Sunday, 23 October 2016

Making an Impossible Bookshelf

One of my hobbies is making unusual furniture. The largest piece I've made is this Dr-Seuss-inspired playroom cupboard below.

Our playroom cupboard, which has a two dens built into it, one in each of the top corners.
The left-hand den is accessed via a ladder and trapdoor behind the left-hand doors.

As you can see, one of the cupboard's less playful functions is as a bookshelf. The problem is, like most book-lovers, it didn't take long before it was full to overflowing and we needed somewhere else to put the surplus books.

The only wall-space that was free in playroom was above the arched doorway next to the cupboard. I thought about extending the cupboard over the arch, but decided I couldn't do that without the extension looking like an ugly bolt-on, so I played around with a few other ideas. 

I liked the idea of doing a bookshelf that followed the archway below it, so I googled a few photos of arches for inspiration. I've alway been impressed by the simple elegance of self-supporting stone arches like the one shown below and they provided the inspiration I was looking for.

I decided to make a bookshelf in which books fanned out like the voussoirs (the wedge-shaped stones) that make up a stone arch. Here's what I came up with.

There were a couple of problems that had to be overcome. Books are not wedge-shaped, so they will not fan out neatly into an arch like voussoirs do without some help. And I needed to find a way to stop all the books in the middle of the shelf from sliding down to the sides if someone took a book out from one of the ends.

I realised I could solve both problems but fixing angled bookends at regular intervals along the shelf. However, rather than spoil the impression that the arch was entirely made from books, I disguised the bookends to look like dummy books.

The real books are held in an arch-like fan by dummy books that are part of the shelf.

Rather than use real book and author names for the dummy books, I decided to have some fun and came up with a list of book titles with punning author names like Art is Rubbish by Phyllis Stein (Phyllis Stein - philistine - geddit!).

The dummy books all have punning author names.

Most of the dummy books would be sandwiched between real books, so I only designed the spines. However the front and back of the two on either end of the shelf, which appear to hang off at impossible angles, are visible, so I designed whole covers for these.

I designed whole cover for the two dummy books at either end of the shelf.

I even wrote some blurb for the back covers!

In case you want to have a go at making your own impossible bookshelf, here's a quick run through of how I made it.

I measured the existing arch to work out the radius I would need. Then I made a card template for the backboard of the bookcase,and stuck this to the wall with Blu-tack to check that it looked right on the wall.

I used the template to mark out a cutting outline on a piece of 12mm thick MDF board and then cut out the outline with a jigsaw. Then I drilled in 5 holes (to allow the shelf to be screwed to the wall) and routed in a series of grooves into which the other pieces of the bookshelf would be slotted: ten short straight grooves for the dummy books and one long curved groove for the shelf piece.

WARNING: If you are cutting, drilling, routing or sanding MDF,  you should wear a breath mask to avoid breathing in the sawdust.

The drilled and routed MDF backboard

The shelf-piece is made from two layers of 6mm thick flexible MDF. This is ribbed on one side to allow you to bend it. I cut a couple of pieces to the right size (I could not get a single piece long enough) and then glued these, with the smooth side upwards, into the long curved slot using PVA wood glue. 

Flexible MDF is ribbed on one side to allow it bend.

I cut some 9mm thick MDF into rectangles to make the dummy books and then glued these into the other slots and to the shelf piece. I also hammered some panel pins though the underside of the shelf-piece into the base of the dummy books to make them extra secure.

The base board with the dummy books and shelf-piece in place.

One layer of flexible MDF is not stiff enough to use on its own, so I cut a second layer and used some PVA glue, applied with a small paint roller, to sandwhich it to the bottom of the first layer. The smooth side needs to faces downwards on this second layer, so that you have a smooth face on the bottom of the shelf. The two layers need to be held firmly in place while the PVA dries and I had to use every clamp I had to do this.

A second layer of flexible MDF is glued to the underside of the first.

