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The Sunshine Cupboard in the Treasures Gallery

During the first lockdown in 2020 I was approached by the British Library’s learning team to make a miniature book – it was part of a project to inspire families to be creative while they couldn’t go out. My little book was called ‘The Sunshine Cupboard’ – and it was inspired by the weekly creative challenges I was doing with my family on Zoom (you can catch up with all 20 episodes on YouTube here).

In summer 2021 the British Library put together a display of all the miniature books in their Treasures Gallery – what an honour! I visited recently and was thrilled to find my book next to a sign saying ‘New Books by Much-Loved Authors’, alongside works by Axel Scheffler, Viv Schwarz, Joseph Coelho, Philip Ardagh and Jacqueline Wilson. The display also includes some lovely examples of books made by children. It’s free to visit, and is on until October 2021.

British Library Learning have a MARVELLOUS website that is just loaded with creative projects – including two others by me (Paddington’s Suitcase, and my ‘Life is a River’ concertina book). You can find out all about these and lots of other inspiring projects here.

Little Rebels Winners 2020!

This is the moment me and Maisie Paradise Shearring heard we had won the Little Rebels 2020 Award for our book, The Boy Who Loved Everyone (Walker Books, 2019). We were both bowled over and thrilled to win – and the online awards ceremony was very exciting to be part of. It was an honour to be part of such a strong shortlist and an amazing surprise to win.

The Little Rebels award celebrates radical children’s fiction, and I’m very proud to have become part of that tradition – it’s something I believe in strongly. Thankyou Little Rebels, and everyone involved in organising the awards – there’s no award I would rather win, and no illustrator I would rather win it with! Thankyou also to everyone at Walker Books for believing in this story right from the start – and most of all thankyou to the nursery where it all happened, and to the real boy that inspired the story. I’m meeting him and his mum for a socially distanced celebration in the park later this week.

I couldn’t be more pleased that the book has been used a lot in schools this year to help children returning to formal education after months at home due to lockdown. For more about the book, and the real-life story behind it, look here and here.

This is what the judges said:

Commenting on the winning book, judge Shaun Dellenty said: “This deceptively simple tale affords a very rich stimulus to engage young children in varied conversations about kindness, trust, non-judgement, consent, friendships, self-care, same sex love and the potential for our own compassion to inspire others to live more loving lives. In these challenging and divisive  times, the most radical act of all is surely to love; The Boy Who Loved Everyone brims joyfully with it.”

Judge Emily Drabble described the book as “a deceptively deeply radical book on expressing love, the crushing effect of society’s restrictions and judgements on who we can love even on a tiny and adorable preschooler. The text is divine and the illustrations are really something to rave about, depicting a gloriously inclusive cast of characters which will bring joy to your heart. A very worthy winner of this year’s Little Rebels award and heartening that it’s a book for the very young, giving promise of a better future.

Judge Darren Chetty said: “The Boy Who Loved Everyone captures the excitement, the confusion, and the nose-picking that will be familiar to anyone who has spent any time in the nursery classroom. There is a wealth of emotion lurking in this slice-of-life story, the kind of story that children will love to return to and talk about. I think the story’s sincerity, and its willingness to embrace uncertainty, make it a quietly radical book.”

Black Lives Matter

I’ve made a lino-print poster to put in my window to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and I’ve been giving them away to friends and neighbours. I hope they can be a few small droplets in the sea change that is starting to happen, and needs to happen. I’ve posted them out as far afield as Liverpool, York, Brighton and Gloucestershire, and then I was excited to get a request from Seattle, and another from North Carolina … so to save postage I’ve made a good quality scan for people to print their own, wherever they are. Feel free to print, share and display! You can just drag the image above to your desktop and it should be good enough to print A4 size. It works well on coloured paper too…

Books for Empathy Day

Today is Empathy Day – an annual event run by Empathy Lab to help children understand other people’s lives and emotions through books. I was going to make a quick post on Twitter, but once I started looking through my shelves and picking out books, I realised I had too much to say to fit it into the word count.

The last few years have been very divisive ones, not just here in the UK but in many parts of the world. And it seems to me that one of the only hopes for a more harmonious, inclusive and kind future stems from raising a new generation with empathy at the heart of their way of thinking. And that’s where picture books come in! From the youngest age, picture books allow a child to step inside someone else’s world and understand things in a different way.

Starting from the top left, these are my choices of books that particularly foster empathy: first of all, the wonderful Frog and Toad story series by Arnold Lobel. These were first published in the 1970s, and are early readers based around a friendship of two very different personalities. There are many humorous misunderstandings between Frog and Toad but what shines out is how very kind they are to each other, and how emotionally sensitive they are – very tenderly written.

