Do you think kids read enough in these days of TV and computer games?
These are distractions, but there have always been distractions, and we still have an awful lot of children who adore settling down with a book. I think you’re either a born reader or you’re not – but I also think that if parents read to, with, and in front of their children, they pick it up and get better and better at it. The sheer enjoyment of it is catching.
Your books are really varied. Where do you get your ideas?
Everywhere. You learn to recognise what sort of thing can make a story. You find yourself thinking, ‘I can use that,’ and making a note on a piece of paper. I even have a file of scrappy messages to myself, some now totally incomprehensible even to me, called, ‘Things to use later’. Often I think, ‘What if…’ What if people came to our planet and wanted to eat us? What if a child had a new stepmother, but hated her? Story!
Why do you think your books are so appealing to kids?
Because I don’t patronise children. I have never been childish, even when I was a child; few children are. ‘Childish’ is an insult, even in the playground. I think that I accord to children the full emotional range that they have, and I treat that huge range of feelings with the respect they deserve.
Can anyone write or tell stories?
You have to know how magic works, and what it does, to be a magician. And you have to know how stories work, and how writing can have certain effects, to be a writer. The very best young writers tend to be the ones who do nothing but read, read, read. They don’t realise that they are learning their trade, but they are. They know which bits of books they find thrilling or boring or confusing, and when they come to write their own stories, they’re better at putting those bits in – or leaving them out.
What do you know about Dubai; are you looking forward to visiting?
Oh, I’ve been interested in how Dubai has been developing for years and years. I’m a pretty sloppy dresser, so I’m a little anxious about showing up in some of my old stuff in a place like Dubai. I hate shopping more than anything in the world; I’d far rather spend my time reading, writing or with my family than in a boring shop – so you can all come and admire me in my faded rags, like some old witch from a fairytale.
Is the recurring theme of how Charlie deals with his younger sister, Lola, meant to teach kids how to handle their siblings?
No, I don’t write books to teach any particular message, I just write about what I’m interested in. I don’t really see Lola as difficult, she just seems like any curious four year old to me. Perhaps she comes across as a little more bolshy in the TV tie-in books and the TV series, but in my books she’s just a child with a strong sense of self.
Can you tell us a bit about your illustration technique?
I have actually only written and illustrated three Charlie and Lola books: I Will Not Ever Never Eat A Tomato, I Am Not Sleepy And I Will Not Go To Bed and I Am Too Absolutely Small For School. I wanted the illustrations to be fairly simple line drawings, which are then set against textures and patterns. Photos are used to emphasise the subject – for example, if I’m writing about food, I’ll have a photo of tomatoes and peas. But although I do consultancy work on the books that go with the TV shows, I don’t write or illustrate them.
Your ‘My Life Is A Story’ campaign collects true stories from children in deprived areas and brings together kids from different countries. Would you consider including Dubai in this scheme?
Yes, that’s something I would be very interested in. One of our aims with this project is to connect children, no matter what their background. We have successfully teamed up a school in London with a street children’s project in Mexico. This has radically changed the lives of the Mexican children by giving them dormitories with beds, blankets and pillows. The London kids write regularly to the children in Mexico and they send photos and letters back, describing their very different lives. There is another project in Egypt, where children who make a living collecting garbage can now learn to read and write. It would be wonderful to team these kids up with a school in Dubai. All suggestions welcome!
Having illustrated books before, what made you want to write one yourself?
As an illustrator you’re working on someone else’s book, and it’s not always how you would visualise the story. I wanted to see if I could do it myself. After seeing a whale shark at Dubai Marina, I decided to name the first draft ‘A Whale’s Tale’, which I thought was terribly original – until I looked online and saw that there were already about eight of those. The second draft was called ‘Sarah’s Sea Adventure’, but then that changed after a very honest friend told me it was terrible!
Why do you not appear in Fishcakes and Jelly more?
As an illustrator it’s quite hard to draw yourself, plus I wanted it to be a father and daughter adventure. I work from home and I spend a lot of time with my daughter, so on Friday mornings Isadora and her daddy go off together and I’m sometimes not invited. They like having their day; it’s something for them to share. I started imagining what the two of them might get up to on their adventure, with my husband falling asleep under his newspaper…
How did your daughter and husband feel about being the stars of the book?
Isadora loved it and gave me lots of advice. There’s a shark picture and I wasn’t sure if it was too frightening or not, so I showed it to her class at school. They said it was their favourite – kids think very differently to adults. I think my husband was gently amused by it all.
Did inspiration for the pictures come easily?
It’s usually the planning and the research that takes the time, but this one was very easy because I had everything to hand. For the picture where the girl is wondering what to wear for an underwater party, I just looked in the downstairs cupboard for inspiration. For the front cover I sat my daughter on the kitchen counter with my husband and just said, ‘Right, make silly faces.’
So do you have any more books in the pipeline at the moment?
I plan to write many more myself, but the next book I’m illustrating will be The Goat Who Wanted To Fly, which is another one with Julia Johnson. I’ve done a lot of my research already: we went camping in Ras Al Khaimah and I was irritating everyone by looking for goats up mountains – then they invaded our camp. I was the only one who got excited.