Once the PVA had dried, I used some wood filler to fill in the ribbing holes in the edge of the flexible MDF and sanded the whole thing down ready for painting.

I used wood filler to fill in the holes in the edge of the flexible MDF.

I painted the shelf with a water-based satinwood paint and a spray gun, but you could use an ordinary paintbrush. Once the paint had dried thoroughly, I printed the dummy covers onto card and covered them with some book film (clear sticky back plastic) before sticking them onto the dummy-book pieces on the shelf.

The dummy covers were stuck to the shelf using a strong, solvent based
glue and held in place with bulldog clips and clamps while the glue dried. 

And that's it!

… However I have an admission to make.

The bookshelf shown at the top of the page is actually the second one I made. The first one is shown below. The difference between the two is that the first one has a slightly smaller radius that is tight up to edge of the door arch. It looked great when I fixed it to the wall and I was really happy with it – until I opened one of the doors and found that I could not open it all the way because the top of the curved door was banging on the bottom of the protruding shelf. As you can imagine, I had a some colourful words to say about this discovery.

The Impossible Bookshelf Mark 1 looked great,
but stopped the door beneath it from opening fully.

I could have simply moved the shelf a few centimetres up the wall, but then it would no longer match the curve of the arch and I knew that this would grate every time I looked at it. And we could have put the shelf up in the kitchen on the other side of the archway (where the doors would open away from the shelf), but there was not enough space on the wall on that side.

So I ended up putting it above my office window, where it just fits snuggly.

My first attempt has been put to good use in my office.

And then, I started all over again and made another one, with a slightly bigger radius, so that it wouldn't catch on the top of the door.

If at first you don't succeed …

Monday, 19 September 2016

Seven Brilliant Books about BIBLIOPHILES

This post was originally published on Picture Book Den, a blog about picture books by picture book authors and illustrators.

Prince Ribbit, my latest picture book with the wonderfully talented Argentinian illustrator Poly Bernatene, has just been published in UK hardback and paperback.

Prince Ribbit’s heroine, Princess Martha finds inspiration in the Royal Library.

Although Prince Ribbit is the fourth book that Poly and I have done together, it’s really a follow up to our second, The Princess and the Pig, in that both stories are set in a fairytale world populated by characters who love books.

The characters in The Princess and the Pig use the books they’re reading to interpret (usually mistakenly) what's happening to them in the the story.

As a book-lover myself, I’ve aways enjoyed reading stories about other bibliophiles. There’s something satisfyingly meta about reading a book about a character who is reading a book. So here are seven brilliant picture books about bibliophiles.

One of my favourite novels of recent years is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas which is effectively six books nested inside each other like a set of Russian dolls. Each book jumps forward in time and one of the ingenious connections between the stories is that characters featured in the inner books are reading the outer books. Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book does something similar in picture book format. Each spread introduces a new character who is reading their favourite book, the inside of which is shown on the next spread. So the book starts with eponymous Charlie, who is reading a book about a pirate, who is reading a book of fairy tales, and so on. While Scheffler's spread layouts shift around as the reader jumps from genre to genre, Donaldson ties the whole bookshelf together with her perfectly-scanning rhyme.

The spread from Joust Joking, Sir Percy the knight’s favourite book.

Jane Blatt and Sarah Massini’s Books Always Everywhere features a diverse group of toddlers enjoying an equally diverse selection of books. Blatt’s simple but charming rhyming text combines beautifully with Massini’s cheerful, perfectly-composed illustrations to make this book an ideal gift for budding bibliophiles, especially in the board book edition. Published in 2013, this book deserves to become a pre-school classic.

The board book edition of Books Always Everywhere makes an ideal gift for budding bibliophiles

Timothy Knapman and Adam Stower’s Mungo and the Picture Book Pirates is one of three books in which young Mungo literally enters into the book he is reading to join in with the adventure. In this first outing Captain Fleet, hero of Mungo’s favourite pirate picture book, is so worn out after six back-to-back readings of his story, that he abandons his book leaving Mungo to take his place and rescue Admiral Mainbrace and cabin girl Nora from a crew of dastardly pirates. The second book in the series, Mungo and the Spiders from Space, was featured in one of my earlier PBD posts.

