Tuesday, 17 July 2018

GOOD VIEWERS ALSO MAKE GOOD WRITERS: Finding inspiration in films, TV and video games.

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

The question I’m asked most often in school Q and A sessions is “where do you get your ideas from?” The answer I usually give is “anywhere and everywhere” before elaborating with some specific examples. I tell the children that I get many of my ideas from reading books by other authors – the oft quoted maxim that good readers make good writers is a sound one. But I also tell them that some of my best ideas come from watching TV and films and playing video games, because good viewers can also make good writers!

I always feel like I’m breaking some unwritten rule for authors visiting schools by telling children this. The main reason children’s authors are invited into schools is to help foster an enthusiasm for books and reading – not wax lyrical about screen media, the pervasive appeal of which is often blamed for the decline in children’s reading. However, while it’s clear that many young children prefer to look at a screen than a page, I think this preference has more to do with content than medium. And, if we want children to recognise that a picture book can be every bit as appealing as their favourite film, TV show or video game, it makes sense for picture book writers to recognise the appeal screen media has for many children and to try to channel that appeal onto the page.

One of the picture books I’ve written that was inspired by screen media is The Silver Serpent Cup which was devised in collaboration with illustrator Ed Eaves. The book’s main screen media inspirations are Hanna-Barbera’s Wacky Races animated TV series, which Ed and I had both enjoyed as children, and Nintendo’s Mario Kart series of video games, which were hugely popular with my own children and their friends. Ed’s action-packed illustrations do a terrific job of capturing the excitement of playing Mario Kart and when we were creating the book we’d considered including a Mario Kart style course map at the side of each spread, showing the positions of each racer, but eventually decided against it.

A spread from The Silver Serpent Cup, illustrated by Ed Eaves and Nintendo's Mario Kart.

When I read The Silver Serpent Cup in schools I preface the reading by talking about the inspirations behind the book. When I mention that Ed and I were trying to capture the thrill of playing Mario Kart and show an image from the video game, a noisy ripple of excitement ALWAYS goes around the room. Children who had been staring out of the window or fidgeting with their shoes are now giving me their undivided attention. You can sense what these previously unengaged children are thinking – I love Mario Kart! This book is worth paying attention to!

For our newly-published follow up, Cleopatra Bones and the Golden Chimpanzee, Ed and I drew our inspiration from video games like Tomb Raider and Temple Run and the Indiana Jones films. 

Cleopatra Bones and the Golden Chimpanzee draws inspiration from treasure-hunting games and films.

Creators of TV, film and video games have become extremely adept at recognising appealing content in children’s literature and channeling that appeal onto the screen. If we want to stop children abandoning pages for screens at an early age, picture book authors, illustrators and publishers need to ensure that this channelling works both ways by creating more picture books that reflect the appeal of popular films, TV shows and video games. We have to stop regarding screen media as a bogeyman who's luring children away from books and recognise it as a valuable source of inspiration that can make books more appealing to young readers.

Jonathan Emmett's latest screen media inspired picture book
is illustrated by Ed Eaves and published by Oxford University Press

Thursday, 5 July 2018


🇬🇧 UK Edition - Oxford University Press

 🇺🇸 US Edition - Kane Miller

"In the ruins of a temple, down a dark and winding stair,
explorer Cleopatra Bones is creeping with great care.
Springing nimbly sideways to avoid a deadly trap,
she squeezes through a secret door and finds a TREASURE MAP!"

Cleopatra Bones and the Golden Chimpanzee, my new picture book with illustrator Ed Eaves, is published today by Oxford University Press in the UK and Kane Miller in the US!

The book is a sequel to the 2015 race-themed picture book The Silver Serpent Cup. I think the preference many young children have for TV, film and video games over picture books has more to do with content than medium; a lot of the content that young children find extremely appealing in electronic media is relatively difficult to find in picture books. In The Silver Serpent Cup, Ed and I had drawn on the content of race-themed video games like Mario Kart and TV shows like Wacky Races for inspiration. For Cleopatra Bones and the Golden Chimpanzee, we drew on treasure-seeking video games like Tomb Raider and Temple Run and films like Indiana Jones.

The book draws on video games like Tomb Raider and Temple Run and films like the Indiana Jones series for inspiration.

While the race-winning hero of The Silver Serpent Cup is not mentioned in the book’s title (so as not to spoil the surprise for first time readers), it’s obvious from the start of this second book that Cleopatra Bones is the heroine and OUP felt that her name should be in the sequel’s title. Cleopatra’s character was originally called Oklahoma Bones but OUP Sales Manager Matt Ager suggested the name Cleopatra, which felt like a perfect for an adventurous archaeologist.

