Last week, the children’s book world lost one if its loveliest stars, the Scottish writer, Cathy MacPhail. I knew Cathy when I lived in Scotland and her smile was one of those you don’t forget. I’m by no means the only author who experienced being shortlisted with her for something and her signing queue being immense and slow, but her smile being so winning that you knew that was just the way the world was and all the better for it. You couldn’t keep up with Cathy – I won the Scottish Children’s Book Award once but she won it three times.
I wrote a short tribute on Facebook, which I’ll put below. But then I want to make a point which I think might help you. And a question. And a suggestion.
Cathy was one of the most kind, funny, bubbly, generous people I’ve ever known, as well as being a talented storyteller who worked very hard at her craft to make it look easy. She was a consummate plotter (in the writing sense) and many thousands of kids became keen readers through her fast-paced and perfectly pitched books. I’m pretty sure a lot of them will have become writers, too.One of my memories was of doing a joint event of some sort with her many, many years ago. I don’t remember exactly what it was but I think it was an event for aspiring writers and Cathy would have been the main attraction. When the host gave me a truly rubbish introduction that left me feeling like a very small and useless thing, Cathy instinctively knew, even though I obviously smiled as graciously as I possibly could, which is quite graciously because I’ve had practice, but instead of sitting there and commiserating afterwards she intervened and told the audience that I’d just won an award and showed them that I wasn’t quite as small and useless a thing as the host had implied. She didn’t need to do that but with a few words of generosity and empathy she dramatically changed how I felt. I saw her do that to the kids she met in events, too, as well as other authors. She didn’t mind if you were well-known or unknown, young or old, confident or shy – you were there with her and she cared how you were feeling.
Cathy had been ill for a long time. I’m so sorry she’s gone but glad she’s at peace. She will not be forgotten but she is very much missed with her sparkly eyes and always friendly face.
The bit I want to highlight:
Here’s the point:
And the suggestion(s)
- Smile at someone
- Just say hi – show them they exist and that you’re happy they do
- Ask how they are
- Listen when they say something’s wrong – you don’t have to have an answer – “I’m sorry” is often enough
- Spend a few moments thinking how they might be feeling and, if necessary, step in with helpful words. What would you like to hear if you felt like that?
- Offer to help before you’re asked
- Notice when a friend isn’t seeming happy – ask if there’s anything you can do or if they want to talk
- If you liked a person’s story/artwork/dance/whatever, say so
- Share someone else’s good news if they’re too modest (as long as it’s not a secret!)
- Speak up in support when you see someone needs it
- Is there someone who has been unusually quiet or invisible? Send them a message to ask if they’re ok
- Have you heard that someone has had bad news or a worrying situation? Don’t be afraid to tell them you hope they’re OK. You don’t have to ask questions – they will talk if they want to – but just let them know you’re there.
- Be generous with your praise – praise is the most powerful tool. You know how you feel when someone praises you, right? Especially when it’s not your parents or teacher (though that’s good, too!)
I think my main advice is: if in doubt about whether to say something nice or say nothing, ALWAYS say something nice. You can do so much good. You can change someone’s world in that moment. You can dramatically reduce their stress levels. That’s power!
Cathy MacPhail had that power. I wish we could all be more Cathy..
Be at peace, Cathy. Your books and actions live on.