• Picture Book Snob

BLOG TOUR: Finn's Garden Friends by Rachel Lawston and Lia Visirin, Pikku Publishing

We're thrilled to start the blog tour for Finn's Garden Friends by Rachel Lawston and Lia Visirin, which will be released on 28th April by Pikku Publishing. Read a review and an interview with author and book designer, Rachel Lawston. Learn about Rachel's influences and inspiration, and discover how her experience as a volunteer with a literacy charity shaped the way she writes and designs children's books...

Published on 28th April 2021

What's it about?

When Finn and his mother move to the city to live with Grandpa Sid, Finn misses their old house and the countryside they left behind. Grandpa Sid's flat has no garden, and when Finn looks outside, all he can see is concrete and pavement. After he spends time at his grandfather's allotment, and makes some animal friends, Finn begins to feel at home.


What can we learn?

Moving to a new neighbourhood can be difficult, but connecting with nature can help us find a sense of belonging. Through Finn's interactions with the wildlife at the allotment, we see that every creature has its place in the world and is entitled to be here too. I also learned that hedgehogs chirp and squeak, as well as snuffle!


What makes it stand out?

Finn's Garden Friends is a gentle, uplifting story, bursting with life and the splendour of nature. Beautifully written, its soothing tone makes it ideal bedtime reading material, and the illustrations are fabulous.

Finn's Garden Friends by Rachel Lawston and Lia Visirin, Pikku Publishing

About those illustrations...

Lia Visirin's artwork is amazing! I love how her illustrations make the everyday seem magical and create a sense of awe and wonder at the world around us. Extremely intricate and detailed, with an attractive, colourful palette, the images radiate warmth, affection and harmony.


There's so much life on every page; we see tiny fungi and insects in the foreground and flocks of birds in the distance. Frogs leap over long grass, while mice crawl through it. Slugs and snails investigate potential meals and languish on lettuces. Beetles wander across leaves, and owls and bats find shelter in trees. Ladybirds, butterflies, dragonflies, moths and bees hover near flowers and plants, with swifts and other birds hu7swooping and soaring above them.

Finn's Garden Friends by Rachel Lawston and Lia Visirin, Pikku Publishing

I love the neat rows of vegetables at the allotment and Grandpa Sid's tidy shed. Lia Visirin's illustrations are so evocative - its possible to imagine how soft the soil feels and smell its earthy scent. Finn's hedgehog looks so cute and happy, especially when in his feeding station. I love how the curious fox peeps out of the long grass on the cover.


Even in Grandpa Sid's city centre flat, there are still signs of life. Grandpa has an impressive collection of plants which includes a venus flytrap. Pigeons rest outside his window and if you look closely, you can see foxes poking through a rubbish bin and a badger creeping across a lawn. This emphasises even further how we don't need to go into the wilderness to be close to nature.

Finn's Garden Friends by Rachel Lawston and Lia Visirin, Pikku Publishing

Why we love it...

Finn's Garden Friends celebrates not just the world we live in, but the comfort that can be derived from connecting with nature and animals. I love how it concludes with birds tweeting, giving nature the last word.


Finn is an endearing character and I love how compassionate he is. It's adorable how he tells the bus driver and everyone at school about his "prickly new friend," just like a real child would. It's very sweet to see him so concerned about the fox too.


I love the grandparent and grandchild relationship explored in this story, and how significant Grandpa Sid and his allotment are to Finn. It's clear that the events of this book are formative experiences for Finn and that Sid's kindness helps cultivate this quality in Finn.

Finn's Garden Friends by Rachel Lawston and Lia Visirin, Pikku Publishing

At the end, there is a list of flora and fauna which can be found within the book. This includes different species of birds and tiny insects, and the reader is encouraged to search for them all on Grandpa Sid's allotment. We have been using this to see what we can spot in our own garden.


There are two pages of facts about hedgehogs and foxes, with information on how to care for them, which is both fascinating and practical. It's also fantastic how diverse and inclusive this story is. We see lots of different ethnicities and children in wheelchairs are represented too.

Finn's Garden Friends by Rachel Lawston and Lia Visirin, Pikku Publishing

Why you need it...

