Monday 26 April 2021

It's About Time - with Mini Grey

A look at the challenges of depicting time in picture book form

One of my favourite ever films is The Time Machine. The original one, the proper one, the one from 1960, from the book by HG Wells. 

The film features the best-styled Time Machine ever: “Everyone knows what a time machine looks like,” says physicist Sean Carroll, “something like a steampunk sled with a red velvet chair, flashing lights, and a giant spinning wheel on the back.”

There’s a moment when our Time Traveller tries out his magnificent Edwardian contraption and pushes its crystal knob towards the future, and days and nights start to flash by and the sun and moon chart visible tracks across the sky and the mannequin in the shop opposite bears witness to the march of time with her shortening fashions.

We’re (hopefully) reaching the end now of a year spent in lockdown. A year where days have flashed past, with the same daily routines, doing the same daily walks, watching the unfurling of Spring warm its way into Summer and noticing the progress of birdsong yield to late summer bird quietness. The repetition makes you pay attention to small differences. The tiny daily changes add up to slices from a stop motion film of the seasons’ progress.  But I wonder whether some events will have been missing, the ones that make memorable experiences. With what will the memories be forged? – the highs and lows – the terror before real events with a real live audience, the monkey of dread sitting on your chest beforehand, and the collaboration and achievement and adventure when a long-planned event goes actually, unbelievably, well.

So lately I’ve been thinking about time, especially as the book I’m making at the moment is all about time.

This book really started about 10 years ago, at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, where I would often hang out with my small son Herbie. Admiring the Iguanodon skeleton, I realised I didn’t even know WHEN the dinosaurs had been extinctified by that asteroid (it was 66 million years ago) OR anything about what was going on BEFORE the dinosaurs (a LOT!) or how old the Earth was (about 4.6 billion years).

Then I wanted to see what 4.6 billion years looked like, and in the process of trying to find that out, I ended up making a model book about the story of life on Earth being performed in a shoebox theatre on a town dump. By insects. So that’s what I’m making for real now.

My model book for the story of life on Earth

It was a very long zig-zag and it would have been impossible to publish in this format.

The reverse side of the model book had the tape measure of time on it, to show what 4.6 billion years looks like...

At primary school you get to learn about the Greeks and the Egyptians and the Tudors, and it’s good to have a timeline of the last ten thousand years to hang these on. But maybe what young children need too, is a sense of the fundamental timeline, the Story of our world, the 4.6 billion year story of Life on Earth.

So what does 4.6 billion years look like?

For my time line, my Tape Measure of Time, I decided to have one centimetre represent one million years. That makes my total lifeline of the Earth 45 metres long which is about 10 cars long or a small street. But for loads of that time the biggest life on Earth was microbial. It wasn’t until around 600 million years ago that things got really interesting, and we start to get animals with bodies, and then the whole story of life speeds up for the last 500 million-year roller-coaster ride of changing climates and mass extinctions and explosions of different life forms. All the stuff that’s interesting to us has happened in the last 5 metres – it can fit along my stairs and landing.

This was my original timeline - each centimetre was 10 million years - so the last 500 million years happens REALLY FAST, in half a metre.

At my Tape Measure of Time scale of 1cm to 1 million years, each open double-page is around 50 cm wide – so about 50 million years. Quite a lot of the Ages of Earth – the Devonian, the Carboniferous, the Permian, and all the rest – lasted very roughly 50 million years.


Here's the Tape Measure at the 1cm to a million years scale.

Here are my insect Troupe acting out the Carboniferous Era.

Modern humans first appear about 200 000 years ago, which is 2mm ago on my 45m timeline. The oldest cave painting is from about 45,000 years ago: that’s less than half a millimetre ago.

Humans farming and the Holocene time of warmth and plenty begins about 10,000 years ago: that’s 1/10 of a millimetre, or a hair’s breadth.

The last 100 years, where we have unleashed the enormous power of fossil fuels and a farming fertiliser revolution and human population has grown from nearly 2 to nearly 8 billion people, and the populations of wild animals of earth have plunged: all this has happened in one thousandth of one millimetre on my Tape Measure: cut a hair into 100 thinner hairs to find this width.

Ice Age Megafauna illustration by Sergio De La Rosa

If you visited Earth 100,000 years ago, it would be a place of astounding megafauna: mammoths, mastodons, woolly rhinos, giant sloths, sabre-toothed cats, giant elks and aurochs.  As humans spread around the world from 60,000 to 10,000 years ago – very mysteriously the local megafauna always became extinct. Maybe the vanishing took a few thousand years – it may have been too slow for people to notice the changes. And it didn’t happen deliberately, I think – you can see the awe for the beasts in the cave paintings – but maybe the people didn’t see that occasional predation of what looked like an endless source of big animals eventually wasn’t in tune with the animals themselves – essentially, was unsustainable.

