Monday, 6 February 2017

If you’re appearing at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, please consider raising awareness of the human rights abuses carried out by the festival’s sponsors

This time last year Zoe Toft and I were busy running the Think Twice Campaign, which highlighted ethical concerns about the sponsorship of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. The festival's main sponsors are Emirates Airline and the Dubai Government (who are the airline’s owners). The festival’s patron, Sheik Mohammed, is both the ruler of Dubai and the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). One of the aims of the campaign was to highlight the many human rights violations taking place under the Sheik’s regime.

Zoe and I knew that the campaign would be contentious. Many authors and illustrators we admired and respected had appeared at the festival in the past or were due to appear in 2016. And the festival has a reputation for being exceptionally well-organised by a friendly and hospitable team. We were uncomfortable with putting ourselves at odds with these respectable groups, but our concern was that their respectability was being used to whitewash the reputations of extremely unethical sponsors. Actor Mark Rylance expressed a similar concern last year when he announced that he would not work for the Royal Shakespeare Company while they were sponsored by BP. We were not attacking the people appearing at or running the festival any more than Rylance was attacking the people appearing at or running the RSC. Our target was the festival’s sponsors.

We recognised that not everyone that shared our concerns would want to boycott the festival and at the top of Think Twice's FAQ page we suggested that authors and illustrators who still wished to appear at the festival might use their appearance to raise awareness of some of the issues highlighted by the campaign. Writer and philosopher AC Grayling and children’s author Chris Haughton did exactly that by meeting with UAE human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor during their stay in Dubai. Grayling addressed the UAE’s poor record on free expression during his public talks and Haughton blogged about his meeting with Mansoor on his return.

This year the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE) are encouraging UK authors and illustrators appearing at next month’s festival to follow A C Grayling and Chris Haughton’s example and "speak out clearly in favour of human rights, free speech and democracy in the UAE".

Although Zoe and I have now wound up the Think Twice Campaign, we would also like to encourage the festival's authors and illustrators to consider speaking out on behalf of the following three groups whose human rights are being systematically abused by the festival’s sponsors.


1: The migrant workers enduring conditions “very close to slavery”

“It's pretty depressing seeing how many western companies and tourists, all kinds of people, flock there and still describe it and see it as this paradise in the Middle East, ignoring what's right in front of their nose.”
Investigative Journalist
Ben Anderson
When Donald Trump sang the praises of Dubai Airport in last year’s presidential debates, he neglected to mention the inhumane labour practices that enabled the Dubai Government to build such grandiose structures so quickly and for so little money. Dubai has been described as “a place where the worst of western capitalism and the worst of Gulf Arab racism meet in a horrible vortex.” The 2016 HBO VICE documentary “Trump in Dubai” exposes the plight of the migrant ‘underclass’ that make up more than 80% of the emirate’s workforce and build many of Dubai’s landmark developments including the new Trump International Golf Club. Investigative journalist Ben Anderson describes the conditions endured by millions of Dubai’s migrant workers as “very close to slavery” and has this to say about western attitudes towards the city in the video below: “It's pretty depressing seeing how many western companies and tourists, all kinds of people, flock there and still describe it and see it as this paradise in the Middle East, ignoring what is right in front of their nose.”

Anderson's documentary focuses on the construction industry, but he mentions that similar labour abuses apply to migrants working as cleaners, cooks and housemaids in Dubai. In the Human Rights Watch video below Women’s Rights Researcher Rothna Begum explains how the UAE government “facilitates and fosters the abuse and exploitation of domestic workers” who are explicitly excluded from the country's labour laws.

As you enjoy the hospitality of Dubai’s impressive airports, hotels, conference centres and schools, please be aware that many of these buildings are built, maintained and serviced by people who are treated as an “underclass” by the festival’s sponsors and do what you can to draw attention to their plight.

2: The LGBT people criminalised in, or barred from entering, Dubai

When it was announced that Jennifer Anniston was to become the new face of Emirates Airline in 2015, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) urged the actor to think twice about associating herself with the airline in view of their “serious concerns about the way the Gulf carriers treat and manage their flight crews, particularly women and gay men.”