The next one is Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Peña with the most beautiful pictures by Christian Robinson. This book has so much depth to it, and just radiates empathy – a little boy goes on a bus ride with his Nana. It’s not revealed until the end that they are going to help out at a soup kitchen – and on the way Nana opens his eyes to the rewards of talking to all sorts of different people, hearing their stories, and being part of the wider community. My copy is plastered with awards stickers, and quite rightly so!

Edwardo The Horriblest Boy in the World by John Burningham was first published in 2006, and it has a very strong and powerful message. Its title is probably a bit off-putting, but it’s much more serious and moving than it sounds. Edwardo is treated with contempt by just about everyone he knows, and is labelled as rough, noisy, messy, dirty, cruel and a bully. He has little choice but to become the things he’s been labelled – until a stranger sees something different in him. As people start interpreting his actions positively, he flowers.

The Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros is quite breathtaking – so simple and SO effective, it delivers some very complicated messages seemingly effortlessly in a way very young children can understand (I know because I have read it with the nursery class I visit once a week). Just a wonderful way of understanding what it’s like to have nothing, and how much the kindness of strangers can help.

I’ve included two books by Kate Milner because they are so good – My Name Is Not Refugee and It’s a No Money Day. Both, I would say, should be essential reading in schools today, helping explain from a child’s perspective what it’s like to be a refugee or to need to use a food bank. The illustrations are wonderful too.

Finally I’ve been a bit cheeky and included my own book, The Boy Who Loved Everyone, with superb illustrations by Maisie Paradise Shearring. I wrote this book inspired by a real boy at the nursery class I visit, when I noticed how his habit of telling everyone he loved them had a really profound effect on everyone, in all sorts of different ways. You can read more about the story behind the book by following the links here, and I’ve also made a couple of YouTube videos about it: Back To School With The Boy Who Loved Everyone and All About The Boy Who Loved Everyone – click on the links if you’d like to watch them. There are also lots of useful teaching resources on this and many other books that promote empathy on teacher Andrew Moffat’s No Outsiders website.

Everything you need to know about School Visits

If you’re a children’s author and/or illustrator, school visits can be fun and a great way to connect with your audience. They are also really inspiring, as children always have such clever, interesting ideas.

Visits are rewarding in so many ways but can also be daunting if you haven’t done one before, so I thought since I’ve just done a batch of visits I would compile some tips while it’s fresh in my mind. I hope it will be helpful to anyone who’s new to school visits – and it will be a good reminder to my future self! When I first started going to schools I used to be anxious about it beforehand – before I became an author and illustrator I spent a few years doing art projects with schools, including some lovely things like a lantern festival on the river Wandle  (you can scroll back through years’ worth of archive here). All of this was very useful experience when it came to going into schools with my own books to focus on. 

Anyway here goes with my tips and advice (and if you read to the end I have added some useful links too)…

How do the visits come about, and what should you charge?
Sometimes they come through word of mouth, sometimes via the publisher. There are a number of agencies that deal with visits: Contact an Author lists your details for an annual fee, while Authors Aloud and Authorfy organise the visit for you but keep some of the fee.

If you’re organising the visit yourself, be clear about the fee from the outset. The Society of Authors recommends a fee of a minimum of £350, and this guide outlines why.

I have a PDF of information that I send to schools when they first get in touch, outlining everything they will need to know including prices.

Before the visit
Preparation is EVERYTHING. Step one is to make a contact at the school and get a timetable, and between you work out exactly where you’ll be at each point of the day, and what you’ll be doing with how many children and what age. Print the timetable out and keep it in your pocket so you know where to be when on the day.

This is the point where you need to make sure that the school’s expectations are something you can meet – if not, negotiate now! A successful visit might include one whole school assembly plus three workshops, or two workshops and two storytimes for the littlest ones. Understandably schools like to get as many children to meet the author as possible, but sometimes it can become too much of a tight squeeze. Once I went to a school where on a single day I did THREE assemblies and countless workshops, each of which was for three classes simultaneously so I had to run between rooms. That was not good for anyone, least of all the children who barely saw me! And one of the assemblies was right next to the music room where someone was practising the drums throughout – not ideal… (Note to myself: a good idea for the future might be a written contract with the school).

If you’re using a Powerpoint for a whole school assembly, send it in advance so the school can put it on their server. Have it on a memory stick too, just in case. I have a Powerpoint presentation for schools which is around 12 slides long, and it takes 20-25 mins to deliver. I can speed it up if needed. Most assemblies are half an hour, which allows a bit of time for questions at the end. My PPT includes images prompting me to talk about the process of making a book, from where ideas come from, to developing the story, then making the artwork. I include pictures from my comic diary showing how slow the process can be, plus a section about interesting materials like my home-made ink. I end by emphasising the importance and pleasure of reading.