Around 10,000 years ago at the start of the Holocene, just about all the megafauna of America and Europe and Australia was gone. The place where megafauna lived on was in Africa. Was this because the humans and the megafauna had evolved with each other? In all the other places, early people had migrated in, and then mysteriously the megafauna vanished.

Maybe evolving with the megafauna rather than encountering them, kept a balance. And somehow we have to create balance today.

We are prisoners of our short lifespans – we last for a blink of an eye in the Earth’s lifespan but to us 100 years is forever. And with nature we fall victim to shifting baselines: you get used to there being less.

We have to give back habitat to nature. Because if we don’t have a balance but a slow but inexorable shrinking of animal populations it leads relentlessly to extinctions – because that’s what enough time mixed with a slow process of reduction will always do. In a country like Great Britain, where we have made so many predators extinct, and appropriated so much of the land to human uses and fragmented the landscape with tarmac – we should especially be halting the appropriation of wild or unbuilt-on land to human uses. We also should contribute to the wilderness and wildlife of the planet.

Roman Krznaric’s book The Good Ancestor is about how to look further. Let’s look into the future: Earth has about 500 million good years left, before the sun swallows it up. That’s another 5 metres on my tape measure. That’s as long as we’ve already had visible animal life for. We have to use our imaginations to see longer and further into the future – to imagine a future where people and the rest of the world are in balance: what would that look like? And in the context of that, examine everything we do: does doing this ultimately wreck the planet, or could this happen happily for ever?

(Building on wild spaces. Intensive animal agriculture. Bottom trawling. Emitting CO2. I’m looking at you.)

But now, with a jolt, I’m getting in my backwards time machine and zooming back to 15 years ago, 2006.

I’m in the John Radcliffe Hospital; my son Herbie has just been born. He was born at 6.45am after a night of gas and air and the help of the world’s best midwife. Now it’s mid-morning. His dad Tony needs to return home to feed the cat, and then I will be alone with our new life form, who is asleep at the moment.

But there’s a TV by my bed and it works – (what are the chances of that?) and it’s playing the film of  The Time Machine (what are the chances of that?). The original 1960 one, the good one.

Off you go Tony, I say, I’ll be fine. This is my absolutely favourite film.

I listen to the lilting haunting theme music of The Time Machine, and I think about the small new life-form that’s just been born. I think about how it has just started on its journey through life, a journey that travels only one way, that my new life-form is a time machine, that we’re all time machines, travelling ever onwards, only going forwards, while our brief window of experience is open. And the brief window of experience and existence shines like a short flash of light in an infinite oblivion that stretches forever before and beyond it.

But that’s the danger of listening to lilting haunting music when you’re marinating in hormones after just giving birth to a baby.

A nice doctor turns up to check something medical. Tears are flooding down my face. She suggests that she returns at another time. Between gulps I just about manage to explain how much I really really love this film.

 Mini's latest book-involvement is The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, with AF Harrold.  Her BlogSite is at Sketching Weakly.

Monday 19 April 2021

Never Ever Give Up! by Cath Jones

When is it time to give up on a story? This question is often asked by aspiring picture book authors and my answer is simple: never. I think you’ll see why after I tell you about a slug.

image jgrrz PIxabay

Back in 2012, I was part of an online SCBWI critique group. It was then that I wrote ‘Slug in Love’. The central character was a lovable, optimistic slug, a glass half full kinda Slug. 

The story went down well; everyone loved the first half. Reaction to the ending however, was mixed. I do have a tendency towards black humour (Not Now Bernard is my all time favourite picture book) but not everyone appreciates this! 

After months of rewriting, in 2013 I shared it with another critique group. I really liked my rather yucky, slightly shocking ending; similar in style to The Italian Job. But once again, opinion was divided. 

I set to work on yet more rewrites; I created so many different versions! A human character became a bear and then a human again. But nothing seemed quite right. Finally, I set the story aside and moved on.

Three years later I had my first stories accepted for publication. Dozens of books followed, published by a number of different publishers. Occasionally I thought of Slug.

Then, in July 2019, I had the opportunity to submit to an editorial meeting. I opened up my WIP folder. There were lots of texts to choose from! Slug in Love stood out. I knew the text wasn’t quite right but heh, it definitely wouldn’t get published languishing in a file on my computer.

A few days later, I received an email from the editor:

“The idea is really fun, and the way it’s written is hilarious, but we do feel the ending is a bit bleak and would need to be changed.”

