Monday, 11 September 2017

Scoop's Ups and Downs – New First Reader Picture Book

I have a new first reader picture book coming out today! Scoop's Ups and Downs is illustrated by Alex Paterson and published as part of Oxford University Press's Story Sparks series.

The story is a modern-day re-telling of The Fox and the Well Bucket, one of the Brer Rabbit stories from American Folklore.

An A B Frost illustration of the original Brer Rabbit story.

I'd read some of Enid Blyton's re-tellings of the Brer Rabbit stories as a child and fallen in love with the mischievous character, who is believed to have been based on Anansi, a trickster from African folklore. I had previously pitched adaptations of The Fox and the Well Bucket story to a couple of publishers using the original Rabbit and Fox characters, but they had not been accepted.

I first came across Brer Rabbit in this book
of Enid Blyton's re-tellings of the stories

When I was invited to submit ideas for Oxford University Press's new Story Sparks series, I sent them another adaptation of the story. Their commissioning editor liked the adaptation but asked if I could re-cast the story and re-set it in a modern urban setting as she already had a Story Sparks story featuring a fox and OUP published a separate series of traditional tales. I said I'd give it a go, which is why the story is now about two cats on a building site!

One of Alex Paterson's spreads for our modern-day re-telling of the story.

The text of Scoop's Ups and Downs is far simpler than most of my picture books and it's the first book I've done in a phonic format. I've written quite a few books for reading schemes like OUP's Treetops Series and I'm used to working with a word count and language levelling, but the additional restriction imposed by a phonic brief presented a new challenge to me.

My first draft of the story began with the words:

"It was a sunny day on the building site."

However all of the words shown in red are incompatible with the phonic level the book was intended for, which is why the first line now reads:

"It was a hot morning in the town."

I'm grateful to freelance editor (and author) Teresa Heapy for patiently explaining the ins and outs of writing for phonics and for helping me to knock the text into shape.

The book is illustrated by Alex Paterson, who had previously illustrated The Greatest Scientist of All Time, a short play script included in Skyboy and other Stupendous Science Stories. Alex has a great knack for comic characters and I'm delighted with the way he has brought this simple story to life.

Pail riders. Scoop and Scrap swap places.

You can order a copy of Scoop's Ups and Downs using the sales links below.

Buy this book at amazon UK Buy at amazon US

Thursday, 10 August 2017


My wife and I took a trip out to the beautiful Burrows Gardens in the Derbyshire Dales yesterday to see Folksy Theatre's open-air stage show of The Princess and the Pig, a charming adaptation of my picture book illustrated by Poly Bernatene.

The show tells the story of how a baby princess and a farmer's piglet are accidentally switched at birth and raised in each others places. In Folksy's stage version, actors Em Watkins, Christopher Pegler-Lambert and Emma Kemp double up to play both royal and rural households and use puppets to portray the porcine princess and baby Pigmella.

It's a lovely show, filled with toe-tapping songs and comic moments and a touch of pathos; the scene were farmer and his family discover the mix-up and decide that their adopted daughter must leave them to return to the palace was genuinely moving.

The show is written and directed by Lee Hardwicke, with songs by Gary Cameron and puppets by Sarah Lewis.

The farmer takes a nap in the shade of the castle, unaware that a baby girl is about to drop into his life.

The queen, about to discover that her daughter has been swapped for a piglet.

The grown-up Princess Priscilla was also played by a puppet.

It was lovely to meet actors Em Watkins, Emma Kemp and Christopher Pegler-Lambert.

The show will be touring open air venues in the UK until September 2017. You can see a full list of venues and tour dates by clicking on the link below.

And you can find out more about the book on this page of my web site.


Monday, 10 July 2017

The Picture Book World Cup

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

As well as being a picture book author, I'm a Patron of Reading. A Patron of Reading is a children's author, poet, storyteller or illustrator who partners with a school to encourage and develop a culture of reading for pleasure within that school. I thought I’d use this post to tell you about The Picture Book World Cup, a week-long reading for pleasure project I helped organise at my Patron of Reading school, Asfordby Captain’s Close Primary School in Leicestershire.

