Thursday, 21 November 2019

Party leaders reading picture books

I was skimming through the election news yesterday when I came across this photo of Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson reading a picture book to school children on the Guardian website.

I recognised the illustrator as Guy Parker-Rees and Guy identified the book as The Chimpanzees of Happy Town written by Giles Andreae. It's the story of Chutney the chimp who inspires his fellow chimpanzees to rise up against an oppressive mayor and transform their grey, cheerless town of Drabsville to the colourful Happy Town of the title. I can't help feeling that this book was not chosen at random!

Primary schools are popular campaign stops for party leaders eager to show that they have their finger on the pulse of the nation's school system and I suspect that picture book readings are often employed to ensure some level of engagement in what might otherwise be an awkward interaction between politician and pupils.

The Jo Swinson photo reminded me that an eagle-eyed friend had spotted the then opposition leader David Cameron reading Someone Bigger by me and Adrian Reynolds to a group of pre-schoolers in a BBC news report in 2008. This story is about a small boy whose repeated attempts to take control of a runaway kite eventually prove successful.

So, with an election looming, I thought I'd highlight the picture books other party leaders have read to school children. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about whether their choice of story is intended to convey a message.

Here's Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn reading We're Going on a Bear Hunt. This modern classic, adptated from a US folk song by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, is about a family that sets out on a long and arduous quest to capture a bear, only to beat a hasty retreat when they finally encounter it.

Here's Conservative Leader Boris Johnson reading Shhh! by Sally Grindley and Peter Utton. This is another quest tale, only this time the journey is through a giant's castle. Having been dared to wake the sleeping giant, readers are encouraged to flee the castle and shut the book.

Scottish National Party Leader Nicola Sturgeon is shown here with a selection of picture books on World Book Day. I'm assuming she read at least one to the children, but unfortunately I don't know which.

I wasn't able to find any photos of any of the other UK party leaders reading picture books, so if you know of any, let me know and I might add them to this post!

It's not just UK politicians that rely on picture books to bridge the generation gap when visiting schools. US President George W. Bush is supposed to have rejected proffered books in favour of his tried and trusted read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Bush was widely mocked for claiming that Carle's story was his favourite childhood book – because it was not published until he was 23!

President Obama also preferred to stick to a tried and trusted favourite. In his case it was Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. You can watch him giving a spirited rendition of the book at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll in the video below.

In these PR savvy days I assume that, if a politician does not have a tried and trusted favourite, a PR person will vet picture books before politicians are filmed reading them.

If not, I dare the next school Boris Johnson visits to give him Smriti Prasadam-Halls and Robert Starling's Brexit-inspired picture book The Little Island to share with the infants.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

HOW THE BORKS BECAME • New Paperback Edition

How the Borks Became, An Adventure in Evolution, written by me and illustrated by Elys Dolan, has just been published in paperback by Otter-Barry Books.

The book shows young children how evolution by natural selection works by following the evolution of successive generations of Borks, a fictional alien species who live on the faraway Planet Charleebob.

The Borks evolve from smooth-furred, short-necked, blue into shaggy, long-necked, yellow creatures.

"You see, Borks haven’t always looked as they do.
Their fur was once short and its colour was blue,"

The arrival of a huge flying predator - the Ravenous Snarfle – results in an evolutionary change.

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

Since the original hardback edition was published last year, the book has won the Best Early Years Book category of the STEAM Children's Book Prize which celebrates children’s books that highlight the importance of science, technology, engineering, arts and maths. And the Italian edition PerchĂ© noi Boffi Siamo Cosi?translated by Lucia Feoli and published by Editoriale Scienza, was shortlisted for the prestigious Andersen Prize.

The book has also picked up many glowing reviews, including the two below from Booktrust and Teach Primary magazine.

"This fantastically funny tale combines humour, rhyming text
and wonderfully vibrant illustrations to present evolution
and natural selection in an accessible way."


"Zany characters and joyous text combine into a thoughtful, lucid explanation of Darwin’s theory, so whether you’re a Y6 teacher starting this topic, or want to introduce younger children to the idea, there’s no better starting place."

Here's a trailer I made for the book.