It was the same old story, the ending! But at least an editor was interested. I spent months rewriting it, added Spider, a sidekick for Slug and finally did away with my grisly ending. October 2019, I submitted a revised text.

The editor emailed:

“ did have us all laughing out loud!” but the ending still needed revising.

In the following months, I rewrote it again and again. Then the pandemic struck and everyone started meeting on ZOOM. 

A geographically scattered group of writing friends started meeting on online. Dorset based Lizzie Bryant, a storyteller and former film editor and producer read Slug in Love. She is a master of story and helped me understand my own story:

the central theme is the impossible friendship between Slug and a gardener and this needs to be resolved! 

image Harriet P from Pixabay

Sounds simple? It was a revelation! I started thinking about Slug in Love in a whole new way. For the first time, after seven years of living with this story, I truly grasped the essence of it. Immediately, I knew why it wasn’t working. Out went my funny but still not very happy, ending. More months slipped by as I pondered how to make it work.

February 2021, I was out taking my daily pandemic lockdown walk, picking up litter and thinking story when BAM, I started talking excitedly about THE BUCKET OF DOOM. I was on the way to new ending!

I rewrote the second half of the text and emailed my very patient editor. The reply?

“Yay! You’ve cracked it!”

So I wrote Slug in Love in 2012 and it was accepted in 2021! The title has changed, I have lost count of the number of rewrites and bleak endings have been banished. This picture book journey, from first idea to signing the publisher contract makes one thing abundantly clear: 


Cath Jones

Cath is the author of dozens of early readers, junior and middle grade fiction and a quirky picture book. She’s passionate about diversity and strong female characters. She’s particularly proud of The Best Wedding Gift, a story featuring a child with two mums. Her life is dominated by vegetable growing, picking up litter and swimming in the sea. Cath lives in Kent with her wife and a spoilt rescue cat. Chat with her on Twitter: @cathjoneswriter

Monday 12 April 2021

Picture Book Characters with a Passion for Fashion by Garry Parsons


Who Wants to be a Poodle - Lauren Child


Animal characters in children’s books have long been wearing clothes, but some appear to a have a passion for fashion unbounded.


Fabulous Frankie - Simon James Green and Garry Parsons

Having recently illustrated a book where the central character has a penchant for fabulous attire, I have been taking a closer look at what the animal characters on my bookshelf are currently wearing and revisiting some old favourites whose clothing style still remains striking.


Rupert The Bear - The Daily Express

Stories where animals appear wearing humans’ clothes preoccupy most of my bookshelf, as they seem to do in most children’s bookshops. This anthropomorphism is everywhere in our lives and has a long history in literature.

Illustration from the Panchatantra

Preceding Aesop’s Fables by centuries, personification is a well-established literary device from ancient times such as in the Panchatantra from India, in which anthropomorphized animals illustrate principles of life. 

The Wolf and the Crane - Aesop

Many of the animal stereotypes we are familiar with today originate from these texts and have an influence on what we read today and the roles animal characters take on in our stories but these weren’t aimed directly at children in the same way we recognise animal characters in picture books today.

Before the mid-eighteenth century, the notion of childhood, as we know it now, did not exist. Children were dressed in adult clothes and their natural playful curiosities were largely ignored, at least in literature, where illustrated material for children was virtually non-existent. Later, as the middle class developed and views about children changed, adults began catering to their emotional needs, and animals with human characteristics began to appear in children’s books.

Struwwelpeter, considered to be the first children’s picture book that used anthropomorphism in illustrations (1845) is a collection of moral tales that relate what might happen when children don’t heed the advice of parents, to pretty disastrous consequences. Heinrich Hoffmann was a physician as well as author and illustrator of the book and created the stories for his son as a Christmas present.


In The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches, Harriet ignores the warnings from the two cats not to play with matches which results in her catching fire and being burned to ashes, just leaving a pair of shoes. The cats in the illustrations are not yet wearing clothes but do use handkerchiefs to dry their tears at Harriet’s demise.


In The Story of the Wild Huntsman, the hare steals the hunter's gun and spectacles and turns the gun on him until he falls down the well outside his house.

More anthropomorphic illustrations followed including John Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland in 1865 which of course included the inimitable pocket watch carrying white rabbit in his plaid jacket and in 1902 came Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and there is a clear resemblance between the two.


Looking at these illustrations now, we can be forgiven for having a nostalgic view of them because of their attire but the clothing that Potter’s characters are made to wear are mainly for them to look socially acceptable for the time, rather than the characters themselves having a desire for fashion.


