Category Archives: Inspirations

Cauliflower ears and potato teeth – the vegetable monster show

veg_compI was thrilled to be chosen to judge the children’s vegetable monster competition at Southfields Harvest, a local community event celebrating autumn. Here are some of the entries – it’s amazing what you can do with a celeriac and a runner bean. The winner is shown bottom right – extra points for the ‘crime scene’ style passion fruit pulp that the monster is sitting in. The patty pans make marvellous and terrifying eyes too.

The event also involved a knit-in – I knitted a radish to get into the spirit of things, and enjoyed sitting stitching on the day with local friends old and new.

Take a letter, Miss Smith…and other interesting toys

palma_toys_titleI always love a toy museum, and recently I discovered one of the best yet – the Museu de sa Jugueta in Palma de Mallorca. It’s crammed with the most fascinating collection, from smoking boys to Frankensteins with their trousers puzzlingly pulled down.

Spaceships, cars, toy theatres and dolls’ houses – it’s all here. It’s a great bit of social history too: the job-related toys include ‘Miss Smith’, a classic 60s secretary – and in case you thought opportunities for girls were limited, an absolutely terrifying optician as well.

Palma_toys_jobsMusic’s another great theme, with both boy and bunny bands – I love the Ye Yehs on tour, and the big-eared mice with their jazz combo.

Palma_music_toysMy favourite items are the mournful spotty dog on a bicycle and the gorgeous gingham luggage set – and there’s something grimly irresistible about the dolls’ eye mechanisms, though I never liked dolls as a child.

palma_toys_bestIf you find yourself in Palma, it’s well worth seeking out.

Along the Regent’s Canal

I spent a sunny Monday walking the Regent’s Canal, from King’s Cross to Kensal Green. It’s a very interesting way to see London – slow, quiet and full of surprises. The moored houseboats are all so different, with their sculptures, roof gardens and gnome yards, while the dark, dark tunnel entrances exert an ambiguous pull. I particularly enjoyed seeing the furtive (cardboard) penguins preparing to dive into the water just beside London Zoo, and the houseleek wall display.

The day ended at Kensal Green Cemetery, worth an entire outing in itself. It’s a textbook of Victorian architectural fads, each tomb more elaborate than the last. The stone hat and gloves were a nice touch. It’s also a perfect place to look for names – the best of the day: Sarah Snowball.














Croquet on the lawn and a damselfly on my toe…

PBretreat14_1PBretreat14_1 I’m just back from a weekend away at Holland House in the heart of Worcestershire – I was with 29 other picture book writers and illustrators on the now annual SCBWI Picture Book retreat, impeccably organised by Anne-Marie Perks and Bridget Strevens.

It was an amazing weekend in an idyllic setting – lovely gardens down to the river, sunny hidden corners to work in, fresh meals with veg from the garden and tea break cake still warm from the oven. But best of all was the people – so many new friends I can’t wait to see again, very inspiring and great fun to be with.

We were very lucky to have two very talented author illustrators leading the activities: Helen Stephens and Alexis Deacon. Helen gave a fascinating talk about how she works, showing sketchbooks, dummies and original artwork. She spoke about where she gets inspiration and we heard the story about the real-life Fleabag who prompted the book – the day Helen drew him at Battersea Dogs’ Home he was adopted to be a stunt dog! I’m definitely going to adopt some of her methods – such as drawing at a light box standing up to keep the line loose, and taking a limited number of coloured pencils out sketching to keep the palette simple.

Alexis set some really clever creative exercises designed to get us fine-tuning our observational skills to forensic levels of detail – great fun and a useful technique for the future. One of the exercises involved watching and sketching living things for an hour – I could only find invertebrates, but the exercise was so absorbing I could have gone on all day – especially when a shiny turquoise damselfly settled down on my toe.

Everyone on the weekend had the opportunity for a one-to-one crit session with a mentor – Sarah Malley from Egmont and Maria Tunney from Walker were both there giving advice on Saturday (as well as a very entertaining and useful talk). I had my crit with Helen Stephens, and she was very helpful and pointed out some ways of resolving problems in two dummies I’m working on at the moment. The atmosphere was so inspiring I almost completed a brand new picture book dummy – and it was terrific to be able to get immediate feedback from so many interesting and imaginative people.