Finn's Garden Friends promotes kindness and empathy, and is an excellent story for encouraging children to take an interest in the environment. The interactive elements make it ideal for helping less enthusiastic readers to become more excited about books. It's a brilliant classroom resource and a wonderful addition to every home library too.


About the author:

Rachel Lawston is a children’s author, book designer and natural history enthusiast. She is a keen amateur orchid hunter, birdwatcher and bat detector! Growing up in the countryside gave Rachel a deep connection to the world around her, which she is passionate about sharing. In her free time, Rachel loves helping children to discover nature in her role as an education volunteer at WWT London Wetland Centre in Barnes. Finn's Garden Friends is Rachel's first book and you can read our interview with Rachel about its journey below.


About the illustrator:

Lia Visirin was born in a small town in beautiful Transylvania, surrounded by mountains, fortresses and castles. Her passion for drawing was there from childhood: Lia would draw on everything she could! What inspires her most is nature, old photographs, childhood memories and the little things that she observes. Lia likes using both traditional and digital media in her artwork and you can see more of Lia's work here.


We were delighted to virtually meet author Rachel Lawston recently, and chat to her about this book's journey...

Author Rachel Lawston

What inspired you to write Finn’s Garden Friends? Was it a long journey from that first kernel of an idea to first draft, and then to finished book?

Yes, it has been a very long journey, which may have begun when I moved to London!

In Hampshire, where I grew up, I was surrounded by nature, and I have always felt a connection to the natural world. When I first moved to London, I really missed that connection and green space! But when I started volunteering at WWT London Wetland Centre in 2009, it helped me realise just how much nature can be found in the city. Since then, I have become more interested in nature connection and how it impacts mental wellbeing.


The idea for the book came about during a discussion about nature connection and how many children do not realise just how much wildlife can be found on their doorstep. There is so much to discover!


Do you have an allotment and/or are you a keen gardener?

I would love to have a garden, but like Finn, I live in a flat. I do have a shared front garden, though, and my very kind neighbours allow me to place bird feeders and a birdbath to attract wildlife into our shared space. I also live right next to Bushy Park, a huge semi-natural parkland, which my husband and I call our “back garden!” I am currently on the waiting list for an allotment and hope to have my very own one soon!

Finn's Garden Friends by Rachel Lawston and Lia Visirin, Pikku Publishing
Rachel's favourite of Lia Visirin's illustrations for Finn's Garden Friends

Is this story inspired by real people and/or experiences from your own childhood? My Nanny, Irene and her friend Eric had a wonderful garden when I was small. Eric was a keen gardener and a member of the National Trust; he would often share gardening experiences and his love for the natural world love with me. I remember they had three ponds in their garden and kept koi carp in one of them. There was a local heron who was particularly fond of their fish. Eric used to call him … actually, I am not sure I can mention it here! Haha! My Step-Dad Tom and my Mum keep a wildlife garden. I would say their love of birds and hill walking has had a significant influence on me.


Did the book go through many drafts and/or evolve much as you were working on it?

Oh gosh, yes, so many drafts! But each time, it got better!


The message that every creature has its place in the world and everyone is entitled to be here is lovely and timely. Was this something you wanted to convey from the start, or did it emerge as the story developed?

Yes, the idea was there at the outset. Through connecting with nature, children can learn to empathise not only with the natural world but also with each other.

Finn's Garden Friends by Rachel Lawston and Lia Visirin, Pikku Publishing
Illustration by Lia Visirin from Finn's Garden Friends

I love how this book encourages children to take an interest in, and take care of, their environment and the creatures that inhabit it. Is conservation and the environment very important to you?

Very much so! I have been a Learning Volunteer at WWT London Wetland Centre since 2009 and have always had a real passion for sharing my interest in the natural world and conservation.


I love all the facts at the back of the book and my children enjoy these too. Did you have to do research about hedgehogs and foxes or were you drawing on existing knowledge?

My husband, Paul, is a natural history consultant and the Learning Manager at the London Wetland Centre. When I was writing the book, I researched and discovered some of the facts, so some I already knew, but others he shared.