The inspiration for the project came from Texas elementary school teacher Diane Fulton. Back in March, Diane sent me the tweet below to tell me that The Princess and the Pig, one of my picture books with illustrator Poly Bernatene, was in competition with 15 other books in her school's Sweet Sixteen Book Challenge.

The challenge was a knockout contest, where books were played off in pairings with students voting to decide the winner of each pairing. Diane kept me posted on The Princess and the Pig's progress via Twitter and I was delighted to see it get all the way to the final before its winning streak was finally interrupted by David Ezra Stein’s Interrupting Chicken.

It seemed like such a great idea that I decided to adapt it to use with my patron school.

Diane's wall chart reminded me of the progress charts that newspapers and magazines give out at the beginning of a football World Cup.

Diane’s Sweet Sixteen wall chart after the first round and a chart from the 2014 Football World Cup

So we called our version the Captain's Close Picture Book World Cup and I created this World Cup style progress chart to go with it.

Each class had a copy of this chart  to follow the contest's progress.

I firmly believe that picture books can be enjoyed by all ages – not just preschoolers and infants – and Captain's Close's Literacy Co-ordinator Lisa Gackowska and Headteacher Julia Hancock feel the same way. So we had the whole school vote in our contest, from Reception right the way up to Year 6. The initial groups were age-graded, so the Group 1 books, which were voted on by Reception class, were chosen to appeal to slightly younger readers than the Group 2 books which were voted on by Years 1 and 2. However, as the contest progressed, the age range voting on each match widened. So all of the Key Stage 1 students got to vote on the outcome of Semi-Final 1, while all of the Key Stage 2 Students voted on Semi-Final 2. And the whole school got to vote on the outcome of the final.

One of my aims as a Patron of Reading is to introduce reluctant readers to new books that they'll enjoy reading. Many reluctant readers prefer non-fiction to fiction, so the initial selection contained an equal number of non-fiction and fiction books, with each group starting out with both a non-fiction and a fiction match.

And – following the example of Diane’s US version – each of the initial matches had a different theme.

Group 2's non-fiction books were both about the Natural World and their fiction books had an Animal Antics theme.

I wanted to encourage students to stray off the beaten path a little, so I tried to avoid books by big name authors like Julia Donaldson (as much as I admire her work). And – to ensure impartiality – I didn’t include any of my own picture books.

I introduced all sixteen books in a special assembly at the beginning of the week. Once the voting had begun, students could follow the progress of all four groups on one of the wall charts, which were updated after each round.

The School's World Cup corridor display with a wall chart showing the progress of the contest.

After fourteen qualifying matches, the two books that made it all the way to the final were Oi Frog! by Kes Gray and Jim Field and Nuts in Space by Elys Dolan. You can see the results of each qualifying match in the filled in version of the chart below.

Here's how the chart looked before the final.

At the end of the week we had another special assembly to finish the contest. I started off by asking students if they had any favourite books that hadn't made it to the final and was pleased to discover that all of the books in the contest had found some new fans.

I’d been tweeting updates on the contest throughout the week and I showed the students some of the responses I’d received from the authors and illustrators of the competing books. You can read some of these tweets in a collection here.

Finalists Jim Field and Elys Dolan engaged in some pre-match banter on Twitter.

Then it was time to reveal the winner. The votes for the final had been collected by secret ballot and  – to string out the suspense – I announced the results a class at a time. It was a close run contest, with the lead shifting from one book to the other as the votes were counted in. Both books had enthusiastic supporters who broke out into excited cheering whenever their book pulled ahead. I've never had to ask a school audience to settle down so many times!

I'd ordered the results so that it wasn’t clear which book was going to win until the votes from the very last class were counted in.

Sparrows Class were the last to have their votes counted in.

But in the end, the winner, by 84 votes to 73 was …

… Nuts In Space, by Elys Dolan!