I’m looking forward to next year already – and next time I will definitely join in the midnight croquet game – this year I got too absorbed in an informal crit group. Highly recommended – book early! Many thanks to everyone involved.


The Great Ink Experiment


A few years ago I went to a tiny but excellent exhibition all about ink at University College London, where a video was showing about how to make ink from oak galls. It’s been in the back of my mind ever since, so when I found myself camping under a line of oaks on the Gower in south Wales last week with oak galls dotted all over the grass, it seemed as if the time had come to give it a try. (oak galls – or oak apples – are little hard balls made when a parasitic wasp larva injects certain chemicals into developing leaf buds on the oak tree).

A little bit of research on the internet showed the key ingredients of this ancient ink (first known recipe by Pliny the Younger) are oak galls and iron, with gum arabic as a binder. The dark colour is created by a chemical reaction between the tannic acid in the galls and the iron sulphate. There’s a very informative website here. There are all sorts of minor variations, so I decided to create my own hybrid method, and here’s how it went:

Firstly, I put all the oak galls in a plastic bag and used a hammer to break them up. Then I ground up some out-of-date iron tablets I found in the cupboard, and threw in some old chunks of iron I found on Chiswick Eyot last week when learning about fish for Thames 21 (but that’s another story…). I put it all in an iron pot with some rainwater, and set some heat under it on the stove. Amazingly, it was only a couple of minutes before this orange soup turned a proper inky black. I boiled it all for a few more minutes, then strained it through an old tea towel. Finally I added the gum arabic, which gave the mixture a nice viscosity. In all I made half a pint of ink, which has a good dark brown colour – and once you’ve put it on paper, it continues to darken for a few hours. (the labels on the bottles are written with the ink)

It’s been a very interesting experience – much easier than I thought it would be to get a good result, and definitely something I would do again. I don’t know how long the ink will last, but I’m certainly going to start using it for drawing right away. Big thanks to Humphrey (age 4) for collecting all the galls for me!


Treacle and oystercatchers


Having explored all of the Thames from source to Barrier, I thought I would take a look at what lies further east. Beginning at the Thames Barrier Park (just by Pontoon Dock DLR station), I was impressed with the wonderful undulations of the ‘green dock’ and the diagonal planting of hornbeams and rare oaks, all designed by French landscape architect Allain Provost. The park is a tranquil space with nicely maturing planting, superb views and a good cafe – well worth a visit. Crossrail works made the walk to the Woolwich Ferry a bit of a weary trudge, but the ferry itself (amazingly still free) was a good ride, manoevring between orange tugs hauling heavy loads. Heading east, the river gets impressively wide, and the ships get larger.

Oystercatchers, grey wagtails and even rabbits are mixed in with industry such as waste processing sites, aggregate businesses and sewage works, making this a very interesting and varied stretch of water. It was also a day of slightly overwhelming smells – from the treacle of the sugar works, to the hawthorn blossom and hint of seasalt in the air to the knockout punch of the sewage works.


French knitting in Amsterdam


A little while ago I was in Amsterdam and spotted these colourful characters in someone’s canalside window – they are bobbins for French knitting, which I used to love doing as a child. It seems to be the custom in Holland to fill your street-side windows with interesting things for passers-by to look at. With its leaning buildings, bridges and barges it’s a very visually stimulating city.

My Writing Process


My friend and fellow illustrator Bridget Strevens-Marzo invited me to take part in the ‘My Writing Process’ blog tour – and this seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on how I work. Bridget’s post was a fascinating glimpse into her mind and methods – she’s someone whose work I really admire and I can’t wait to get my hands on her forthcoming book with Tate Publishing, ‘Tiz and Ott’s Big Draw’ which really looks into the heart of being creative in a wonderfully accessible way.

The blog tour consists of four questions, so here goes:

1) What am I working on?