With the hero holidaying in another book, Mungo is obliged to take his place in the story.

In Lauren Child’s Beware of Storybook Wolves the traffic is going the other way, with characters leaving little Herb’s favourite bedtime book to join him in the real world. Published in 2000 (before many publishers developed their current anorexic obsession with diminished word counts) Child’s quirky, characterful 1,300 word text is accompanied by equally quirky and characterful illustrations in which a trio of villains (two hungry wolves and a wicked fairy) emerge to threaten poor Herb before being seen off by a fairy godmother.

When Herb’s mother leaves a book behind one night, he finds himself at the mercy of two hungry wolves.

Dog Loves Books by Louise Yates sees Dog pursuing the dream of many a bibliophile – opening their own bookshop! Sadly, the bookshop's "grand opening" is a disappointing anti-climax. However Dog is able to find solace in his stock until trade picks up. You can watch Alison Steadman reading the book here.

Dog shows his love of books by opening his own bookshop.

Ralfy Rabbit loves books so much, he ends up stealing them to feed his insatiable reading habit in WANTED! Ralfy Rabbit Book Burgular by Emily MacKenzie. But Ralfy’s book-burglaring days come to an end when young Arthur spots Ralfy making off with a favourite book.
Ralfy Rabbit’s love of books puts him on the wrong side of the law.

Henry, the title character of Oliver Jeffers’s The Incredible Book Eating Boy also has an insatiable appetite for books – only he likes to eat rather than read them. The more he eats, the smarter he gets. Eventually the strain on his digestive system proves too much and Henry finds a more conventional way to feed his love of literature.

Henry’s bibliophilia manifests itself in a rather unusual way.

I hope this post has whetted your own appetite for some bibliophilic picture books! If you have a favourite picture book about a book-lover that I haven’t mentioned, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below.

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Buy at amazon US
Buy at amazon US

Saturday, 3 September 2016


I thought I’d write a short post to mark the fact that today is the 15th Anniversary of the publication of Bringing Down the Moonthe first Mole and Friends book I created with the late Vanessa Cabban

The book tells the story of a Mole who, enchanted by his first sight of the moon, attempts to bring it down from the sky so that he can possess it. His friends keep explaining that, “It’s not as near as it looks,” but Mole will not give up. 

One of Vanessa's beautiful illustrations for the book.

Bringing Down the Moon is my most popular picture book and has been translated into 20 different languages including Frisian and Gaelic. The Dutch edition, translated by Annelies Jorna, was awarded the prestigious Kiekeboekprijs award for the best pre-school book published in the Netherlands in 2003.

llustrator Vanessa Cabban and I met for the first time when
 we went to the Netherlands to pick up the Kiekeboekprijs in 2003

The book has been adapted into a Dutch puppet show, an animated DVD, an iPhone app and a terrific stage show by the Peaceful Lion theatre company in 2012

Henry Wyrley-Birch as Mole, John Boylan as Hedgehog and Fleur Jeffery as Squirrel in Peaceful Lion's stage adaptation.
Photo: Pamela Raith

Mole proved to be such a popular character that Vanessa and I created four more Mole and Friends books before she passed away in 2014.

In the final book in the series, Mole finds a new friend, Mouse. My favourite spread in this last book is the one below, the final panel of which shows Mole showing Mouse the moon in the night sky, echoing his first sighting in Bringing Down the Moon.

Although some of the books are currently unavaialable, I’m delighted to announce that Walker Books will be publishing new editions of the whole series in 2017. The publication dates are shown below.

Bringing Down the Moon • 2 February 2017

No Place Like Home • 2 February 2017

A Secret Worth Sharing • 1 June 2017

The Best Gift of All • 1 June 2017

Diamond in the Snow • 2 November 2017

Find out more about Bringing Down the Moon on my website

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Thursday, 28 July 2016

Prince Ribbit • New Paperback & Hardback Picture Book

I have a new picture book coming out today in both hardback and paperback!