Congratulations to Commander Moose and his crew for boldly going all the way to World Cup glory and to Elys Dolan for creating such a wonderful book!

My three year tenure as Captain Close’s Patron of Reading ends this term and the Picture Book World Cup was a great way for me to sign off. So I’d like to give a big THANK YOU to Diane Fulton for letting me steal her idea and another big THANK YOU to Literacy Co-ordinator Lisa Gackowska for doing such a great job of refereeing the project in school.


If you’d like to try running your own Picture Book World Cup I’ve created some PDF progress charts and logos that you can download. There are two sets, one that uses the same books as the Captain’s Close contest described above and a blank template set that you can fill in with your own choice of books.


Here's a timetable that can be used to run the contest over a week with students split into four groups and an equal number of fiction and non-fiction books. Each group has to read six books and take part in five votes. 

Introduce the contest and all 16 books in morning assembly.
Read the two non-fiction books in your group and vote on them. 

Read the two fiction books in your group and vote on them.
Have a quarter final vote between Monday’s non-fiction winner and today’s fiction winner. 

Semi-Finals: Read the quarter final book chosen by the other group on your half of the chart and then have a vote between that and Tuesday's quarter final winner from your own group. 

Final: Read the semi-final book chosen by the other half of the school and then have a vote between that and Wednesday's semi-final winner from your own half of the school. 

Reveal the winner in assembly!

You can find out more about the Patron of Reading scheme at

Tuesday, 6 June 2017


I'm delighted to announce that Walker Books have just published new editions of two of the Mole and Friends books I created with Vanessa Cabban.

Following on from the new editions of the first two Mole and Friends books, back in February,  Walker have now released new editions of  The Best Gift of All and A Secret Worth Sharing. A new edition of Diamond in the Snow (originally published third in the series) will complete the set in November.

While the other books in the series are set above ground, stormy weather obliges Mole to remain in his natural underground habitat in The Best Gift of All

 … but that doesn't stop him from visiting Rabbit and meeting up with Hedgehog and Squirrel en route.

When bad weather prevents Mole from visiting Rabbit above ground, he decides to visit her by tunnel instead.

A Secret Worth Sharing, originally published as the fifth and final book in the series, sees Mole making a new friend – Mouse.

Mole's friendship with Mouse is so special that he doesn't want to share her and decides to keep her a secret. But some secrets are worth sharing!

The last panel in this spread by Vanessa Cabban echoes the first Mole and Friends story, Bringing Down the Moon.

You can find out more about the books using the links below and read a recent interview I did about the whole Mole and Friends series for the Baby Book Club blog here.

Find out more about The Best Gift of All on my website

Order a copy of The Best Gift of All using the sales links below.

Buy this book at amazon UKBuy at amazon US

Find out more about A Secret Worth Sharing on my website

Order a copy of A Secret Worth Sharing using the sales links below.
Buy this book at amazon UKBuy at amazon US

Friday, 12 May 2017

“The Library For Boys and Girls” – Nottingham’s pioneering 19th Century children’s lending library

This post was originally published on the Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature web site.

A couple of months ago, book blogger Zoe Toft published a post on Birmingham’s ‘Ghost Libraries’ – buildings originally built as libraries that now serve another purpose. Zoe usually blogs about children’s books, so when I met up with her a few days after the post had gone out, I mentioned that I’d read somewhere that Nottingham was home to the ghost of the UK’s first ever dedicated children’s lending library. Zoe was interested in tracking down the building, so we did a little online ghost hunting. A page on the Morley Threads website mentioned that the library was on Shakespeare Street and a photo caption on the Picture the Past web site, narrowed it down to a particular building.

Here it is!

The former children’s library building

The ghost library is now part of Fortis’s Bard House student accommodation at the Mansfield Road end of Shakespeare Street.

With some further googling I was able to discover a little more about the building’s former life as a children’s library.