Emirates Airline’s reputation for discriminating against gay employees (and, on some occasions, gay passengers) is unsurprising given the anti-gay stance of the government that owns it. Homosexuality is strictly forbidden in Dubai and punishable by harsh, discriminatory laws which promote homophobia.

"I will not lend my name to festivals associated with regimes that persecute their LGBT citizens. I won't strut my stuff in a country where I would not be allowed to live openly and honestly without fear of arrest, incarceration or torture."
Crime Writer Val McDermid
Voicing her support for the Think Twice campaign, crime writer Val McDermid said that: "I will not lend my name to festivals associated with regimes that persecute their LGBT citizens. I won't strut my stuff in a country where I would not be allowed to live openly and honestly without fear of arrest, incarceration or torture." Others may see things differently and I’m told that gay authors have accepted invitations to appear at the festival. However it seems unlikely that any transgender authors will have been invited, given that transgender people are regularly barred from entering or deported from Dubai and even cross-dressing is a criminal offence within the emirate.

If you care about LGBT rights, please do what you can to encourage the festival’s sponsors to be more accepting and inclusive towards LGBT people.

3: The UAE citizens imprisoned and tortured by the festival’s sponsors for peacefully campaigning for more democracy and human rights in the UAE

Ahmed Mansoor is just one of many UAE human rights and democracy campaigners who have been persecuted for speaking out against Sheik Mohammed’s government. More than 100 peaceful activists and critics of the UAE government have been imprisoned on broad and vague national security-related charges since 2011. Most of them remain in prison today, including Dubai citizen Dr Mohammed al-Roken whose case is highlighted in the Amnesty International video below.

“Despite their good intentions,
the festival’s supporters risk legitimizing the practice of censorship in the country.”
UAE Censorship Victim
Shez Cassim
The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature presents itself as promoting the free exchange of ideas. Many people have commented on the bitter irony of such an event being sponsored by a government that is brutally suppressing the free exchange of ideas among its own population. Even foreign nationals can fall foul of Dubai’s draconian censorship laws for the most innocent of reasons; in August last year UK-Australian citizen Scott Richards was arrested for the "crime" of posting a link on his Facebook page to a US charity raising funds for blankets and socks for refugee children. Another victim of the UAE's intolerance towards freedom of expression, Shez Cassim, has warned that “despite their good intentions, the festival’s supporters risk legitimizing the practice of censorship in the country.”

If you have the freedom to speak freely at the festival, please consider speaking out on behalf of those whose voices are being suppressed by the festival’s sponsors.

“The root cause of so much of the violence in the region is despair. Human rights are being violated on a daily basis and nobody in the outside world seems to care.”
UAE Human Rights Campaigner
Ahmed Mansoor
On receiving the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, UAE Human Rights Campaigner Ahmed Mansoor commented that, “the root cause of so much of the violence in the region is despair. Human rights are being violated on a daily basis and nobody in the outside world seems to care.” If you care about human rights in Dubai and the wider UAE, please consider using your appearance at the festival as an opportunity to speak out about them.

If you’re willing to raise awareness of the issues highlighted above, you could mention them in the social media or blog coverage you produce regarding the festival. You might even consider raising some issues during your appearance at the festival itself. And, if you’d like to offer your support to local human rights activists during your visit to Dubai, please contact me on or Zoe on and we can put you in touch with people who can help you to arrange this.

If you’re not comfortable raising awareness of these issues, then please think twice about posting photos or making comments on social media or blogs that could be interpreted as promoting or endorsing either Emirates Airline or the Dubai Government. For example, if you share APFA’s concerns about Emirates Airline’s discrimination towards women and gay men, you could avoid mentioning the airline or including photos of their logo/branding in your tweets/Facebook posts.

Further Information:

International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE's Open Letter to Authors Appearing at the Festival

Human Rights Watch World Report 2017: United Arab Emirates

Human Rights Watch Report – “I Already Bought You” Abuse and Exploitation of Female Migrant Domestic Workers in the United Arab Emirates’

Amnesty International Report 2016/17: United Arab Emirates

Amnesty International  Report- “There is No Freedom Here”: Silencing dissent in the United Arab Emirates

Detained in Dubai - Homosexuality in the UAE

Thursday, 2 February 2017

MOLE AND FRIENDS – New UK paperback editions

My most popular picture book series is the Mole and Friends series illustrated by the late Vanessa Cabban. Some of the books have been out of print for a while so I'm delighted to announce that Walker Books will be publishing new, reformatted editions of the whole series throughout 2017.