Ask the school in advance about opportunities to sell books. Often schools have a good relationship with a local bookseller who will come and set up a stall at the end of the day. This is the ideal! Some schools will send a letter home in advance to get orders, which you can sign on the day. Another option is to take books yourself to sell, but this gives you a lot of extra carrying to do (a card reader would be useful for this as a lot of parents don’t carry cash any more). Ask if you can have a table in the playground after school – you need to be somewhere prominent. And hope it doesn’t rain. Don’t forget to bring a pen for signing with.

On the day
Take a packed lunch (unless the school has specifically offered you lunch), a bottle of water, a clean handkerchief, cough sweets if your throat is likely to be at all tickly as you will be talking A LOT! Hand sanitiser is not a bad idea too.

Pack your bag the night before with everything you need for the workshops – in my case this is interesting collage scraps plus an example of what to do with them, my books, and either King Otter or Pink Lion usually comes with me too…

Double check the timing of your journey.

Assembly can feel daunting but take a deep breath, speak clearly and use your Powerpoint as a prompt if your mind goes blank. And it does get much easier – recently I went to a school where the IT didn’t work, so I did an assembly WITHOUT the Powerpoint – and it was fine!

Q&A time can raise some funny questions – and often children will just want to tell you things (see extract from my comic diary below). Be prepared to say what your favourite book is. You might also get asked how old you are – have a witty riposte if you don’t want to answer! I don’t mind at all saying I am 55 – I am very happy to be in my 50s and don’t feel it’s anything to be embarrassed about. Children also often ask: are you famous? I think the correct answer is yes! I find the main problem is not being able to hear the questions, but teachers usually help out here.

In my workshops I usually start by reading a story (or two), then have a bit of discussion about what makes a good story. Next I get the children to help me make up a new one collectively which I draw out on the flipchart (make sure there will be one). They LOVE doing this and have endless brilliant ideas. Then I set them a project: it might be to make a mini-book, or to create a new character using collage for inspiration. Depending on how much time they have, they can then start writing a story based on this character. (Note: make sure you tell them there is just one rule: the characters have to be ORIGINAL and their own unique creation, so no Minions, Super Mario or Spiderman!)

In future I am going to develop a sheet to leave with teachers afterwards with some tips about how to keep developing these stories, and what to do next (for example to work in pairs to develop tensions between their two characters).

Make sure you find out from the teacher what the class system is to get everyone to listen – a tambourine, a ‘5-4-3-2-1’, a clapping pattern etc. They all have different methods but it is a very useful thing to know. And it’s good to keep everyone on track by announcing extra tips now and again, or sharing the work of a child who is making a particularly good job of it.

Often there will be children with special educational needs in the class (SEN). Sometimes the teacher or teaching assistant will tell you about them, sometimes not. I always try to make these children feel included and they often have very interesting things to say. I was very touched on a recent school visit when two children sat separately for the session at the back of the room, engaged in a different activity. But at the end, one of them came up to me and presented a beautiful drawing of a snake! So I think they must have been much more involved in what I was doing than was immediately apparent.

What to wear?
Schools can be very hot so layers are important. Try to wear something that makes you look a little bit different or arty. Sarah McIntyre has some marvellous outfits and hats. I often wear my embroidered cowboy boots, which inspired my story King Otter.

Plan a quiet evening – you will be very tired! Make notes on what went well/could be improved. Don’t forget to send an invoice, and also ask for a testimonial. Teachers are very busy people so don’t always get the chance to do this, but it is definitely worth asking. Good luck with your visit!

Thankyou to Tanya Efthymiou, Librarian at Chestnuts Primary in Turnpike Lane, for some of the photos, and to all the children in Year 2 at St Matthias Primary, Bethnal Green for their lovely welcome cards including the beautiful heart-filled school drawing above.

Useful links
The Scottish Book Trust has a marvellous archive of films of authors and illustrators talking to school-children at Edinburgh Festival – it’s the perfect place to have a look at how other people approach it. Have a look at their Authors Live On Demand.

There’s also lots of useful information at Words and Pictures, the SCWBI online magazine.

Author Chitra Soundar has a very useful roundup on her website here.

Check out World Book Day’s ‘Guide to Organising An Author or Illustrator Visit’ here.

…and author and illustrator Helen Stephens has lots of useful info here.

Bouncing Back

I’ve just finished putting together a giant hand-made book, using artwork made by children at the Evelina Hospital School in Lambeth, south London. It’s the fourth year in a row I’ve done this very rewarding project, working one-to-one with children on the ward in hospital beds and in the classroom. I am always delighted with what they come up with and in awe of their creativity in very difficult circumstances. The age range of the children who took part went from around 5 to 16, and each of them created something really distinctive and beautiful using a mixture of collage and drawing.