The library was created in 1882 with a £500 grant from the Nottingham woollen manufacturer and Liberal MP Samuel Morley. According to the Encyclopaedia of Library and Information Science, Morley founded the children’s library after learning that Nottingham’s Central Library (then on Shakespeare Street) was only open to those aged 15 and over.

Philanthropist, woollen manufacturer and Liberal MP Samuel Morley.
(Photo by by Elliott & Fry © National Portrait Gallery, London,
used under Creative Commons Licence)

While some sources suggest that the library was originally named “The Library for Boys and Girls”, Allen's Illustrated Guide to Nottingham published in 1888 describes it as “The Children's Free Public Lending Library and Reading Room” and notes that it was open between 4.00 - 8.00 pm on weekdays. Children over the age of 7 were allowed to borrow two books a week (at no cost) from a collection of over three thousand “carefully chosen” volumes donated by Morley.

Although juvenile reading rooms had already been opened as part of public libraries in both Westminster (1857) and Cambridge (1872) the library in Shakespeare Street was the first separately housed children's lending library in the UK and is widely recognised as having set the standard for children’s libraries both in the UK and abroad. The International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature (1996) has this to say in its chapter on children’s libraries:
“Perhaps the most outstanding was the Library for Boys and Girls in Nottingham, which was regarded as a pioneer in respect of its accommodation, its balanced collection of contemporary children's fiction, furnishings and general ethos.”
Samuel Morley was ahead of his time in recognising the enormous social benefits of encouraging a love of reading at an early age. There is now a wealth of research showing that children who read for pleasure on a regular basis do significantly better in maths, vocabulary and spelling than those who rarely read, giving them an academic advantage that lasts the whole of their lives. For many children establishing a reading habit would be impossible without access to a well-stocked, well-run children’s library like the one first created by Samuel Morley.

Nottingham should take tremendous pride in the trailblazing role it had in promoting children’s literature and literacy and I think that Morley’s pioneering library is well worth commemorating in some way. So, last weekend, I visited the ghost library with a couple of young readers and stuck this plaque to the wall.

Alexis, Kristian and me with our prototype plaque.

Our plaque was made of cardboard and we took it with us when we left, but we’re hoping it can be replaced with something more permanent and official. I’ve already been in touch with Fortis, the building’s current owners, who have confirmed that they’d be happy to have a plaque fixed to their building. Now I just need to find an official plaque provider, like the City Council or the Civic Society, who agrees that Morley’s ghost library is well worth commemorating.

If you think you can help, do get in touch! You can leave a comment below this post or contact me directly on

UPDATE: After this post was initially published on the City of Literature web site, BBC Radio Nottingham's Sarah Julian interviewed me about the library. You can listen to the interview (until 9/6/17) on this page, from 1 hr, 51 mins, 49 secs :

And Nottingham Local Studies Library sent me a page from a 1937 pamphlet which revealed that the library building was rented from the Trustees of the Holy Trinity Church and that the library remained open for exactly 50 years, before closing in 1932. The pamphlet also included this illustration of the libary.

Illustration of the library from a 1937 pamphlet

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Omitting the F Word: Parental Censorship of Picture Books

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

I sometimes describe writing a picture book as like writing a script, because picture books are often read aloud to a child by an adult. I want the reader to give a good performance, so I think it’s essential that a picture book text reads well aloud. However a good script is only the beginning of a good performance; a good picture-book performer will add a great deal themselves, creating character voices and sound effects and adjusting the timing and delivery of lines to make them funnier, more suspenseful or more dramatic.

It wasn’t until I read a Slate article entitled I Censor the Books I Read to My Child. I’m Not Ashamed! that it occurred to me that a performer might actually subtract something from the script as well. And, as an author/script-writer, I am troubled by this.

The article’s author, YiLing Chen-Josephson, runs The Picture Book Club, a subscription service through which she handpicks books for young children (and their parents). I’m guessing that one of the books she does NOT recommend to her subscribers is Maurice Sendak’s miniature picture book classic Pierre, which she describes reading to her own son in the article.