However, The story of Barbar, the little elephant by Jean De Brunhoff, first published in France in 1931 (English edition 1934), tells the story of an elephant who discovers an attraction to tailored suits and fine footwear.  The first story of Barbar depicts his life as a young elephant who is tragically orphaned by a miserable hunter right at the beginning of the book. The distraught Barbar flees from the hunter and finds himself in a wealthy provincial town where his mind is taken off his tragedy by his admiration of the clothes of the people who live there.


Everyone in the town appears to share an enthusiasm for fashion including an old lady who helps Barbar out with a place to stay and some spending money. Barbar purchases himself a smart green suit, a lovely bowler hat, shoes and spats. How wonderfully smart he looks!


Barbar’s cousins, Arthur and Celeste, find him in the city and help encourage him to return to the ‘Great Forest’ where, with his new found knowledge from the city, he becomes the new Elephant King and marries his cousin Celeste in stylish wedding clothes picked out by a dromedary with an uncanny eye for high fashion.

The attention to stylish clothing perhaps reflects the fact that the original publisher of the books was Editions du Jardin des Modes, a French language women's fashion magazine published monthly in France between 1922 and 1997 and owned by Condé-Nast. The Babar books were the first Condé-Nast publications not specifically about fashion.

In contrast to Barbar, Mr. Tiger, in Mr Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown, feels dissatisfied with his formal dress and discovers that he feels more himself in a quadruped stance than the adopted bipedalism of city life. His friends lose patience with him and he leaves the city to reclaim his wildness. When he returns later, he discovers other folk in his community are also feeling the urge to be themselves and abandoning their need for clothing.


Clothing plays an important role in the narratives of many picture books - Walter & the No-Need-To-Worry Suit by Rachel Bright, Slug Needs A Hug from Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross and the Goat’s Coat by Tom Percival and  Christine Pym to name a few, but clothing also gives the illustrator a chance to deepen the character they are depicting through what they are wearing, or not wearing, as is the case for Kes Gray’s streaking Nuddy Ned. 

Curious to find out why Sarah McIntyre’s Grumpycorn wears a purple roll neck sweater, she told me…

“I decided Grumpycorn would wear a purple jumper because we usually see unicorns looking very glamourous... I thought it would be funnier if he was wearing his comfy at-home clothes. Also, he has a cosy fire burning stove in his writing cottage, but it still might get a bit drafty in a place that's on stilts over the water. He needs some woolly warmth. And purple? Well, he has all the other rainbow colours in his main, except purple, so purple completes the colour scheme!” In Sarah's sequel to Grumpycorn, Don't call me Grumpycorn, he has a purple space suit. "Purple is a big thing for Unicorn"

As an illustrator of animal characters myself, I find there are always relevant reasons for adorning an animal character with clothing or accessories, be they glasses for a Horse Doctor or
a feather boa and glittering hat for a dancing llama.

 As I mentioned at the beginning, I have recently been illustrating the story of a character who’s desire is stand out from the crowd and the only way he is sure he can do that is by being fabulous. But for a flamingo in a lagoon full of fabulous flamingos, standing out from the crowd is not an easy task, even when your wearing a sequin cloak inspired by Kansai Yamamoto!



Thank you to Sarah McIntyre for answering my question about Grumpycorn. Sarah is a best selling writer and illustrator. See more of her work here@jabberworks

Garry Parsons is an illustrator of many children's books@ICanDrawDinos

For more picture book passion for fashion, Fabulous Frankie by Simon James Green and illustrated by Garry Parsons publishes 1st June from Scholastic. 

Monday 5 April 2021

Learning Your Lesson (or not) by Kael Tudor

Character development. It’s the backbone of storytelling, where our main character (or in some cases villain) come away from the story a changed person, having learnt lessons from their adventure and grown as a character. 

Picture books are no exception. In The Bad Seed by Jory John and Pete Oswald, the titular seed changes his ways and makes a choice to be kind. In Gustavo the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago, Gustavo overcomes his social anxiety and finds the friends he’s been wanting all along. In Ravi’s Roar by Tom Percival, Ravi realises that his anger hurt the people around him and apologises. 

Besides being excellent stories, these books, and the countless others like them, have subtle, but very important lessons for the children enjoying them; be kind, be brave, take responsibility for your mistakes. But what about stories where the main character learns absolutely nothing, despite having the chance to, and ends the book in the exact same position (or sometimes even worse) than where they started? Would children’s literature - and picture books for that matter - really portray characters who learn zip? Zilch? Nadda? Of course! Here are some of my favourites. 

But beware, from here on in there be spoilers! 