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

Spot the Difference


And you can buy the new paperback edition at your local 'Borkshop" or by using one of the sales links below.

Buy at amazon US

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

HOW THE BORKS BECAME • STEAM Children's Book Prize and Lancashire Science Festival

I'm thrilled to announce that How the Borks Became, An Adventure in Evolution by me and Elys Dolan has won the "Best Early Years Book" category of the inaugural STEAM Children's Book Prize

The prize was set up by UCLan Publishing in partnership with the British Interplanetary Society to celebrate children’s books that highlight the importance of science, technology, engineering, arts and maths. The prize is unusual in that both non-fiction and fiction books are eligible for each age category. The combined fact and fiction nature of the prize is a good fit with How the Borks Became as it uses fictional creatures to illustrate the non-fiction principle of evolution.

I went up to the UCLan campus in Preston last Saturday to pick up the award at the Lancashire Science Festival.

My wife Rachel and I decided to make a weekend of it and took the opportunity to visit Antony Gormley's Another Place sculpture on the way. The sculpture consists of one hundred life sized cast iron figures facing towards the sea. The figures have been there since 2007; many are fully submerged at high tide and are covered in barnacles.

I did a couple of How The Borks Became events as part of the science festival and the award was presented to me at the start of my first event by Hazel Holmes of UCLan Publishing.

I was really impressed by how many fantastic events and activities there were to see and do at the Science Festival and how many local families had come along to explore them.

Here's one of the budding young scientists that the Borks and I met.

Local bookseller Tony Higginson of Beyond Books was on hand to sell copies of my books and do a bit of Bork-spotting afterwards. Thanks for letting me use some of your photos on this blog, Tony!

Once the festival was over, Rachel and I popped up the coast to Blackpool and paid a visit to the Tower and its stunning ballroom (as featured in Strictly Come Dancing) before heading home.

I'd like to say a big THANK YOU to festival organiser Stephanie Brayn for making me part of this year's festival, volunteer Charlie for helping out at my events, Hazel Holmes and the rest of the team at UCLan Publishing for organising the wonderful STEAM Prize and the judging panel for choosing How the Borks Became as the prize's very first "Best Early Years Book".

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

Find out more about this book and
download activity sheets on my website

My How the Borks Became event is suitable for ages 5-9 years.
If you're interested in booking it, you can download an event outline here.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Dear PTAs: if you want your children to go places, a School Library Service subscription will be a better investment than a school trip or a minibus.

A child’s education is the responsibility of their parents and guardians as much as their teachers and most good schools have the support of a dedicated Parent Teacher Association. A key activity of most PTAs is fundraising. A recent survey carried out by UK PTA organisation Parentkind revealed that PTAs raised £108 million for UK schools in 2018, with an average of £8,030 per school.

2018 PTA fundraising infographic from Parentkind
The survey showed that books were among the items most commonly bought with PTA funds along with school trips and sports and playground equipment. As we approach the end of this school year, and PTAs start to think about their fundraising wish-lists for next year, I’d like to make the case for making an annual subscription to a School Library Service a priority item.

For anyone unfamiliar with them, a School Library Service or SLS (also known as an Education Library Service or ELS) is a locally run service that provides books and other learning resources to schools. Books are borrowed rather than bought, enabling schools to refresh in-school stock on a regular basis. The way School Library Services are funded varies, but most schools have to buy into the service. As school budgets have become tighter and tighter, some schools have had to cancel or reduced their SLS subscriptions, opting to purchase new books for themselves or make do with the books they already own. As a consequence, many SLSs are struggling to stay in business. Last year both Derbyshire SLS and Walsall SLS were closed. And once an SLS is gone, it’s gone for good – it’s a case of use them or lose them.

The cancellation of SLS subscriptions may save schools a few hundred pounds a year in the short term, but it’s a false economy that could have a detrimental effect on children’s educational achievement and life chances in the long term. There is now a wealth of research demonstrating that children that read for pleasure do better in maths, vocabulary and spelling than those who rarely read and gain advantages that last their whole lives. Children have widely differing tastes, so the more books a child can get access to, the more likely they are to find books they’ll enjoy reading. The easiest way for most children to get regular access to a wide selection of books is through their school library.