The theme was wildlife in London, particularly focusing on endangered species. Researching the subject, I found that some species which have been at risk are making a comeback – such as peregrine falcons which like to nest on concrete towers. The children wrote poems as well, and I particularly liked “I live up on tall hard trees” for the falcon…

It’s sad to learn that sparrows are in rapid decline (it seems due to avian malaria), but I do love the page of sparrows and think it would make an excellent wallpaper design. Look at the silver tower block with its triple satellite dishes – a lot of research went into the yellow warning signs. The one at the bottom is for the boiler room.

And the pink-eared dormouse is another favourite!

Window Wanderland

Something amazing has been happening in the darkest winter months here in Southfields – for one weekend a year, local people decorate their windows with coloured paper to create an outdoor, night-time free art gallery. Window Wanderland started in Bristol, and has been gradually spreading further afield. It’s an absolute pleasure to walk around the chilly streets admiring the inventiveness of your neighbours, and enjoying a bit of a party atmosphere (this year one house was Ghostbusters themed, upstairs and downstairs, and was blasting out the theme tune, and last year someone set up a karaoke in their front garden).

This year I went for a tropical birds theme, and as storm Ciara was set to arrive on the Sunday I put speech bubbles for the birds to say ‘Storm?’ ‘What storm?’…and last year’s was a bird-eating monster.

The year before that I was rather overambitious and created a kraken that extended from downstairs to upstairs – but it took an awful lot of planning to get the legs to match up. And the first year we had Window Wanderland in Southfields, I chose a Moby Dick theme but added disco lights to jazz it up.

I usually like to make the window with things I have in the house (I have a stack of plain tissue paper, but it needs to be joined in sections to fill a window pane. Next year I’ll buy some that’s big enough so the seams don’t show. This was also the first year I created my own coloured tissue by painting sheets with acrylic in advance, and drying them on the clothes airer so they didn’t stick to the floor. I was pleased with the results.

Here’s a few highlights from my friends and neighbours this year: look at the beautiful ‘Make Every Day Count’ by Tracey English! And I love the all day breakfast from Salt and Pepper. Looking forward to next year already…

All hail King Otter!

My new picture book, King Otter, is published this week by Simon & Schuster. It’s the story of an otter who finds a box of fine clothes, puts them on and decides to declare himself king. Power goes to his head and he issues wilder and wilder demands before a muddy downfall and a realisation that river swimming and friendship are a good deal more rewarding than bossing people about.

The story started to take root when I was given a pair of cowboy boots for my birthday, something I’d always wanted (see photo above for my boots and King Otter’s). As soon as I put them on I developed a bit of a swagger, which set me thinking about how clothes can have quite an impact… added together with my passion for river swimming and all I had to do was fill in the gaps! (Well, it wasn’t quite that easy…).

I always like to make a toy of my characters, and King Otter was the most fun of all to make because I got to dress him as well. He’s just been on his first school visit and the children had a lovely time trying on his crown, taking turns to have him sit next to them and even asking him what he thought of their stories. And there was lots of scope for interesting discussions about how they would behave if they found a crown.

Huge thanks to everyone at Simon & Schuster and especially to my editor Alice Bartoskinski and designer Harriet Rogers who were a delightful team to work with and made the book WAY better than I ever would have managed without them.

And I’ve spotted some lovely reviews already!

“A great little fable about the importance of friendship, delightfully told and beautifully illustrated – 5 stars” – Books for Keeps

“The most perfect drawing of an otter ever” – Angels and Urchins

“A lovely, subtle story of friendship …The illustrations in their bright, clear colours are very appealing.” – Armadillo Magazine

Secret Rivers

I’m thrilled to have two pieces of work in the Museum of London Docklands’ current exhibition, Secret Rivers. My graphic novel, The Ghost Carp (inspired by fifteen years of river cleanups with the Wandle Trust) is in a glass case alongside Charles Dickens no less! And my Wandle Alphabet poster is also featured, together with an audio recording of me talking about the five-year process of finding all the letters. In the photo above, I am even wearing a necklace that came out of the river – you never know what you are going to find…

The exhibition is well worth a visit, and is on until 27th October. Admission is free.

Sheep on the beach!

I’ve been out on the road promoting Brian The Brave over the past few weeks – my new picture book with Paul Stewart, published in April by Otter Barry Books. I’ve done a couple of library visits, at Southfields and Northcote, where children really enjoyed participating with the sheep puppets. One girl got very attached to the wolf! I was sad to have to disappoint her…
Paul and I did a story time at The Book Nook in Paul’s hometown Hove, and afterwards took the sheep for a romp on the beach.