The first two books – Bringing Down the Moon and No Place Like Home – are published today, The Best Gift of All and A Secret Worth Sharing will be published on 1 June and the winter-themed Diamond in the Snow will be published on the 2 November.

The fist two books are published today.

Bringing Down the Moon is my most popular picture book and has been translated into 20 different languages. It 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 Cabban's beautiful illustrations for Bringing Down The Moon

Since it's publication in 2001, the book has been adapted into a puppet show, an animated DVD, an iPhone app and a terrific stage show by the Peaceful Lion theatre company in 2012.

Vanessa Cabban and I went to the Netherlands in 2003
to pick up the Kiekeboekprijs for the Dutch edition of
Bringing Down the Moon, translated by Annelies Jorna

In the second book, No Place Like Home, Mole leaves his burrow in search of a BIG, BRIGHT and BEAUTIFUL new home – but learns that the things he finds attractive aren't always suited to his needs.

Mole's friends try to help him find somewhere new to live in No Place Like Home.

Although Bringing Down the Moon has remained in print since it was first published, No Place Like Home has not been available for the last few years, so I'm delighted that this new edition will be helping Mole to get out and about again!

To mark the publication of this new edition, I've created this new maze activity sheet. Click the image below to download it

Find out more about Bringing Down the Moon on my website

Order a copy of Bringing Down the Moon using the sales links below.
Buy this book at amazon UKBuy at amazon US

Find out more about No Place Like Home on my website

Order a copy of No Place Like Home using the sales links below.
Buy this book at amazon UKBuy at amazon US

Thursday, 26 January 2017

HERE BE MONSTERS sails to the top of my "Most Borrowed Books" chart.

Yesterday I received last year's UK library loans figures for my books, courtesy of the Public Lending Right (PLR) organisation.

Here Be Monsters, illustrated by Poly Bernatene, has swapped places with The Princess and the Pig (also illustrated by Poly Bernatene) to become my most borrowed book. The tale of dastardly pirates and ravenous monsters was taken out of UK libraries over twenty-two thousand times last year.

There are three new entries in the remaining top five spots. The Silver Serpent Cup, illustrated by Ed Eaves, races in at number three, while The Clockwork Dragon, illustrated by Elys Dolan, and A Spot of Bother, illustrated by Vanessa Cabban take slots four and five.

The PLR figures show that my books were borrowed from UK libraries a total of 166,280 times last year.

Here are my top 5 most borrowed books.

PositionTitleNº of loansRelative Position
1Here Be Monsters
illustrated by Poly Bernatene
2The Princess and the Pig
illustrated by Poly Bernatene
3The Silver Serpent Cup
illustrated by Ed Eaves
4The Clockwork Dragon
illustrated by Elys Dolan
5A Spot of Bother
illustrated by Vanessa Cabban

A big THANK YOU to everyone that borrowed my books, the wonderful librarians that made them available and the PLR organisation for helping authors like me to earn a living.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Why I hope the 10th Children’s Laureate will champion non-fiction

This post was originally published on Picture Book Den.

If past years are anything to go by, BookTrust will soon be encouraging people to suggest candidates for the next Children’s Laureate.

The current laureate Chris Riddell has worked wonders in the role, energetically waving the banner for children’s literature with one hand while deftly drawing an endless stream of characterful illustrations with the other. When Riddell first took on the Laureateship he announced that his focus would be to “use the immediacy and universality of illustration to bring people together and lead them all into the wonderful world of books and reading, whilst championing creativity in schools and beyond”.

Illustration was also the focus of Quentin Blake and Anthony Browne’s laureateships, while other laureates chose to focus on other areas that play a key role in engaging young readers including poetry, storytelling, performance, the importance of libraries, daily reading and parents reading aloud. However one key area of children's literature that has yet to be championed by a laureate is children’s non-fiction. So I’d like to suggest that the tenth Children’s Laureate should be a non-fiction author or illustrator.

