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.