Heroic hound Cleopatra has a sure nose for ancient treasure.

Although this sequel has a new heroine, alligator Al McNasty returns as the dastardly villain …

Awful Al McNasty is determined to take the treasure for himself.

… and eagle-eyed readers should be able to spot six more characters from The Silver Serpent Cup among the eighteen animals racing to find the lost treasure of the Golden Chimpanzee.

Five of the racers from The Silver Serpent Cup return in new vehicles for this book.

One of the most appealing things about The Silver Serpent Cup were the extraordinary vehicle designs Ed created for each of the characters and Ed has come up with a similarly impressive array of aircraft, boats and land vehicles for this follow-up. As with the first book, Ed designed each vehicle to mimic its owner. So orang-utan Diego Del Grippo’s OranguTank is fitted with two giant gripping hands that can be fired into the treetops, allowing him to swing his way through the jungle, while chameleon Pablo Prisma’s nippy little jungle buggy can change colour as quickly as he can.

Diego De Grippo and Pablo Prisma's vehicle designs mimic the creatures driving them.

To add an element of interactivity, Ed's illustrations are peppered with coded messages for readers to decipher. At the beginning of the book Cleopatra Bones discovers the location of the Golden Chimpanzee using a treasure map covered in hieroglyphic symbols. The same symbols can also be seen carved into other stone objects throughout the book. A key for decoding the symbols can be found on the book’s title page, but readers may find it easier to print out the activity sheet at the bottom of this post and use the symbol key on that instead.

The hieroglyphic symbols on the illustrations can be decoded using the symbol key on the book's title page
or the separate activity sheet.

This book was just as much fun to work on as the first one, so I’m hoping that Ed and I will be able to bring some of our intrepid animal adventurers back for a third outing before long!

Here's a trailer I made for the book.

You can download and print Cleopatra's Code Cracker activity sheet and colouring sheets of all 18 of the book's characters with their vehicles by clicking on the images below.

Cleopatra's Code Cracker

Colouring sheets

Thursday, 31 May 2018

PIGS MIGHT FLY! New Edition Paperback

Around this time last year illustrator Rebecca Harry and I published a set of print-on-demand editions of our Ruby the Duckling books after the original editions went out of print. I'm pleased to announce that Pigs Might Fly!, one of my picture books with illustrator Steve Cox which recently went out of print, has just been re-published in the same format.

The new square-format, print-on-demand edition.

I was particularly keen to get Pigs Might Fly! in print again as it's one of my most popular books to read on school visits and its production is the focus of the How a Picture Book is Made presentation I do with Year 5 and 6 classes.

This slide from my How a Picture Book is Made schools presentation shows some of the character
designs Steve came up with before arriving at the final characters of Waldo, Woody and Wilbur.

The book's popularity with young readers was also demonstrated when it won the Books for Younger Children” category at the 2006 Red House Children’s Book Awards, a national children's vote awards organised by the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.

Steve and I with my son and daughter and a very shiny trophy
at the 2006 Red House Children’s Book Awards.

The new edition has different page proportions to the original and has been re-typset using open source fonts. One of the advantages of having to re-work the layouts was that it gave us the opportunity to produce a 'directors cut' version of the book which incorporates a few improvements. For example: the original version had no imprints page, so the imprints details were printed on the opening spread. This gave the story a rather awkward start, so we created a new imprints/title spread for the new edition and reworked the opening text to cover both sides of the opening spread.

While the original edition (top) had the imprint details printed on the opening spread,
the new edition (bottom) has the imprints details on a new imprints/title spread.

Most of the other changes were done in response to my experience of reading the book aloud in schools and are less easy to spot. So fans of the book can rest assured that the Big Bad Wolf is just as conniving as he was in the original edition …

… and Wilbur just as indomitable!

Here's what reviewers said about the book when it was originally published.

"A super book with a good storyline, amusingly told and wonderfully illustrated … a book children will want to look at again and again."

"Bright, breezy and fun with action on every page."

You can find out more about the book on this page of my website and download and print the new Spot the Difference activity sheet by clicking on the image below.

