Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Gift-Wrapped Characters Christmas Quiz

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

When I was a child, part of the excitement of the run-up to Christmas was shaking, squeezing and even sniffing the gift-wrapped presents beneath our Christmas tree in an attempt to deduce what was inside. For this year's Christmas quiz, I've gift-wrapped 10 picture book characters. Since shaking, squeezing and sniffing are not options, you'll have to work out who they are from their outlines alone. How many can you identify?

Click on each image to reveal the answer











How did you do?

10All present and correct: Your picture book character recognition skills are exemplary!
7–9Gifted: You know your Seuss from your Scheffler.
4–6Some contents missing: Not bad, but perhaps you should add a few picture book classics to your Christmas list.
1–3A bad wrap: You need to brush up on your picture book knowledge.

My delightfully dark Christmas picture book The Santa Trap, illustrated by Poly Bernatene, is available in a UK paperback print-on-demand edition from Hatchling Books and a US Hardback edition from Peachtree Publishers.

Buy this book at amazon UKBuy at amazon US

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Are UK authors only prepared to defend the rights of people like themselves?

This article was originally published in The Bookseller on 30 November 2018

Victims of UAE injustice: UK academic Matthew Hedges, with his wife Daniela, and UAE Human Rights Campaigner Ahmed Mansoor, with three of his children.

The UAE government’s pardoning of UK academic Matthew Hedges earlier this week was clearly a cause for celebration. Matthew’s release was the result of the courageous campaigning of his wife Daniela Tejada. After months of having her requests to meet with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt ignored, Daniela decided to disregard the Foreign Office’s advice and shared the story of her husband’s plight with the UK media. By doing so she secured the immediate attention of Jeremy Hunt along with the sympathy and support of the UK public. The UAE’s mistreatment of Matthew caused such outrage that the staff of three UK universities voted to boycott their UAE campuses and several UK authors booked to appear at next March’s state-sponsored Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai announced that they would boycott the festival if Matthew remained in prison.

"The academic and author boycotts of the UAE helped to send an emphatic signal to both governments that the UK public was not willing to turn a blind eye to such shocking mistreatment of a fellow citizen."
The UAE is currently the world's fourth-largest buyer of arms and one of the UK’s most lucrative trading partners. The UK government has a track record of prioritising trade over human rights in its dealings with the Gulf state and it seems likely that, if the UK public had been indifferent to Matthew’s predicament, he would still be languishing in an Abu Dhabi jail. The academic and author boycotts of the UAE helped to send an emphatic signal to both governments that the UK public was not willing to turn a blind eye to such shocking mistreatment of a fellow citizen.

Obscene miscarriages of justice like Matthew’s are everyday occurrences in the UAE, where writers, academics and journalists are routinely arrested, imprisoned and tortured for expressing the mildest criticism of the country’s sociopathic rulers. In the words of Amnesty International’s Middle East Director Lynn Maalouf, “The authorities have left no room for doubt: those who dare to speak their minds freely in the UAE today risk grave punishment."

One of the UAE’s notable prisoners of conscience is the engineer and blogger Ahmed Mansoor, formerly described by Amnesty as "the last remaining Emirati human rights defender”. After being released from eight months in prison in 2011 for the crime of “insulting officials”, the UAE government confiscated Ahmed’s passport, forcing him to remain in the country. Knowing full well that his actions would inevitably result in further imprisonment and torture, Ahmed continued to speak out against human rights violations in the UAE. In 2015 a jury of ten global human rights organisations, including Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, awarded him the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in recognition of his courageous work.

Human rights organisations explain the vital role played by UAE human rights defender
Ahmed Mansoor in this 2015 video made before his return to prison.

In March 2017, Ahmed was re-arrested and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for the “crime” of criticising the UAE government on social media. Unlike Daniela Tejada, Ahmed’s wife is unable to campaign for his release. The family and friends of UAE prisoners of conscience who challenge prisoners’ convictions are liable to become prisoners themselves and that would leave Ahmed’s four young children without a parent. If Ahmed and the many other UAE prisoners of conscience convicted purely for exercising their freedom of expression are to be pardoned, the pressure must come from outside of the UAE.

"If UK authors are prepared to boycott a festival over the unfair imprisonment of a single innocent UK citizen, then surely we should be prepared to do the same for the scores of innocent Emiratis like Ahmed Mansoor."
If UK authors are prepared to boycott a UAE state-sponsored festival over the unfair imprisonment of a single innocent UK citizen, then surely we should be prepared to do the same for the scores of innocent Emiratis like Ahmed Mansoor. If not, we’re effectively saying that the welfare and liberty of a UK citizen are worth far more than those of a foreigner imprisoned for defending the freedom of others.