Prince Ribbit is illustrated by Poly Bernatene and published by Macmillan Children's Books. It's a comical twist on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale The Frog Prince.

When a cunning frog claims to be a bewitched prince, fairy-tale-loving princesses
Arabella and Lucinda take him into their home and treat him like royalty.
But fact-loving Princess Martha isn’t so sure;
her non-fiction books tell a different story.

Although Prince Ribbit is the fourth book that illustrator Poly Bernatene and I have created together, it’s effectively a follow-up to the second, The Princess and the Pig. While it’s not a sequel, both books are set in a fairytale world of princes and princesses and both books feature characters who are reading books of fairy tales.

In this new story a cunning frog inveigles his way into a royal household by pretending to be an enchanted prince. Romantically obsessed Princesses Lucinda and Arabella are only too happy to believe Prince Ribbit's story, but their younger sister Princess Martha is more sceptical.

Martha begins the story as an avid non-fiction reader but,
by the end, she's a fan of fiction as well.
Although fiction versus non-fiction is now a prominent theme of the story, there were no non-fiction books in the first few drafts. The only book that was referenced was Lucinda and Arabella's favourite fairy tale The Frog Prince, which provides Prince Ribbit with the inspiration for his cunning plan. In these earlier drafts, Martha succeeded in foiling Ribbit using nothing but her own reasoning and the story ended at an earlier point.

While I was fairly happy with this early version, Emily Ford, my editor at Macmillan, felt that the ending could be stronger and that the whole story was not as satisfying as the other ones I’d written for Poly to illustrate – and she was right! However it took me a while to find a way to achieve this and come up with a new draft that fitted the bill.

In the story, reading fiction helps Martha to find a solution to her problem; reading non-fiction helped me to find a solution to mine. At that time I was reading a lot of "popular science" books. It may surprise you to learn that libel laws do not apply to science and authors can misrepresent a scientist’s work with impunity. There are good reasons for this exemption, but it means that the label of “non-fiction” should not always be taken literally when it comes to scientific literature, particularly popular science books which can sometimes misrepresent evidence in order to appeal to a wider market. After digging a little deeper into the evidence, I discovered that some of the books I was reading at that time were doing exactly that and I often had to remind myself that, “Just because it’s in a book, it doesn’t mean it’s true!”. This phrase inspired the fiction versus non-fiction theme in the later drafts of Prince Ribbit and became a refrain within the story.

It was felt that this first version of the diagram of a frog's life cycle
 provided a little ‘too much information’ for younger readers so
the copulation stage was omitted from the final illustration.
While I loved the idea of playing off fiction against non-fiction, I didn’t want to show one type of book winning over the other – they’re both of equal value — so in the end Martha learns to appreciate both before foiling Prince Ribbit’s plan.

As always Poly has done a terrific job of illustrating the book, creating a cast of engaging characters in beautifully rendered settings. I particularly like the way that the illustrations in the books the characters are reading are drawn in a different style to the rest of the illustrations. Poly’s precisely detailed diagram of the life cycle of a frog would not look out of place in a real reference book, although Macmillan felt that his first version provided a little ‘too much information’ for younger readers (see image opposite).

When I first saw Poly’s roughs for the book I wasn’t keen on the car spread (shown below) and suggested that it would be better if the illustration show the royal tailors and jewellers attending Ribbit inside the palace. However Poly was reluctant to change it and — having now seen the finished illustration — I’m glad that he got his way, as it’s now my favourite spread in the book. I love the blue-yellow colour palette that Poly has used for this illustration, with the golden glow of the tailor’s shop spilling out into the half-light of the crowded street.

Here's a trailer I made for the book.

You can download and print out activity sheets for the book by clicking on their images below.

Word Search

Board Game

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