Some of the non-fiction books that helped turn me into a lifelong reader.

I’m principally a fiction author but, like many children of my generation, non-fiction played a critical role in establishing my reading habit and turning me into a lifelong reader. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s the children’s sections of bookshops and libraries were as well stocked with non-fiction titles as they were with storybooks. Mainstream publishers like Ladybird excelled at publishing books that reflected the most obscure childhood interests and enthusiasms, from crochet to car mechanics. By responding to the breadth and diversity of children’s interests in this way, non-fiction books were often able to engage the reluctant readers that fiction could not reach.

From crochet to car mechanics, publishers like Ladybird excelled at reflecting the breadth and diversity of childhood interests.

The children’s book market has changed a lot since then. It’s now far bigger, and far less balanced in terms of fiction and non-fiction. While children’s books about crochet and car mechanics are still being published, a child interested in either – or any other non-mainstream non-fiction topic – is far less likely to discover them in a landscape dominated by children's fiction. Non-fiction has become the Cinderella of children’s publishing and many children who might otherwise have become readers are turning their backs on books because of this.

There is a growing acceptance of the need to redress the balance and promote children’s non-fiction more effectively. Campaigns like FCBG’s Non-Fiction November are already helping to do this, but there is still a long, long way to go. Appointing a non-fiction author or illustrator as the next Children’s Laureate would provide an invaluable boost to the profile of children's non-fiction and represent a huge step in the right direction. And many children that are initially hooked into reading by non-fiction go on to become avid fiction readers, so appointing a non-fiction Laureate could benefit children's fiction too.

I’ve been asking around for the names of non-fiction authors and illustrators who might make a good Laureate and some of the suggestions I received are shown below. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive list and I don't know if any of these people would be willing to take on the role, but I'm hoping it will help to set the ball rolling on a debate about who might fit the bill.

Catherine Chambers enjoys writing about history, cultures and religions, and reckons that sport can satisfy all three. Her books include Stickmen's Guide To The Sky - Uncovered and Goal! How Football Conquered the World

Nicola Davies is a zoologist and one of the original presenters of the BBC children's wildlife programme The Really Wild Show. Her books include A First Book of Nature, illustrated by Mark Herald and Poo: A Natural History of the Unmentionable, illustrated by Neal Layton.

Anita Ganeri is the author of the award-winning Horrible Geography series including Planet in Peril which won the Blue Peter Book Award - Best Book with Facts 2009. Her other books include The Explorer’s Handbook: How to Be the Best Around the World.

Richard Platt is the author of Pirate Diary, illustrated by Chris Riddell, which won the Blue Peter Book Award - Best Book with Facts 2003. Incredible Cross Sections, illustrated by Stephen Biesty, was selected by the Guardian as one of the three greatest children's books of the 90s.

Tony Robinson came to fame playing the role of Baldrick in Blackadder. He has won the Blue Peter Book Award - Best Book with Facts award twice, for The Worst Children's Jobs in History, illustrated by Mike Phillips in 2007 and for Weird World of Wonders: World War II, illustrated by Del Thorpe in 2014.

Andy Seed is the author of The Silly Book of Side-Splitting Stuff, illustrated by Scott Garret, which won the Blue Peter Book Award - Best Book with Facts 2015. His other non-fiction books include The Anti_Boredom Book of Brilliant things To Do, also illustrated by Scott Garret.

You can see some additional suggestions in the update below. If you have any more, I’d love to hear them in the comments box below the original post on the Picture Book Den site (click here to go there). If you’re on Twitter or Facebook, you could also tweet your suggestion for a possible non-fiction laureate using the #NonFictLaureate hashtag. With a bit of luck, we just might persuade the Laureate selection panel to appoint a much-needed Fairy Godmother to this Cinderella of children’s books.

UPDATE : The suggestion that the next Children's Laureate be a non-fiction author or illustrator has had a good reception on social media. You can read some of the responses in the Twitter collection here. And here are some more non-fiction authors and illustrators that have been suggested in response to this post:

Monday, 19 December 2016

Eyes-Only Advent Picture Book Quiz

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

December is here again! So, following on from last year's quiz I thought I'd test your picture book knowledge with another Advent-calendar-like picture book challenge.