I’d like to think that UK authors are better than that. Freedom of expression is the fundamental principle on which our craft depends; whether we boycott the festival or choose to attend it, UK authors should challenge those who are brutally suppressing freedom of expression within the UAE. So, as we celebrate Matthew Hedges’ release, we should also speak out to defend the rights of those who have no one else to defend them.

Further Reading

Matthew Hedges is free. What about UAE citizens who are unfairly jailed and silenced?
Middle East Analyst Bill Law's November 2018 article for Middle East Eye.

THE EMIRATES FESTIVAL OF COGNITIVE DISSONANCE: How do writers and publishers square their commitment to freedom of expression with sponsorship by a brutally repressive regime?
My March 2018 blog post on the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

Monday, 5 November 2018

THE SANTA TRAP • New UK Print-On-Demand Paperback

I'm delighted to announce that Poly Bernatene and I have just published a new UK print-on-demand edition of our "darkly funny" Christmas picture book The Santa Trap.

When children ask which of my own books is my favourite, this is the book I pick. It tells the story of Bradley Bartleby, an obscenely rich, villainous child who sets out to trap Santa Claus so that he can steal all of Santa's presents. One of the reasons I'm particularly fond of the book is that it's slightly autobiographical; as a child, I used to build Santa traps. However, unlike Bradley, I didn't want to capture Santa and steal his presents – I just wanted to get a glimpse of him. So the traps I built were designed to wake me up the moment Santa set foot in my room.

After several years of creating increasingly complex traps, I came up with the tripwire system shown in the diagram below. I strung four thin nylon tripwires around my bedroom and tied the ends to four large beads resting on one end of a Lego see-saw. The opposite end of the see-saw was wired up to a battery-powered alarm. If a tripwire moved, the bead it was tied to would be pulled off the see-saw, causing the opposite end to drop and close the circuit on the ear-piercing alarm. In addition to real tripwires, I strung a similar number of decoy tripwires around the room. It was impossible to tell the real tripwires and the decoys apart – so they both had to be avoided. I tested the trap myself and — even with the light on – I was unable to cross the room without setting off the alarm. The whole system took me so long to build and test that I didn't get into bed until almost midnight, by which time my bedroom looked like an enormous web, crisscrossed with gossamer threads, with me lying spider-like at the far end.

This diagram, from one of my school sessions, shows the final trap I built in my attempts to trap Santa. 

The strict code of secrecy surrounding Santa prevents me from telling what happened that night*, but I can tell you that it was the last Santa trap I ever built.

Another reason I'm particularly fond of the book is Poly's wonderful illustrations. Although it didn't take long to find a publisher, it took three years to find a suitable illustrator. A couple of illustrators agreed to do it but then changed their minds. Eventually, editor Emily Ford found Poly and asked him to do a sample. He turned out to be a perfect fit and well worth the wait. Poly and I have since done another three books together.

One of my favourite spreads from the book.

Bradley's darkly comical antics were a hit with readers and reviewers alike and in 2015 the story was adapted into a stage musical by Robin Belfield and Simon Slater.

Toby Vaughan (left) as beastly Bradley with Elouise Secker and Ben Tolley as his parents in Belfield Slater's 2015 stage production.

Although technically in print, the original UK paperback has not always been available in the weeks leading up to Christmas, so Poly and I have published the new print-on-demand edition to ensure its availability this year.

Another spread from the new edition.

Here's a trailer I put together for the new edition:

The book has proved popular in schools and Herts For Learning have produced a set of lesson plans, based on the book which you can download using the link below.

You can also download some activity sheets for the book by clicking on the images below.

The book is also available in a US Hardback edition from Peachtree Publishers. You can order the new UK print-on-demand edition and the US edition using the buttons below.

Buy this book at amazon UK Buy at amazon US

* Which is a shame because it was extremely funny.

Thursday, 4 October 2018


Alphabet Street, my new novelty book with illustrator Ingela P Arrhenius, is published in the UK today by Nosy Crow!

The book features a street of shops with alphabetised names (Alfie’s Bakery, Coffee & Doughnuts, etc.). 

Flaps on each shop open to reveal rhyming couplets of alphabetised animals engaged in alphabetised activities.

It can be read as a conventional book or opened out to show all 13 shops as a wallchart or free-standing play scene.

The book had a long journey to publication – I came up with the idea almost two decades ago and my agent Caroline Walsh and I had been pitching it to UK publishers since 1999. The reason most publishers gave for turning the book down was that, “alphabet books can’t be translated” – so they’d be unable to split the book’s high production costs with foreign co-publishers.

A concept drawing sent to publishers, showing how the book could be opened out into a wall-chart or play scene.

Nevertheless, I felt that the book was sufficiently appealing and original to justify dusting it off and re-submitting it to publishers every few years. And this perseverance paid off when the book was finally accepted by Nosy Crow.

Ironically – after years of being rejected as untranslatable – the book is also being published in eight different foreign language editions.

The first edition has been published in nine different languages.

A key part of the book’s appeal to the overseas market is the beautiful artwork of Swedish illustrator Ingela P Arrhenius whose bright, cheerful style is very popular with European readers. And Nosy Crow cleverly avoided the “alphabet books can’t be translated” issue by pitching the book to foreign co-publishers in a non-alphabetic, non-rhyming version with the alternative title “Busy Busy Street”.

A section of Ingela's park panorama from the reverse side of the book.

Which just goes to show that, “if at first you don’t succeed” in finding a publisher, it can be worth persevering, and that, if an alphabet book has sufficient appeal beyond the alphabet element, it CAN be translated!

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

🎶 ALL TOGETHER NOW! 🎶 Picture books adapted from songs

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

Although some people will only know We’re Going on a Bear Hunt as a picture book by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, the text is adapted from an American folk song and many children of my generation will have known it as a scout and guide campfire song long before the picture book was published.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is one of the most celebrated examples of a picture book adapted from a song. Song lyrics often need some authorial tinkering to make them work well as a picture book text and the onomatopoeic sounds in the book (Swishy swashy! Splash splosh! etc.) and the verses about the forest and the snowstorm are both Rosen's invention.

My picture book She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain, illustrated by Deborah Allwright, was also adapted from an American folk song.

When an editor asked me to adapt the song a few years ago, I decided that the first thing I needed to do was reduce the repetition. While a degree of repetition is often encouraged in picture book writing, I felt that having the same phrase repeated five times on every spread would become a little tedious, so I replaced two of the repeated phrases in each verse with a rhyming couplet.

So this first verse of the original folk song:
She'll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes,
She'll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes,
She'll be coming ‘round the mountain,
She'll be coming ‘round the mountain,
She'll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes,
Became this in my picture book version:
She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes,
She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes,
Yes, she'll whistle like a train,
As she speeds across the plain,

She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes,
I also replaced most of the folk song's later verses – including the ones about sleeping with grandma and killing the old red rooster – with new verses. The new verse where the cowgirl paints the whole town purple was a cowboy-hat-tip to the Clint Eastwood western High Plains Drifter, in which an enigmatic cowboy literally paints a whole town red.

Songs often make it onto the page without any authorial tinkering. There are plenty of picture book adaptations of Over in the Meadow and Old MacDonald had a Farm that feature the original lyrics …

… but there are also quite a few adaptations that have been re-written to include a more exotic, mechanical or flatulent cast of characters.

While all of the above examples are adapted from folk songs, picture book adaptations of contemporary songs have become increasingly common in recent years. One of the first examples I remember seeing is this 2007 adaptation of the Peter Paul and Mary song Puff the Magic Dragon illustrated by Eric Puybaret.

Since then, contemporary songs by Bob Marley, Dolly Parton, John Lennon, Kenny Loggins and many others have been adapted into picture books.

Illustrator Tim Hopgood has produced a series of picture book adaptations of classic 20th Century songs.

As picture books adapted from songs have become increasingly popular, the interval between the song coming out and the picture book being published seems to be reducing. Last year’s picture book adaptation of When I Grow Up, illustrated by Steve Anthony, was published just seven years after the song first appeared, in Tim Minchin’s Matilda the Musical.

And the picture book version of Pharrell Williams’ Happy! (illustrated with photographs) came out only one year after the song was released!

So if you’re a picture book author or illustrator looking for ideas, you might try flicking through an old songbook or switching on the radio. If you’re lucky, you might discover the inspiration for the next We’re Going on a Bear Hunt!

You can order print-on-demand editions of She'll Be coming Round the Mountain using the links below.

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