr Crabbit, like it was second nature and that a week after she left the children were still drawing pictures of them."

Alison told her the African youngsters had never seen

'It's incredible my book has gone so far'

books like that before. It was particularly amusing, she added, to see them copying the pictures, drawing images from the book such as suitcases with "Leith" written on the side.

The books had been sent to Ayany Primary School in Kibera, Africa's largest slum, and to an orphanage in the countryside 100 miles from Nairobi via the Sumerian Foundation – an Edinburgh-based help organisation made up of five businesses with the aim of providing aid and support in Kenya.

But that's not the only place where Julie's underwater characters have ventured. "Earlier this year, I had a request for 39 books to go to Canada. And I know it has gone as far as Australia, too.

"It's incredible to think that the book I wrote here has gone so far," she laughs.

Now she's hoping her latest book – dreamed up while she spent six months on family business in Mallorca during winter – might also pick up the travel bug.

Launched on Monday during her Book Festival appearance, Julie's latest children's effort introduces youngsters to the concept of time courtesy of two quirky characters – one who lives forwards, the other backwards.

"I've got Henry, my youngest son, to thank for them," she grins. "He's seven and, like most that age, he has absolutely no concept of time.

"He knows he goes to school in the morning and has lunch and then comes home, but if I ask him what time they have their morning break, he has no idea. And frankly neither does my ten-year-old.

"So I'm hoping this book will help explain a little bit of that."

The book, called Uncle & Aunty Clockwise, was written and illustrated by Julie on the Spanish island. "I used to go to my favourite place on the island – Deia – and sit in the winter sun. It was bliss," she adds.

"I finished it whilst on holiday there this summer. I must have had additional inspiration because it turned out we were staying in Lynne Franks' villa. She's the person who is said to have been the inspiration for Absolutely Fabulous and the villa was a regular haunt for her friends like Sting and Seal.

"Maybe their creative energy rubbed off on me."

Julie, 41, arrived in Edinburgh six years ago after a successful career in London where she worked with some of Britain's top music stars, including George Michael, managing property portfolios. Along with husband Tim, a successful musician and songwriter, she settled in to family life with their three young sons, Hugh, William and Henry, at their home in The Grange.

She had always nurtured a dream to write. However, it wasn't until she visited the Book Festival and heard children's authors speak passionately about their craft that she finally decided to take the plunge.

A chance meeting with illustrator Ritchie Collins at a Morningside art shop sealed the production of the first of her Michelle rock pool books – inspired by her own childhood experiences of bullying.

Since then Julie has travelled to schools around the country, taking her characters' anti-bullying message into classrooms with her own mini puppet show.

She has also become involved with Beatbullying, a charity dedicated to helping children through the misery of being bullied.

Every 1 from the sale of her first book has gone to the charity's coffers.

But it's the thought that her books are now helping children thousands of miles away in some of the poorest and and most Aids-stricken parts of Africa that has touched Julie in a way she never imagined.

"I can't tell you how humbling it is to see these children read my books," she says.

"The thought that they may die from their illness before they have their own children just breaks my heart. I am delighted that the children gained so much from the book."

Julie Hegarty's new book, Uncle & Aunty Clockwise, is being launched at the Book Festival on Monday at 10.30am. For more details, visit www.juliehegarty.com