Buy this book at amazon UK Buy at amazon US

Monday, 21 May 2018

DARWINISM FOR BEGINNERS: Picture books that introduce children to evolution

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

Until recently, the UK school curriculum did not require children to be taught about evolution until they reached secondary school. In September 2014, after years of lobbying by scientists and other groups, evolution was introduced into the final year (age 10-11) of the primary curriculum. While this is a step in the right direction, research has shown that children are more likely to accept evolution’s rational explanation of creation if they’re introduced to it towards the beginning of their primary education rather than at the end, by which time less-rational explanations (both religious and non-religious) may have taken root.

For the last few years I've been using my poem My Cousin is a Cucumber (from Skyboy and other Stupendous Science Stories) to explain to Year 3 and 4 classes that all life on Earth is believed to have a single common ancestor. Most seven-year-olds are fascinated to learn that they are descended from an "itsy-bitsy blob of life" and amused to discover that they are the distant cousins of both cockatoos and cucumbers. An awareness of evolution is fundamental to a child’s proper understanding of the natural world and, if presented in an appropriate and engaging way, there is no good reason for evolution not to be introduced to children as young as five or six.

Picture books can be a very effective way to introduce evolution to children from an early age. How the Borks Became, my new picture book with Elys Dolan, was written specifically to explain natural selection, the process by which evolution takes place. It was developed in consultation with Boston University’s Child Cognition Lab who have been researching how to teach evolution effectively to young children. As a result of their research, the team developed their own natural selection picture book, How the Piloses Evolved Skinny Noses, which is aimed at a slightly older age group to How the Borks Became and explains the process in a more detailed way. You can find out more about the team’s research and their book at evolvingmindsproject.org.

How the Borks Became follows the evolution of a fictional species, the llama-like Borks, who live on “a far distant planet, quite like our own Earth”. The books shows how three environmental factors - climate, predation and availability of food – result in Borks evolving from smooth-furred, short-necked, blue creatures into shaggy, long-necked, yellow ones.

How the Borks Became shows how natural selection transforms the Borks from smooth-furred, short-necked, blue creatures into shaggy, long-necked, yellow ones.

The use of a fantasy alien ecosystem gives the book licence to represent the process of natural selection in a speeded-up, caricatured form over just four generations of Borks. A page at the end of the book explains that evolution on Earth happens at a far slower rate with much smaller changes and that it might take an Earth animal millions of years to change as much as the Borks in the story.

When a greedy predator gobbles up all of the blue-furred borks, only the better-camouflaged yellow-furred Borks are left to parent the next generation.

Here are five more picture books that do a great job of introducing the fundamentally important topic of evolution to children at primary school age.

Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story 

written by Lisa Westberg Peters

illustrated by Lauren Stringer

Suitable for age 5 and above.

This is a US picture book, but can easily be bought on import. Westberg Peter’s simple, poetic text charts the evolution of humans from our beginnings as simple singel-cell organisms to the present day, highlighting significant stages along the way. Stringer’s illustrations intercut pictures of creatures in their natural habitats with images of a family mapping out an evolutionary diagram on a sandy beach. These sand drawings are cleverly employed to illustrate important developments in internal anatomy, such as the appearance of backbones and lungs. A glossary page and timeline at the back of the book give additional details and a sense of perspective to the book’s four billion year narrative.

A spread from Our Family Tree, showing the development of fins and a backbone.

The Story of Life

written by Catherine Barr and Steve Williams

illustrated by Amy Husband

Suitable for age 6 and above.

This book covers an even longer timeline than Our Family Tree and charts the evolution of all life on Earth with the time period displayed in the corner of each page. Amy Husband’s lively illustrations display the diversity of Earth’s plant and animal life at various stages in its early history, before narrowing the focus to show the last 12 million years of human evolution from the the first apes to modern man on the last four spreads. The book finishes with an environmental message about the need to look after the planet that is our only home.

This spread from The Story of Life illustrates the diversity of life on prehistoric Earth.

What Mr Darwin Saw

by Mick Manning and Brita Granström

Suitable for age 7 and above.

Although the concept of evolution predated Charles Darwin, it was not widely accepted until Darwin discovered the principle of natural selection. Mick Manning and Brita Granström’s biographical picture book spans the life of this revolutionary scientist, but focusses chiefly on the five years the young Darwin spent as a captain’s companion and naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle. The book uses scenes from the voyage and excerpts from Darwin’s diary to show how his encounters with the plants and animals of South America, and the Galapagos Islands in particular, informed his subsequent work.

What Mr Darwin Saw illustrates how Darwin’s experiences during the voyage of the HMS Beagle informed his later work.

