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 ├╝ber-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.

Monday, 31 October 2016

I am not the sort of person that goes on demonstrations

Like Father Ted, I’m not a natural-born demonstrator.

I am not the sort of person that goes on demonstrations.

There are things that I care deeply about, but I am a writer and when I want to persuade people of something I usually try to do it by writing. I write blogs, articles, tweets and Facebook posts. I write emails to individuals, companies and organisations. I write to my council, I write to my MP. I also talk to people and try to persuade them at meetings and conferences, or on a one-to-one basis, in person or over the phone. And sometimes – if I care particularly deeply about something – I might get together with other like-minded people to organise a campaign, but even this is conducted in a relatively sedentary fashion.

What I absolutely DO NOT DO is march around shouting and waving placards …

… until now.

I will be going on next Saturday’s National Libraries Museums and Galleries Demonstration.

Although I care about museums and galleries, my main motivation for breaking the habit of a lifetime is the despair I feel about what is happening to the UK public library service. 343 public libraries have been shut down since 2010 and 600 more have lost all their staff and are now volunteer-run. And this cultural vandalism is ongoing. This month two of Birmingham’s libraries were ear-marked for closure, including Sutton Coldfield Library, the fifth most used in the city.

I’ve tried writing, I’ve tried talking, I’ve signed petitions and submitted carefully-worded arguments to public consultations, but it does not seem to make any difference. So I am going to try going on a demonstration instead.

As a children’s author, I’m particularly concerned about the devastating effect that library closures will have on children’s literacy and, by extension, children’s life chances. The current government’s willingness to stand by and let local councils lay waste to their library services represents a catastrophic failure of joined-up-thinking.

"The current government’s willingness to stand by and let local councils lay waste to their library services represents a catastrophic failure of joined-up-thinking"
Research has found that children that read for pleasure do better in maths, vocabulary and spelling than those who rarely read and they gain advantages that last their whole lives. Children have widely differing tastes, so the more books a child can get their hands on, the more likely they are to find books that they will enjoy reading. The best way for a child to get easy access to lots of books – and usually the ONLY way for children in low income families – is through a local library.

The current government appears to understand this. Last year the then Education Secretary Nicky Morgan announced a “national mission” to improve the literacy levels of young children by ensuring that every child in the country is enrolled in their local library by the age of eight. Here’s what she said at the time:
“This is a question of social justice. People with strong reading skills are overwhelmingly more likely to succeed at school, achieve good qualifications, and find a rewarding and enjoyable career. They are even more likely to enjoy good health. By contrast, those who don’t master reading in school suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives, where they may struggle to get good jobs or achieve their full potential. 
“No matter where they live or what their background, every single child in this country deserves the opportunity to read, to read widely, and to read well.”
100% library enrolment by the age of eight is a laudable aim. However 100% enrolment will be entirely pointless if it does not translate to each child visiting a library on a regular basis. For younger children, library visits need adult accompaniment. If the library is near to their primary school then the school might organise regular library visits (as is the case with my local primary school). However if their local library is not within walking distance and their family don’t have a car or money for public transport AND a parent or carer that has both the time and inclination to take them, then they will not have access to a library. Sadly this is already the reality for a great many children and – thanks to library closures – the number is increasing rapidly.

Mobile library services are also being devastated. 
According to the Education Secretary's statement, the government believes that every child “no matter where they live” should have access to a library. Of course it’s not always practical or cost effective for every child to have a bricks and mortar library building within walking distance. Fortunately there is already a solution to this in the form of mobile libraries, an essential service for many rural communities. Unfortunately mobile library services are being cut just as savagely as bricks and mortar libraries; Derbyshire Library Service has had to take nine of their mobile libraries off the road in the last few years.

To make what is perhaps a more contentious point, I think the dismantling of council-run Local Education Authorities (LEAs) by successive Labour and Tory Governments in favour of independently-managed free schools and academies has removed a huge incentive that councils used to have for maintaining a decent library service. Given the link between library access and educational attainment, a council that ran both libraries and schools would be far less likely to close libraries as that same council would be held responsible for the resulting lack of educational attainment in its schools. I think the academisation of the UK school system represents yet another catastrophic failure of joined-up-thinking – but that topic deserves a post of its own.

Libraries will have to evolve.
The Hive combines a university library with a public library
I don’t regard libraries as untouchable. I accept that they need to change and evolve. CIPFA figures show that while the number of UK adults borrowing books is on the decline, the number of children’s loans is holding steady. In view of this, I think there is a case to be made for libraries becoming more family-focussed with other family-related facilities such as health and social services being offered under the same roof as part of a community family centre. Libraries could also integrate with other services in other ways. My local library service in Nottinghamshire has recently become part of a Inspire, a county-wide “Community Benefit Society” with a remit that also covers the arts, music and the county archives. And Worcestershire’s County Library Service has got together with the University of Worcester to create The Hive, the first library in Europe to house both a university book collection and a public lending library.

"If we are to achieve the government’s stated aim of giving every child in this country “the opportunity to read, to read widely, and to read well”, then we need a library of some sort in every community"
If we are to achieve the government’s stated aim of giving every child in this country “the opportunity to read, to read widely, and to read well”, then we need a library of some sort in every community, staffed by professional librarians with an extensive knowledge of reading material, so that they can connect readers, young and old, with books that they will want to read.

If library closures are not stopped and reversed we have ABSOLUTELY NO CHANCE of achieving this aim. I hope that this Saturday’s demonstration will make some sort of a difference and I’d like to think that, in a democracy, the more people that take part, the more likely the government are to take notice. So, if you or your family have ever benefitted from a local library and you can get to London this Saturday, please come along and show your support.

I am not the sort of person that goes on demonstrations – but I’ll be going on this one.

I expect I’ll be doing a bit of marching around and shouting and – if anybody has a spare placard – I’ll be happy to wave it.

The demonstration will start outside the British Library on Saturday 5th November at 12 noon. You can find more information at:


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 bookcase. 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 by 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 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. I had 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.

Buy this book at amazon UK
Buy at amazon US
Buy at amazon US