The Boy Who Loved Everyone

I’m so proud to have collaborated with super-talented illustrator Maisie Paradise Shearring on our new book, The Boy Who Loved Everyone, out on November 7th with Walker Books.

The story is inspired by a real boy, who used to attend my weekly under-5s art class at a local nursery. He had the most touching habit of telling everyone he loved them – the other children, the nursery staff, and me. It was utterly charming but I noticed that often people wouldn’t quite know how to respond – although you could tell they were secretly pleased.

This was happening around the time of the Brexit referendum, and the week after the result there was a tangible sense of sadness from the wonderful nursery staff, who are from all over Europe. But that melted away when the real ‘Dimitri’ called out ‘I love you’ to one of them. His words also emboldened me to say what needed to be said – that these lovely people were welcome and we wanted them to stay.

The story came together quickly after that. It occurred to me that it could take the shape of the classic 1940s Frank Capra movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, where a generous-hearted character comes to doubt his worth but is redeemed when shown the difference he has made to other people’s lives.

I was thrilled when Maisie agreed to illustrate the book – I had admired her artwork for a while and I knew that she would be the right person to show visually the tenderness and vulnerability that the story needed. Maisie came to the nursery for two days to sketch in the early stages of making the book, and she has captured beautifully the life and heart of the nursery, from the ladybird cushions to the children’s pictures hanging from pegs on a clothesline. The teacher in the book is exactly like the real teacher!

My favourite spread in the book is the deliciously blue-toned bedtime scene, with the warm light falling on Dimitri’s bed from the landing as his mum tucks him in. “You’re my best, best boy,” she tells him – this line came from my son when he was little and told me I was his “best, best Mummy”!

The book is also published in Italy by La Margherita Edizioni as Io Ti Voglio Tanto Bene, and will be published in the US in 2020 by Candlewick Press.

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.

Brian the Brave

On April 4th my new book with Paul Stewart, Brian the Brave, will be published by Otter Barry Books. I’ve collaborated with Paul once before, on Wings!, and it was lovely to be asked to work with him again.

The new story is all about sheep – but it’s also about much more. Brian is a happy-go-lucky sheep munching grass, when he meets a new friend. All is well until more and more sheep arrive, and start forming cliques based on the colour of their wool and the shape of their horns – causing much sheep-based unhappiness all round.

Brian wanders off despondently, but a chance encounter with a wolf brings out the hero in him, and he persuades all the sheep to work together to defeat the fearsome predator.

All the illustrations are made from collage, using scraps that I painted and applied textures to – the scratchiness of the wolf comes from monoprint rubbed with a sticklebrick, and the colours range from gouache to household emulsion, ink and oil pastels. When I first saw the text, I asked Paul where he thought it should be set, and he said ‘Yorkshire’. I’m very fond of Yorkshire, so that was a good starting point for me, and I had fun sneaking in lots of wildlife such as lapwings, moths and red campion. You can read more about the process here.

It’s a great story to read out loud to young children – I’ve tested it on my under 5s art group and they were fascinated by which sheep was which. There’s a handy guide opposite the title page.

Brian The Brave will be published in the US later in the year by Flyaway Books, and is out now in Denmark as Marius den Modige!

New Hope

For the last few months I’ve been working on a very different sort of project – I’ve been illustrating a PhD. It’s part of the Creative Impacts programme at Kings College London, and I was very proud to be part of it through my collaboration with Dr Sharron Frood. We were paired up in October (one of 8 creative/academic pairings this year) and I made a concertina book as a visual interpretation of Sharron’s work on the plight of AIDS orphans in South Africa. Her research included lots of heartbreaking stories but also points the way forward for more joined-up care for these children, hence the title ‘New Hope’. An exhibition of all the Creative Impacts partnerships was held at Bush House in The Strand earlier in February – the subjects covered and means of interpretation are very diverse and inspiring. Thankyou Sharron for being so lovely to work with, and all the team at Kings for being so supportive.

Shed Job

This is a four page mini-comic I made about learning to play my great-grandfather’s fiddle. I’t been a very joyful process for me, although the story of the fiddle is a sad one. It feels appropriate to post this today, on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, since it was my grandfather’s brother’s sad death right at the end of the war that silenced the fiddle for almost a century.

Shop window top tips

I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to illustrate two shop windows lately – the first at Sheen Bookshop, and the second at the House of Illustration. I’d never done one before, so I asked around amongst my illustrator friends and was given lots of good advice. So to return the favour in the future to anyone else who gets the opportunity (and to remind myself if I do some more), I thought I’d note down some tips.

  1. Ask the shop to send through a photo of the window. This gives you the chance to layer in some different design ideas in photoshop and see how they look in the correct proportions of the window. Keep different elements in different layers and move them around till it feels right.
  2. Print it out, and then flip it and print out again in reverse. This will help massively especially with text, as you will most likely be working from the inside for something to be seen from the outside so will be working in reverse.
  3. I used Posca pens, though I know some illustrators favour acrylics. The benefit of the Posca pens is they are so clean and easy to use – but the drawbacks are that they are expensive and don’t last long, and it’s hard to get large flat areas of colour (I solved this problem by smudging with a clean cloth immediately after applying the paint, then letting it dry, and then adding a covering of little marks. Looks good for fur but painstakingly slow! You can blend two colours eg. yellow and red to get an orangey effect, but you have to work really quickly with the blending cloth.
  4. The window will need to work both ways – from the inside and from the outside. One difficulty I found was that in bright light black tends to become almost invisible from the outside. I got around this as best I could by taking the infill colour right up to the edge of the black.
  5. Start with the black lines (if you’re using black that is) and give them a good half hour to dry really well. Blue by the way shows up really well from the outside.
  6. Have plenty of clean cloths or rags to wipe away any mistakes.
  7. Back to the pens – they come in many sizes. I found the 8mm chisel tips PC-8K were good, and also 4.5-5.5mm bullet tip (PC-7M). The 2 windows shown above used up the best part of two pink pens, and the yellow and white had pretty much run out too.
  8. Keep nipping outside to check how it’s looking.
  9. The Sheen Bookshop window took about 3 hours, the HOI one 4 hours.
  10. If you get a chance, go for it! The shops really appreciate it and it’s great promotion for your work, as well as fun to do. Good luck!

London landmarks

I’ve been back working with children on the ward and in the classroom at Evelina Children’s Hospital School. Together we made another big book, using collage and drawing, this time on a theme of London Landmarks. As always the children inspired me with their vision of an exuberant, colourful London, with a diverse crowd visiting the British Museum (top centre) and the royal barge Gloriana tackling some impressive waves.

Collage wildlife

I’ve got lots of exciting projects in the pipeline at the moment, which is a very nice way to begin 2018. The collage snippets shown above are from a picture book due for publication in 2019 with Otter Barry Books – ‘Brian The Brave’, written by Paul Stewart and illustrated by me. The main characters in this lovely story are sheep, but I won’t show those until nearer the publication date.

It’s great to be collaborating with Paul again (our previous picture book, ‘Wings!’, was published by Otter Barry Books in 2016) – and one of the things he suggested in his notes was that the landscape should look a bit like Yorkshire. I love Yorkshire so was delighted to oblige! I have been having fun putting together scenes with dry stone walls and abundant wildflowers such as meadowsweet, red campion, clover, buttercups and reed mace, and including favourite birds like lapwings and grey wagtails – and some damselflies for a scene including a pond.