The Misadventures of Charles Darwin

written by Isabel Thomas

illustrated by Pete Williamson

Suitable for age 9 and above.

This book, part of Oxford University Press’s Treetops in Fact series, presents an entertaining biography of Darwin’s life, from “stinky schoolboy” to aged “celebrity scientist”. It also does a great job of explaining Darwin’s theories clearly and succinctly and examines some of their implications for science and culture. Isabel Thomas’s engaging  and accessible text is liberally peppered with archive photographs and Pete Williamson’s illustrations and ‘Mythbuster’ panels throughout the book help to correct common misconceptions about Darwin’s life and work.

This spread from The Misadventures of Charles Darwin looks at how Darwin’s theories were initially received.

All About Evolution: From Darwin to DNA

by Robert Winston

(Previously published as Evolution Revolution)

Suitable for age 10 and above.

This book, written by scientist and broadcaster Robert Winston is crammed with detailed information on every aspect on evolution, from its historical development as an idea, to its possible implications for the future of mankind. One minor criticism is that some spreads feel a little too crowded, making it difficult to take in the content, but this is easily forgiven given the breadth and quality of information the book contains. Although this book is probably more suited to secondary school readers, it contents will be of interest to more advanced and inquisitive readers in their final years of primary school as well.

This spread from All About Evolution shows how scientists think complex structures like the human eye evolved via a series of incremental changes.

How the Borks Became An Adventure in Evolution

illustrated by Elys Dolan is published by Otter-Barry Books.

Buy this book at amazon UKBuy at amazon US


Sunday, 20 May 2018

HOW THE BORKS BECAME • Book launch and readings at Wollaton Hall Natural History Museum

The book launch was followed by three public readings of the book. (Hall photo: Gerry Molumby)

I had my first ever book launch last Saturday, for How the Borks Became, my new picture book with Elys Dolan.

The book is an entertaining introduction to the principle of evolution through natural selection so, rather than ask a bookshop to host the launch,  I approached my local Natural History Museum at Wollaton Hall in Nottingham to ask if they'd be interested in hosting it – and to my delight they agreed!

We were blessed with a beautiful sunny day, which made the Hall look all the more magnificent!

We could not have wished for a grander venue or better weather! (Photo: Val Sawyer)

The launch was held in one of the museum's galleries, decorated with giant dinosaur illustrations by ZHAO Chuang.

(Photo; Kurtis Brade)

The day started with a short reception, attended by local authors, illustrators and other guests from the East Midlands' book community.  I'd hoped to photograph more of the guests, but the only photo I managed to take is this gathering of Nottinghamshire's wonderful children's librarians.

Nottinghamhire's children's librarians: Carolyn Gallagher from Inspire (Notts County Libraries), Val Sawyer and Rachel Marshall from Notts Education Library Service and Sandra Edis from Nottingham City Libraries

Fortunately, I did have the presence of mind to photograph these brilliant Bork biscuits before they were picked of by hungry predators. The biscuits were made by local cake and biscuit maker Amy Lawson. You can see more of Amy's mouthwatering work on her instagram page.

A batch of Bork biscuits!

The reception was immediately followed by the first of three public readings by me and Elys.  We got the children to spot the changes between an early Bork and the later, more-evolved version that Elys drew for them and asked them to suggest how these changes might have helped the Borks to survive.

Elys drawing a Bork. (Photo: Erika Meza)

Then we read the book to them …

"The thing about Borks is, no two are a match …"

… and did some book signing and doodling. I've only just realised that I didn't think to ask Elys to sign and doodle in my copy – you can tell I am new to this book launch thing!

Elys and me signing Borks books. (Photo: Janetta Otter-Barry)

But at least I have this great photo of me and Elys with the Borks, taken by Elys's agent Frances.

This photo implies that Elys and I are at opposite ends of the evolutionary spectrum!
(Photo: Frances McKay)

As our publisher Janetta was leaving, she spotted this young reader sitting on the Hall steps engrossed in her new book.

 Lost on Planet Charleebob (Photo: Janetta Otter-Barry)

Thanks to everyone who came along to the launch reception and readings. And an especially big THANK YOU to museum curator Adam Smith and City Science Officer Sue Mallender for arranging for the Hall to host the launch, Site Coordinator Chelsea Rushton for doing such a great job of organising the events from the Hall's side and Graham Armitage and Aimee Bollu and for making sure everything ran smoothly on the day.

How the Borks Became is published by Otter-Barry Books

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