I am a Tiger - Karl Newson and Ross Collins The premise of I am a Tiger is simple. Mouse refuses to accept that she’s not a tiger, despite a colourful cast of characters insisting otherwise. But when she comes face to face with an actual tiger, is it time for Mouse to admit that she’s really a mouse? Um… no. 

Stuck - Oliver Jeffers Floyd’s kite gets stuck in a tree, so in order to knock it down he throws his shoes, his cat, a bicycle, a duck, an orangutan, and so on. There are delightful moments throughout the book where you think that Floyd’s had an epiphany (a ladder, the fire brigade, a saw), but instead of using them to get his kite sensibly, he lobs them up into the tree instead. 

Cockatoos - Quentin Blake Professor Dupont’s cockatoos are well and truly fed up of the annoying way he greets them every morning, so they declare that enough is enough, escape through a crack in the conservatory glass, and hide from him throughout the house. After a day of trying to find his precious cockatoos (delightfully, they are hiding on every page, just out of sight), Dupont goes to bed, but wakes to find that they’ve returned. And how does he react? He greets them the same way as always, of course. 

That’s What Dinosaurs Do - Jory John and Pete Oswald William the dinosaur spends his days roaring at anyone and everyone as loud as he can. Why? Well, because that’s what dinosaurs do. However, at the start of the book he gets a sore throat and is given strict no-roaring orders from his doctor. After a week of rest and happy townsfolk, William can’t wait any longer, and roars his dino heart out at everyone. And does he see the error of his ways when everyone comes to his house to complain? Not one bit. 

Rescuing Mrs Birdley - Aaron Reynolds and Emma Reynolds Miranda Montgomery, keen nature expert, spots her teacher, Mrs Birdley, at the supermarket. Concerned that Mrs Birdley has strayed, Miranda decides to capture her and put her back in her natural habitat, the school. When Miranda finally accomplishes her goal, it looks like things are finished, but then she spots her headteacher, and the whole process is set to happen again, with Miranda none the wiser about how you cannot capture school staff and lock them in the building. 

Here Be Dragons - Susannah Lloyd and Paddy Donnelly A knight is on the hunt for a dragon, to prove his naysaying friends wrong. But despite the warning signs, subtle hints and obvious sightings (including an epic battle involving the dragon, a princess and the knight’s horse), the knight completely fails to find what he was searching for, even when half of his armour has been melted away by dragon fire.  

In addition to books such as these, I’ve reserved a special subsection for stories with a different sort of ending. One thing that all of the books on the above list have in common is that, while the characters don’t learn from their experiences, nothing particularly bad happens to them, either. They finish the book completely unchanged, but they do finish it. I like to call this next list (I just came up with the name, as I wrote this) the Grave Consequences list, for obvious reasons. 

The Fate of Fausto - Oliver Jeffers Fausto is a man who believes that he can claim everything in the world to be his own, and for the most part he proves himself right. Flower, sheep, mountain and boat all bow before him and allow themselves to be claimed by Fausto. But when he attempts to claim the ocean, and the ocean refuses, Fausto loses his temper and decides to stamp his foot on the ocean to prove how cross he is, with Grave Consequences. 

Not Now, Bernard - David McKee A book so good it should be included on literally every list relating to picture books ever. Whether viewed as a commentary on parents not devoting enough time to their children or simply a story about a boy, his parents, and a monster in the garden, one thing is the same: Bernard keeps talking to people who are too busy and ultimately is on the receiving end of some Grave Consequences. 

So the question stands: why? Why do children’s books with protagonists that learn nothing and teach their readers nothing exist? Shouldn’t all children’s literature, especially books for children as young as the picture book audience, teach children something? I’d argue not. While there is a huge need for stories with morals, I’d say there’s an equally important space for books like those on this list, where characters are flawed and don’t always learn the first time around. At the end of the day, can we all say that we’ve never made the same mistake twice? 

Could children say the same? Children who can spot a forced lesson from a mile away, who love being in on a joke, and who delight at the sign of mischief because often so much of their time is spent being taught the correct way to behave. Sometimes it’s just fun to hear a story about someone who isn’t willing, or capable, of learning from their experiences. 

And besides, there undeniably something lip-smackingly delicious about getting to the end of a story and realising that the main character is going to make the same mistakes all over again, and it’s often these endings that have solicited the biggest laughs, from both myself and the children I’ve been reading the stories to. When you consider that, sometimes the biggest lesson is that there shouldn’t be one at all. 

Kael Tudor is a children’s writer from Swansea. He’s not allowed to talk about whether or not he’s got any books in the pipeline, but is silently excited. He loves chatting all things picture books, so if you want to say hi, or suggest even more picture books with characters who don’t learn or change at all, you can do so on Twitter at: @KaelTudor