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Just for kids


I've always loved reading. My dad ran a bookshop in Cambridge, and my big sister and I used to go there after school and sit on the floor reading books from the shelves till he had finished work and it was time to go back home.

You know how annoying it is if you're in the middle of a very exciting chapter and you're told to put the book down and go to sleep?

I'm the second of five children, and I've got three sisters and one brother. When our home got a bit crowded, my parents sold the house and bought a boat. That meant we were more crowded than ever.

The boat was called Dimcyl. I was eleven years old when we went to live on her. Once upon a time she used to be a very big rowing boat that carried the Admiral in between all the ships in his fleet. Then she was converted into a boat you could live in. But she wasn't a houseboat. She had an engine; and she also had a main mast, a mizzen mast and even a jib sail.

She was seventeen metres long and four metres wide; and she had three double cabins, one single cabin, a kitchen, a lounge and a bathroom. (And, of course, an engine room). Imagine trying to share a double cabin with one of your brothers or sisters! There was only two square metres of floor space, and it was like getting dressed in one of those cubicles at the swimming baths every morning. I slept on the bottom bunk, my sister on the top one. There was no room for toys or games. They were kept in a big shed on the land; and we didn't have a television in those days. No wonder books were so important!

Dimcyl was moored at the end of an orchard. To keep the grass down, my parents bought three fierce geese. I had to go past them every day to get to school.

I had a cat. She didn't like the geese either.

When my father had holidays from work, we untied the mooring ropes and went off up the river. We learned about ropes and knots, and every so often we had to pump the bilges. That's when you work a lever in the engine room back and forth to pump out any water that's got into the bottom of the boat. We also went out to sea. Dimcyl wasn't very good at sailing, she was better on engine power. Once we got stuck on a sandbank, and a lifeboat came and hovered nearby in case we had trouble floating off when the tide came up.

Another time we went across the Channel to Holland, through Belgium on the canals till we got to France and back out to the sea again. In Belgium Dimcyl had to be put in dry dock (that's when a boat is taken into a large container and propped up on supports as the water drains out) so that necessary repairs could be undertaken. We missed a bit of school because of that. On one of our trips I kept the ship's log. That's like a diary where you write what happened each day, and I've still got the log that I wrote. My handwriting was atrocious!

That was an adventurous childhood. My school friends thought it was fantastic living on a boat. They didn't realise how crowded it was, and that could get you down. If you put rats in a crowded space they start fighting each other, and people are no different. In the end, my parents decided to get divorced and that was the end of living on a boat.

My dad sold the bookshop and went off to live abroad, and my mother and all of us children went back to living in a house. I was thirteen when that happened, and it wasn't a very happy time. When I was sixteen, we all moved into a very large house in Oxford with my aunt and uncle and their three children. That was great for someone of sixteen: there was always someone to talk to and do things with. And I actually had a room of my own for the first time.

All around me people were talking about college and university and what you did when you left school. But I was sick of studying. I went to work in a Children's Home instead, where there were children who had lived very troubled lives. They had parents who were sick or dead; or had ill-treated or abandoned them. You can easily imagine how unhappy those children were! Some of them were quietly unhappy; they did as they were told and there was no joy in them. Others were unhappy in an argumentative, fighting way.

First I worked in the nursery where there were babies, toddlers, and small children. After a month or two, I went to work with the older children at the other end of the building. They were between the ages of five and sixteen, and they lived in 'family' groups of ten. Each group had two 'aunties', and I was Auntie Nicki. I didn't like being called Auntie by kids who were not much younger than I was.

Working in the Children's Home made me think about how unlucky some kids were. I wanted to be able to help in some way, and I decided to go and train as a social worker. So I went to university!

No sooner had I qualified as a social worker than I got married and started a family. When my children were old enough, I worked as a social worker at a school for troubled children. They were children who were too unhappy to cope with ordinary schools. Some were like ghosts they were so sad; others hit out and threw things when they were in a rage.

After that I worked as a teacher; working with people who wanted to be social workers. Then I left full time work and started to write stories. At the same time I did some interpreting for asylum seekers and refugees, and that's where I came across a different kind of sadness. They were people who had run away from terrible things in their own countries and were trying to survive in a new and different one. I decided to write stories about asylum seekers to show how brave they are.

This is where I like to write.

If you use a laptop, remember to put a hard board underneath it so that it doesn't get overheated. And always use a memory stick. I hadn't backed up my work, and I had to do it all over again.

I am still leading an adventurous life.

Nicki Cornwell in Cornwall 2011

That was great fun, apart from putting on a wet suit and taking it off again when your fingers are bone cold.

And recently I went to India where I rode on an elephant.

I hope you'll enjoy my stories!

Nicki Cornwell