Our Children’s Books Contributing Editor Sarah McIntyre selects Liz Pichon’s book Top of the Class.
Liz Pichon is Britain’s reigning queen of illustrated chapter books with her Tom Gates series. Her lettering and line drawings bounce energetically off each other, looking very much like the kind of notebook you wish you’d doodled as a kid in the back of the class. Sarah McIntyre asks her about her process, hectic schedule and those special shoes.
“I’ve had a complete career change over the last four years and I’m still learning as I go.”
For kids who are used to reading Instagram texts interspersed with emoji and emoticons, these illuminated stories completely make sense. And while comic book creators are still fighting to get their work into mainstream bookshops and accepted by gift-buying parents, Pichon adopts certain elements of comics and cartoons when they suit her, and blurring these boundaries, finds her work embraced by both children and book-buying adults. And her books are funny. When Scholastic surveyed kids for this year’s Kids & Family Reading Report, it was funny books kids wanted: 63% of children ages 6-17 surveyed said the number one thing they were looking for in a book is that it made them laugh. Funny books with funny pictures: out in her studio shed in Brighton, Liz Pichon’s nailed it.
Here are some short extracts from Liz Pichons responses to our questions:
The Idea: Tom Gates started off as a picture book idea. I wanted to do more of a scrap book with lots of drawings, photos and different fonts throughout the whole book in a large format. It’s based on what kids do when they first go to reception class, like an “All about me” book. They’d draw a picture of themselves and write a bit about their families and pets that kind of thing. I really wanted to make it funny too, which was a lot harder to do than I thought.
“It’s great that kids copy the style and feel like they can draw like Tom Gates, too.”
Process: I’ve been on a pretty hectic schedule, so the moment I finish one book I’m onto the next. I think of the title first, which helps give me a theme for the book, as I have to design the cover before I’ve written the story. Having an idea of what’s going to be in it, even if I change a few things slightly for the final artwork, really helps. Then I draw a picture flow chart by jotting down lots of random ideas and scenarios in no particular order to see what sparks off more ideas.
Doing the pictures helps because I always keep a vision in my head of what the whole scene will look like. I can’t separate the two things out any more. I do all the endpapers as well, and it’s always fun to add extra things in like making stuff and Tom’s songs. I got my husband (who’s a music producer and engineer) to put together real songs for all the bands in the stories. It’s been so much fun writing lyrics and the music’s already been used in the audio books and TV adverts for the books too. It gives the whole Tom Gates world another layer.
“Write the book that YOU would have wanted to have read as a child.”
Visionaries: I was hugely influenced by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. I read that book and I loved the way it used text and pictures, and it was SO deadpan and funny. I wrote a book called The Very Ugly Bug after I read it and my publisher asked me to change the title to something less upsetting for children. I joking suggested we call it the “facially challenged bug”. We kept the title but I learnt a lot about picture books doing that one.
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