"The only way to create a lasting culture of reading for pleasure within a school is to have a thriving school library; an annual SLS subscription is THE easiest and most cost-effective way for schools to achieve this."
As an author who visits schools regularly, I know that the only way to create a lasting culture of reading for pleasure within a school is to have a thriving school library; an annual SLS subscription is THE easiest and most cost-effective way for schools to achieve this. Most children will not want to keep visiting a library that offers the same selection of books any more than they will want to keep watching a TV channel that offers the same selection of programmes. For a school library to maintain its appeal and relevance, its stock needs refreshing frequently and an annual SLS subscription, which allows schools to exchange books regularly, costs a great deal less than repeatedly buying in new books.

Inspire ELS, my local service, currently charge primary schools just £5.85 per book, per year for their “Unlimited Exchange” package. This is less than the price of most new paperbacks! Schools can keep the same book all year or exchange it for another as often as they like, either by visiting the Inspire ELS showroom or by weekly van delivery. So if a book is swapped every half-term then the cost works out at less than £1 per book per half-term. And, while books owned by schools deteriorate and go out of date, books borrowed from an SLS are constantly refreshed with new and up to date replacements.

SLSs can put together tailor-made book collections
to match specific topic criteria.
An SLS will stock a wide range of both fiction and non-fiction books, along with many other educational resources. So, whether your school has ‘traditional tales’ or ‘space’ as a classroom topic, an SLS can provide a range of books to support it. Teachers can either select individual titles themselves (by browsing in the showroom or using an online catalogue) or ask the SLS to put together a tailor-made collection to match their specific topic criteria.

Another huge benefit of an SLS subscription is access to the SLS’s team of specialist librarians. Around 10,000 new children’s books are published in the UK every year. Teaching staff have enough work on their hands without having to sift through this endless stream of publications trying to find the new “hook books” that will turn children into avid readers. Fortunately this is a task that SLS librarians excel at. All the books in an SLS loan collection will have been individually reviewed and selected by the SLS’s expert team and their advice and assistance comes for free with an SLS subscription.

So, if you are a hardworking member of a PTA and would like your fundraising efforts to have a lasting legacy, please consider directing some of your funds towards an annual SLS subscription. And, if your school’s lucky enough to have an existing subscription, please consider increasing it to cover a few more books. You will be helping to build a culture of reading for pleasure in your school that will benefit your children for the rest of their lives.

You can find your local UK School Library Service on this page of the School Library Services UK website:

If you are a PTA of a school in Nottinghamshire or Derbyshire and would like to find out more about subscribing to Inspire ELS, you can visit their website at, phone Val Sawyer or Rachel Marshall on 0115 98854200 or email them on and Inspire ELS can arrange for a librarian to come to talk to your PTA about the service they offer, if you’d like them to.

Friday, 18 January 2019

A SPOT OF BOTHER was my most borrowed UK library book in 2018

I've just received last year's UK library loans figures for my books, courtesy of the Public Lending Right (PLR) organisation. Although my top 5 books most borrowed books remain the same they have shuffled around a bit and there is a new number 1!

A Spot of Bother, illustrated by Vanessa Cabban, has jumped from 2nd place last year to become my most borrowed book. The sequel to The Pig's Knickers was taken out of UK libraries over fourteen thousand times last year.

Prince Ribbit, illustrated by Poly Bernatene, has leapfrogged Here Be Monsters and The Princess and the Pigalso illustrated by Poly, to take second place, while The Silver Serpent Cup, illustrated by Ed Eaves, retains its place at number 5.

The PLR figures show that my books were borrowed from UK libraries a total of 138,352 times last year.

PositionTitleNÂș of loansRelative Position
1A Spot of Bother
illustrated by Vanessa Cabban
2Prince Ribbit
illustrated by Poly Bernatene
3Here Be Monsters
illustrated by Poly Bernatene
4The Princess and the Pig
illustrated by Poly Bernatene
5The Silver Serpent Cup
illustrated by Ed Eaves

A big THANK YOU to everyone that borrowed my books, the wonderful librarians that made them available and the UK PLR scheme for helping authors like me to earn a living.