As always I have several ideas on the go at once, all picture books. However since I am at that delicate stage of discussing projects with publishers but nothing signed and sealed, I don’t want to give too much away! As you can see on my desk above, I’ve been looking at ‘A Home Afloat’ as one of the stories I’m working on is set aboard a houseboat (a bit of a wish-fulfilment fantasy for me). I was recently in Amsterdam and went to the marvellous Houseboat Museum – it was so inviting I would have been happy to move in on the spot. I’ve always been fascinated by rivers so setting a story around one feels like a very natural thing to do.

I’m also preparing for an exhibition inspired by the River Thames – ‘Skim Sky Blue’, which is going to be on for the first half of May at The Art Cabin. So in between bouts of writing stories, I’m getting out my wood cutting tools and creating huge piles of wood shavings on my desk. There’s more about this project in earlier posts, here and here.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

That’s a tricky one to answer! I would like to think my work is characterised by having a sense of humour and a sense of playfulness, which I hope comes out in both words and pictures.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I’ve always been fond of animals, so they make very natural subjects for me to draw and write about. I’m very influenced by the stories I used to love when I was little – like Bridget I loved the eccentricity of Ant and Bee, and I also loved the humour and detail in Richard Scarry. It was Quentin Blake’s illustrations that initially drew me to the Uncle stories, but the text turned out to be one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. But my favourite book of all as a child was Modern Tales and Fables illustrated by Vaclav Sivko, whose surreal illustrations I have written about in a previous post.

4) How does your writing process work?

I have a notebook with me at all times and write down or sketch anything I see or overhear that might provide a spark for a story. Each week I run an art class for under 5s, and I find the way the children think, talk and even move very inspiring. One week a little girl came in dressed in a home-made carrot costume – I’ve put that in a story. I like to develop the words and pictures together, so as an idea takes shape I’ll draw out 12 very rough boxes in my notebook and start making notes, both visual and in words, of what will go on each of the 12 spreads. Then I’ll start making a small paper dummy book, putting words and pictures together to get a feel for how the pace and page-turns will work. Then I’ll keep it with me, keep glancing at it and tweaking little bits, or rearranging whole sections, until several versions later I might decide it’s ready to show someone. I’ve also joined a monthly picture book writers’ crit group with fellow author-illustrators, which is enormously helpful and supportive and a great way to move an idea up a gear.

Next week I’m passing the baton on to the very talented illustrator and writer Faye Hanson. Faye’s first book was published by Macmillan in 2010 and she’s happiest when dreaming up fluffy characters and fantastical contraptions – I have had a sneak preview of her new book and it is really special.

The illustrated streets of Palma


These inventive, colourful and sometimes a little bit disturbing images are all street art/graffiti in a tiny corner of Palma, Mallorca – I have never seen such a visually exciting, free outdoor gallery. I particularly like the Titanic in a teacup, and the creature in an Elizabethan ruff cutting off its tongue. The woman in an apron is actually made out of brown paper stuck to a door – not something that would last long in the rainy UK.





Wearing Joyce Grenfell’s shoes


I’ve never been to an auction before, but yesterday, early for a meeting in Oxford, I happened to see a poster for a viewing of vintage fashion at Mallams Auctioneers – and went along for a look. I fell in love with these burnt orange satin pumps, which belonged to the comedienne and actress Joyce Grenfell,  a national treasure no less! I tried them on and they were a perfect fit, so this morning I went along to the auction and with beating heart put in a bid or two. I was thrilled to win them, and the original drawing which went with them. But I will be keeping them strictly for very special, indoor only occasions.

What made the occasion even more special was meeting Joyce Grenfell’s biographer Janie Hampton (who was selling the shoes and other things) and actress Cheryl Knight, who was bidding against me! But she was happy as she had bought Joyce’s hat, and the three of us had a cup of tea together after the auction. Cheryl is in a production which I would love to see, ‘Turn Back the Clock’ – she performs Joyce’s monologues superbly (I’ve seen the video clip). And she also looks after the shoes at the Royal Opera House – what a lovely job! Next move, to read Joyce Grenfell’s autobiography…