If you’re not familiar with Pierre then – SPOILER ALERT! – let me tell you that it’s a cautionary tale about a small boy, Pierre, who professes not to care about anything whatsoever. When a polite, but hungry, lion calls at Pierre’s home and asks Pierre if he may eat him, Pierre says, “I don’t care!” So the lion takes the boy at his word and swallows him whole. Fortunately Pierre’s parents are able to extract their son before any lasting harm is done and  – having experienced the trauma of being eaten alive – Pierre now cares about what happens to him. To quote Sendak’s final line “The moral of Pierre is: CARE!”

Maurice Sendak’s Pierre is a cautionary tale of a small boy who is hugely indifferent to everything.

Since “parental censorship” is in the title of this post, you've probably guessed that Chen-Josephson took it upon herself to censor Sendak’s classic. Having read the plot outline above, you might assume that she cut out or re-edited the scene where the small boy is EATEN ALIVE by the hungry lion. But, no, the object of Chen-Josephson's disapproval was Pierre’s absolute indifference. Here’s how she puts it in her own words:
You’ve read enough to recognize what’s at stake here: The child in this book doesn’t care. Are you ready to introduce your own darling boy to the phrase “I don’t care” and, with it, to ennui, to disaffection, to insubordination?
So now, whenever Chen-Josephson reads the book to her son, she rescripts Pierre’s dialogue so that instead of saying, “I don’t care!” he says “I … care!”.

It seems to me that Chen-Josephson has entirely failed to grasp the point of a cautionary tale, which is to show how negative characteristics can have unfortunate consequences for their owners. By turning Pierre into a caring child, the message her son is likely to draw from the story is that bad things can happen to nice children, rather than the message Sendak intended, which was that bad things can happen to children who are dismissive and indifferent.

After explaining how she improved on Sendak’s storytelling, Chen-Josephson goes on to relate how several of her friends censor the picture books they read to their children. She gives three examples of how parents respond when they come across the F word in picture books. NO! Not that F word – I mean "FAT"!
One father I heard from avoided the word fat at all costs, turning even The Very Hungry Caterpillar from a “big fat” insect to a “great big” one. Another parent said she left the word alone when it was used to describe an animal but would replace it when it was used about a person. Another specifically sought out books where fat was used descriptively and without judgment since she didn’t want her child to think that the word should carry negative connotations.
Apparently some parents baulk at Eric Carle's use of F word in The Very Hungry Caterpillar

I suspect that all three parents described above would censor my use of the F word in my picture book story The Santa Trap.

One of Poly Bernatene’s illustrations of brattish Bradley in The Santa Trap.

Über-brat Bradley reveals his plan to trap Santa with the words, “I’m going to catch the fat fool and take every present he’s got.” It’s quite clear that the word “fat” is intended to have a negative connotation in this context. However CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING! Like PierreThe Santa Trap is a cautionary tale. The story makes it clear that Bradley is an irredeemably awful child whose monstrous behaviour leads to his eventual downfall, while Santa, the object of Bradley’s abuse, is the unflappably benign and ultimately triumphant hero of the tale. I think that most children that hear this story will recognise that using the word "fat" to insult someone should be bracketed with the other unacceptable behaviours that Bradley engages in such as stealing tigers from the local zoo. And if a child does not recognise this, then the adult reading the story can use Bradley's example as an opportunity to discuss why this is an unacceptable way to behave.

I think the same principle can be applied to most stories that contain the sort of parental-anxiety-inducing content that parents like Chen-Josephson might wish to censor. And I’d argue that the parent-child picture book reading experience is an ideal setting for a child to encounter such content. Sooner or later, a child will encounter an uncaring character or hear the word “fat” being used inappropriately, on a TV screen or in the real world. Surely it’s better for them to come across these things in a picture book, with a parent on hand to discuss and explain them with, than on their own?

So, if you’re reading a picture book to a child and you’re tempted to censor something, why not try using it as an opportunity for discussion instead? You'll probably be doing your child a favour and I'm sure the author would thank you for it too!

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