One of my favourite parts of the book is the list of plants and creatures to spot on the allotment. It’s great how this makes the story interactive, is a fun activity which prolongs the entertainment the book provides, and adds an educational dimension. How did you get the idea for this?

When I worked as a reading volunteer for Beanstalk (many years ago now), I shared a Where’s Wally? book with a young boy who was terrified of reading and didn’t like books. He loved that book so much, as it allowed him to create his own stories and connect with the book in ways that other books hadn’t. That moment has stayed with me throughout my career and really impacted how I design and write.

Finn's Garden Friends by Rachel Lawston and Lia Visirin, Pikku Publishing
Illustration by Lia Visirin

It must be so exciting to see your words brought to life by an artist. When did you first see Finn, his family and his garden friends as Lia Visirin imagined them, and did they look similar to how you had pictured her yourself?

So exciting! I was fortunate as I was able to design my book as well as write it. Lia and I collaborated well, and our vision for the book was very similar. I first saw her interpretation of Finn, his family and garden friends back in August 2020, when she delivered the character samples. Although I was the book designer and author for the book, it was important to me that Lia felt she had freedom. So I let her lead the way on the characters.


Before you saw the illustrations, were you ever nervous about how Lia might interpret your work?

I wasn’t, actually. Because I am a book designer and collaborated closely on the book, I knew that Lia would create something extraordinary.


How did it feel to see the finished product for the first time and were you impatient to see Lia’s work?

Gosh, the feeling of seeing the finished book was the most fantastic experience! Lia fed the work through gradually, so although it wasn’t a surprise, it was a wonderful pleasure to witness it developing week-by-by.


Do you have a favourite spread from this book?

I love the penultimate spread of the story, where Finn meets the fox cubs!

Dogger by Shirley Hughes and Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr
Two of Rachel's favourite childhood books

Have you always wanted to be a writer and/or how did you become a children’s book author?

Yes, very much so. I have worked in children’s publishing as a book designer since 2007 but never had the confidence to share any of my stories until last year. When I did share this one, I really wasn’t expecting it to be published!


Could you tell us a bit about your creative process? How do you come up with ideas? Do you have a favourite place or time of day to work?

Paul and I love to go on evening/night walks looking for hedgehogs, amphibians and bats in Bushy Park. I often find that is the best time for coming up with ideas!


When you begin writing a story, do you already know exactly what happens and how it will end or is the plot more fluid and subject to change?

I like to map the story out in my head, to begin with, then share it verbally with Paul. Once I have settled on the direction, I tend to sit on it for a week or so. Then I sit in front of my computer and start tapping away!


Are you working on anything at the moment, and if so, can you tell us anything about it?

I am! I am working on another book. I cannot say too much as I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but it will have another nature theme that I am sure children will love!

Mighty Min by Melissa Castrillón, an artist Rachel admires

What’s the funniest/strangest/most unusual thing that’s happened to you during your children’s book career (apart from a pandemic)?

I am finally getting the hang of Twitter! I have met lots of lovely people, passionate about children’s books, and connected with some of my biggest heroes in the worlds of empathy and conservation.


What were your favourite books when you were younger? Are there any authors and/or illustrators from your childhood who have had a particular influence on you?

I LOVED Dogger by Shirley Hughes and Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr.


Are there any contemporary authors/illustrators who you admire and/or who have inspired you?

Gosh, so many! I am not sure I can mention them all. Mostly, as I work daily with illustrators and authors, I would hate for anyone to feel left out or unappreciated! I am going to play it safe and choose someone I don’t know personally - I love Melissa Castrillón’s work.


Do you have any advice for aspiring children’s book authors?

Write about things that you love!


Finally, I consider myself a picture book snob - is there anything you’re snobby about?

According to my husband, I am particularly funny about things being just so…


Finn's Garden Friends will be released by Pikku Publishing on Wed. 28th April 2021 - see this book on the publisher's website


A huge thank you to the lovely people in Pikku Publishing for inviting us on the tour for this gorgeous book, and for our review copy. All opinions expressed are our own.


Don't forget to visit all the other brilliant blogs and #Bookstagram pages on this blog tour: