Thursday, 31 May 2018

PIGS MIGHT FLY! New Paperback Edition

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

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 single-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

Thursday, 3 May 2018

HOW THE BORKS BECAME: An Adventure in Evolution • New UK picture book

How the Borks Became, an evolution-themed picture book by me and Elys Dolan is out today!

After thinking about writing a picture book about evolution for several years, I finally got around to doing it in 2013. When my children were in primary school the only explanations they had been taught for the creation of life on Earth were those given in Christian and Hindu religious texts. I’ve no objection to schools teaching children religious creation myths at this age but, if children are to develop a proper understanding of the natural world, schools ought to be teaching the evidence-based explanation of creation offered by science alongside the faith-based explanations offered by religion. Since September 2014 UK primary schools have been obliged to teach evolution to children in their final year (age 10-11). While this is a step in the right direction, research has shown that children are more likely to accept the rational, scientific explanation of creation presented by evolution if they are 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) have often established themselves in children's minds.

A spread from How the Borks Became illustrating the evolution of humans over the last 3,500 million years.

Picture books can be very effective in illustrating the concept of evolution to young children. However, while there are plenty of picture books that show how evolution results in plants and animals changing their appearance over successive generations, there are very few picture books that explain the process by which these changes are brought about. And those picture books that do attempt an explanation are often inaccurate or misleading, suggesting that a species might change its appearance within a single lifetime or that the change might be brought about by a conscious effort by an individual animal.

It’s a common misconception that Charles Darwin discovered evolution, but the concept was established long before Darwin popularised it. Darwin’s breakthrough discovery was the process of natural selection whereby individuals best adapted to their environment are more likely to survive and pass on their advantageous features to the next generation. Having been unable to find a picture book that depicted this process accurately, I set out to write one myself.

To depict natural selection properly one has to show individuals with beneficial traits surviving, while other individuals, who lack these traits, are dying. The dispassionate depiction of creatures dying from hunger, predation or other environmental factors is the antithesis of the reassuringly safe, peril-free world that the vast majority of picture books present to young readers, so I decided that the book needed a strong dose of humour to lighten the tone. In an attempt to achieve this, I drew inspiration from Dr. Seuss, whose rhyming stories often introduced children to important concepts in an amusing and engaging way. My personal favourites include The Sneetches, a laugh-out-loud story that deftly deals with both racism and consumerism, and The Lorax, which tackles environmental issues in a similar way.

The stories of Dr. Seuss, including The Sneetches and The Lorax, were an inspiration for the book’s text.

Both the Sneetches and the Lorax are fantasy creatures and I decided that – although evolution books are usually found in the non-fiction section – the animals I would use to explain it would also be fictional. So the book is set on the Earth-like Planet Charleebob (named after Charles Robert Darwin) and follows the evolution of a species of llama-like alien creatures called Borks. One big advantage of using a fictional species and setting was that it gave me 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 do.

Writing the text turned out to be relatively quick and easy compared with finding a publisher. One of the first publishers I showed the text to told me that she could not envisage how it could work as a picture book, so I illustrated a few of the spreads myself to get the concept across. Another publisher told me that the book needed at least one character that survived from beginning to end, so I wrote an alternative draft featuring a Doctor-Who-like time traveller with a boy and girl companion, to narrate the story from start to finish.

One of the spreads I illustrated myself, to show how the book might work on the page.

Usually, if a picture book does not find a publisher after about a year, I stop pitching it. However How the Borks Became was a project close to my heart and my supportive agent Caroline Walsh and I continued to show the text to anyone and everyone we thought might be interested for three years before the book was finally accepted by Janetta Otter-Barry for her newly-founded publishing company Otter-Barry Books. One of the last books Janetta had published in her former role as publisher at Frances Lincoln was The Story of Life, an excellent picture book illustrating the timeline of evolution of life on Earth by Catherine Barr, Steve Williams and Amy Husband, so I knew the Borks were in safe hands.

Janetta accepted the book on the condition that we found a suitable illustrator and made a couple of suggestions. Although I would have been happy to work with either of these illustrators on another project, they didn’t feel right for the Borks. I’d tried to make the text both amusing and educational and I felt the book needed an illustrator that could bring a strong element of humour to the illustrations as well. I told Janetta that ideally the book would be illustrated by someone like Elys Dolan. Although I’d previously worked with Elys on The Clockwork Dragon, I doubted she’d be interested in doing another book she'd not written herself as she had plenty of picture book ideas of her own to keep her busy. However I decided that there was no harm in asking her and Janetta agreed. To my delight Elys said that How the Borks Became sounded like an exciting project and agreed to come on board!

If you’re familiar with Elys’s other books, you’ll know that she excels at creating spreads crammed with amusing detail and she brought a similar approach to her illustrations for How the Borks Became, inventing a lively alien ecosystem for the Borks to inhabit. In addition to the five plants and animals referenced in my text and illustration notes, Elys created a further ten lifeforms that can be seen evolving (or in one case going extinct) alongside the Borks. You can find the names of all fifteen species and a little information on each in the explorer notes that fill the book’s endpapers. My favourite creature is the magnificently sinister Ravenous Snarfle, that deserves a book all to itself.

"They were roaming this plain on a bright sunny day.
when a Ravenous Snarfle came flying their way."

Shortly after Elys came on board I read a Guardian article about a team of developmental psychologists at Boston University who had been researching how picture books could be used to teach natural selection to 5-8-year-olds. Like me, the team had been unable to find a picture book that depicted natural selection accurately and, like me, the team had developed their own, called How the Piloses Evolved Skinny Noses. The Piloses picture book is aimed at a slightly older age group than How the Borks Became and illustrates the process in a more detailed, less caricatured way, but both books take a similar approach. Like the Borks book, the Piloses book follows the evolution of a fictional creature. The Boston team had opted to use a fictional species because their research had shown that children are more likely to have preconceived ideas about real animals. The team’s research had also shown that children were able to retain and generalise the understanding of natural selection that they’d learnt from their book and apply the same principle to other fictional animals.

Boston University psychologist Deborah Kelemen with her own book, How the Piloses Evolved Skinny Noses. You can find out more about the book and the research behind it at

“Most storybooks that touch on natural selection only further confuse kids, but How the Borks Became introduces the principle in an effective and entertaining way.”
Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences,

Boston University, and author of How the Piloses Evolved Skinny Noses
The approach taken by the Boston team’s book seemed so similar to the one taken by How the Borks Became that I sent team leader Deborah Kelemen a copy of my text along with Elys’s initial character sketches in the hope that she might be willing to give us some feedback in the light of their research, which Deborah graciously agreed to do. Deborah and her team continued to give us feedback as we developed our book and Deborah gave the finished book the endorsement opposite.

How the Borks Became was not an easy project to get published, but it’s a book I’m especially proud of. So now it's finally in print, I’d like to give a HUGE RAVENOUS SNARFLE SIZED THANK YOU to my agent Caroline for persistently pitching it to publishers, to publisher-editor Janetta for recognising and honing its potential, to illustrator Elys for breathing weird and wonderful life into Planet Charleebob and to everyone else that helped the Borks evolve from a fanciful idea to a fabulous finished picture book!

Here's what some early reviews have said about the book

"An accessible and entertaining way to introduce the concept of evolution and natural selection, told through amusing verse … Elys Dolan's colourful illustrations are full of fun and children will enjoy spotting all the variations."

"A funny, accessible introduction to the concept of evolution
and natural selection … Dolan's pictures are a riot."


Here's a trailer I made for the book.

You can download and print out activity sheets for the book by clicking on their images below.

Spot the Difference


Buy this book at amazon UKBuy at amazon US