When I first started out in children's books, I was illustrating as well as writing. One of the pieces of advice my first agent, Gina Pollinger, gave me at our very first meeting was to study the work of successful illustrators and – in particular – how they drew their characters' eyes. "It's important to get the eyes right," she told me, "if you don't, the character won't come alive and children will not believe in them." Although I never really made it as an illustrator, this is still an excellent piece of advice to any budding picture book illustrator.

So, for this year's quiz, how many of these classic picture book characters can you recognise from the eyes peeping out from the Christmas tree foliage below? Click on each image to reveal the answer. To make things a little more festive – there's a common theme to the even-numbered images.








8. (No – this one is not Homer Simpson's nipples!)



How did you do?

10/10 Eagle-eyed: Brilliant! You have 20/20 picture book vision.
7-9/10 An attentive pupil: A good effort. You know your Blake from your Briggs.
4-6/10 Not bad looking: But perhaps you should add some new reading glasses to your Christmas list.
1-3/10 Blinking awful: Are you sure you had your own eyes open?

Follow the fiendishly funny exploits of evil-eyed über-brat Bradley Bartleby in my Christmas picture book, The Santa Trap, illustrated by Poly Bernatene and published by Macmillan Children's Books.

Buy this book from Hive Buy this book at amazon UK Buy at amazon US

Thursday, 1 December 2016

"Inappropriate for kids": What one very unsatisfied customer thought of THE SANTA TRAP

December has arrived and the picture book shelves of bookshops will soon be crammed with seasonal stories. With any luck The Santa Trap, my darkly comic cautionary tale illustrated by Poly Bernatene, will be among them. That said, I'm aware that not every book buyer will be amused by the antics of Bradley Bartleby, the book's brattish protagonist.

A couple of years ago, US children's author Marc Tyler Nobleman got together with 52 other American children's authors to make a series of videos in which – to use Nobleman's phrase – they "embraced the reality that not everyone likes every book." Or to put it more simply – they read out some scathing online reader reviews of their work.

As Nobleman says on his blog, "a bad review can equal a good laugh" and "this was not about reciprocating with mean-spiritedness. It’s simply a self-deprecating nod to a universal author experience that is already public".

Nobleman edited the videos into three compilations, the first of which is shown below. You can view all three of them on this page of Nobleman's blog.

The videos were a big hit on social media and later that year someone suggested on Twitter that UK authors should make their own compilation video and asked authors to submit clips. I thought it was a great idea and submitted a clip of me reading an absolutely damning reader review of The Santa Trap. However it seems that UK authors were not as keen on the idea as their American cousins as - as far as I know – no video was subsequently released.

A few weeks ago the subject of unfavourable online reader reviews came up in a conversation with some fellow children's authors and I mentioned the US compilations and offered to edit together a UK compilation myself. Again, the response was not exactly overwhelming and the project eventually fizzled out due to lack of willing participants.

Nevertheless, having invested a little time on the project, I decided to go it alone and put my less than glowing reader review online – along with some slightly more favourable responses. All of the quotes used in the video are from genuine one or five star reader reviews for The Santa Trap from and The animated text box at the bottom of the clip was inspired by Adam Buxton's very funny readings of YouTube comments as featured in his BUG TV and live shows.

If this hasn't put you off the book, you can find out more about it and read some more glowing responses from book reviewers and bloggers on this page of my web site.

One of Poly Bernatene's gorgeous illustrations for the book.

Buy this book from HiveBuy this book at amazon UKBuy at amazon US

And, if you live near Alnwick, Ilkley or Southend-on-Sea, you can book tickets to see Belfield and Slater's terrific musical adaptation of the story this Christmas, using the links below:

16-17th December - Alnwick Playhouse

18-19th December - King's Hall, Ilkley

23rd-31st December - Cliff's Pavilion, Palace Theatre, Southend-on-Sea

A scene from Robin Belfield and Simon Slater's excellent musical adaptation of the book.

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