Meet the Author:
Welcome to Elephant Notes . . . our periodic take on some of the ideas, issues, and news impacting parents, children, and reading.
Everyone wants to feel special, right? Gerald is a little, orange fish that wants to be noticed in a school of lots of little orange fish. He is so fed up that one day he decides to set out all by himself across the perilous ocean. Find out what happens when he meets a colony of blue fish that have never seen anything like Gerald before!
You’ve been a teacher in Zimbabwe, publisher, newspaper writer, and an adult literacy teacher, but we read on your website that you became a writer at six. Can you tell us about this statement?
I wasn’t an author then, but I first learned how to actually write when I was six.I learned more about it by coming up with stories and poems that teachers got me to write in primary school. I learned even more as a teenager, coming up with stories and poems that teachers didn’t get me to write. And I learned most of all in my twenties when I joined a writers’ group called The Basement Writers, which met once a week in a basement on Cable Street in east London. I see it as one journey. I started ‘being a writer’ when I was six. I’ve carried on learning how to write ever since. And I’m still practising, and still trying to get better at it.
What made you decide to write your first children’s book?
Back in the early 1990’s (around the time I was going to the Basement Writers every week) I did lots of writing for adults – journalism, blurbs and press releases for a publisher where I worked, and poetry too. It never occurred to me to write for children. But performing and publishing poetry led to invitations to visit schools and lead poetry workshops in schools. I accepted the invitations and started having weekly creative encounters with groups of children. I found it wonderfully inspiring. There was so much excitement, imagining, creative growth and fun all about. It gave me some writing ideas. So I accepted them too! I started writing about, and for, children. And I’ve never looked back. I’ll always be happy about the change in direction I found myself taking.
Humperdink Our Elephant Friend is about a large pachyderm that joins a playgroup and all the problems that come with his enormous size. What or who was the inspiration for the adorable Humperdink?
It was unusual. The book’s illustrator is Claire Alexander, with whom I’ve previously collaborated – on our popular picture book, The Snowbear. We were keen to work together some more. And Claire is a picture book author as well as an illustrator. She had a story that she was just beginning to sketch out, about an elephant called Humperdink who shows up at a playgroup. Claire didn’t feel her narrative was fully working. The text was still short and rough. But I loved the young elephant character (and her sketches of him.) He was adorable, right from the start! So I had a go at adapting her idea. And it didn’t take very long for Humperdink to come to life in the same setting, but in a fuller story. That’s what became the book.
After poor Humperdink breaks the kids’ favorite slide, the children decide it’s best to ask him what he likes to do. Do you think this message of inclusion is the key theme to your book? Are there other themes you would like parents to think about with their young readers?
I’m very pleased if any book I write gets young readers talking about things, or thinking about them. But I don’t start with a message. The theme of inclusion comes from me asking myself, “What will make young children instantly identify with, and love, a young elephant?”. That question and looking for a way to draw young readers in, sparked the story. Character and plot lead the way. Thought-provoking themes are welcome to follow, if they wish!
We thought the illustrations were perfect for the story. They felt vintage. Did you and the illustrator, Claire Alexander, know each other before you collaborated on the book? How much input did you have on the artwork?
Once a picture book story is revised, edited and ready, an illustrator starts work on it, and a newly exciting phase begins. I discover how words that I’ve written come to life in another person’s imagination – the illustrator’s. It’s always a surprise. And it’s always a wonderful surprise when working with Claire Alexander. I take great delight in the collaborative process, and regard picture book making as a 50:50 project shared equally between writer and illustrator. So I don’t tend to interfere in the illustration process a lot. If I suggest any changes to the visuals, they are generally intended to improve the progression of the plot or the clarity of characterization. In other words, I concentrate on sharpening aspects of the storytelling. Colour, layout and form – these sorts of things – I’m happy to leave to the expertise of the illustrator and the book’s designer.
The artwork also features a diverse group of children, was this intentional?
We’re depicting what we know. The book reflects the kind of diversity that Claire and I see in our own children’s schools and when we do author visits across the UK. And I believe children should be ‘seeing themselves’ in the books that they read. So if an illustrator of one of my stories doesn’t feature children from multiple cultural backgrounds, then I will request a rethink. The picture book world has had to recognise fact that it has a poor track-record of reflecting the kind of racial and cultural diversity we live in in contemporary Britain. This investigation into the depiction of black, Asian and minority ethnic characters in picture books, carried out by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education and published in 2018, was a wake-up call: https://clpe.org.uk/library-and-resources/research/reflecting-realities-survey-ethnic-representation-within-uk-children
Do you have tips for aspiring young authors thinking about writing their first children’s book?
- Decide what aged children you are writing for. 2-4’s? 4-6’s? 6-8’s? 8-11’s?
- Books published for each of the age ranges above are very, very different. Find out about the differences.
- Come up with a character that children of the age you are writing for will identify with or…better still…fall head-over-heals in love with.
- Open with a hook that will get young readers on board.
- Make it a ‘page-turning’ story, to keep them involved.
- Put in some humour (whatever the theme or form.)
- Also some emotion.
- Reach some sort of satisfying resolution…a surprise…an uplift…a piece of magic.
You’ve published so many books. What number is your latest, How to Be Cooler Than Cool? Can you tell us a little bit about it?
I’m pleased to say I’ve lost count. But How to Be Cooler Than Cool is around about my 60th book for children. It features some young friends in a playground – a cat, a cockatoo, and a pig. The three of them find a pair of sunglasses and get rather excited about how cool they’re going to be when they wear them. But their efforts to be cool result in some seriously slapstick disasters. Then a tiny chick arrives. And she shows them that just being yourself is cooler than cool. The illustrator is Jean Jullien, who worked with me on Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise and I Want to Be in a Scary Story. How to Be Cooler Than Cool is a very different sort of book to Humperdink Our Elephant Friend. But I hope it will put a little light into the corners of young readers’ eyes, as Humperdink seems to do…
Sean, once again thank you for spending time speaking with us about your writing. We’re so excited to be sending out “Humperdink Our Elephant Friend” this month, and we look forward to seeing” How to Be Cooler Than Cool.”
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