On Thursday 26th March I gave a joint lecture at Ballard School in New Milton alongside the Advertiser & Times. The theme of the lecture was “The Write Opportunities”, and was aimed at giving an insight to pupils from Ballard, Highcliffe, Arnewood and Priestlands schools into the world of journalism, children’s book creation and publishing.
The 2015 Lecture Series had already included talks from Cathy Mussert, who works for the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, on politics; Judge Sean Enright on the legal profession; Phil Charles, who is the head of the School of Physics & Astronomy at Southampton University; and British composer Christopher Gunning. A further talk by Harry Redknapp takes place in May. The aim is to offer students a chance to learn from people already doing what they might be interested in taking up as a career, so it’s a worthwhile experience for all.
I’d been invited to share the lecture by the Advertiser & Times, so the first half of the talk was given by Advertiser & Times journalist John Waller who explained how he came into the profession, what the highs and lows of the job can entail, and gave some practical advice on writing a news story, including good interview technique.
My task was a little broader, talking about writing picture books for children, how I go about illustrating them, what I think makes a good children’s book, and advice on getting published. I managed to do the entire talk without notes and both halves of the lecture seemed to go down very well indeed, with lots of questions afterwards for both John and I, plus a fair few book sales to boot.
A big thank you to Liza Datlen and the Advertiser & Times for arranging it all, and to the staff at Ballard School for looking after us, not to mention all those that filled out the lecture theatre – students and parents alike.
Orchard Juniors have been studying the Odyssey by Homer, and as part of the project I was asked to go in and lend a hand with some creative writing and illustration. The children were challenged to come up with their very own mythical beast and island habitat that Odysseus stumbles upon with his crew, so their starting point was to think about what this new beast would look like. I visited the children class by class and drew different kinds of fantastical creatures for them, largely based upon suggestions they called out, to illustrate how many of the Greek mythological menagerie are just human/animal hybrids, or a cross between two or more animals. They were then encouraged to begin designing their own, bearing in mind how it would be best suited to the habitat it lived in.
Once this was done they could begin their writing, which was essentially a missing chapter from the Odyssey. They needed to think about pacing, description, emotion, tension and consequences throughout their piece, and when it came to the island and the monster they had to ensure they conjured them vividly in the reader's mind as their initial illustration wouldn't form part of the work. My task was then to choose which story I thought best brought the landscape and creature to life in my mind's eye, as well as building drama and excitement through the writing.
The winning writer, Zofia, received an illustration of their monster drawn by me, which was an absolute pleasure to draw based upon her riveting description. Everybody seemed to thoroughly enjoy it and be engaged by the task, so objectives fulfilled, I reckon!
I was rather honoured to be asked to officially open Oak Lodge School's brand new library. Oak Lodge is a school for children with special educational needs, and those needs are extremely varied meaning children of the same age having very mixed abilities in a given subject. I've been to Oak Lodge many times to draw with the children and despite the differing levels of ability when it comes to art, they've always been an enthusiastic, engaged and entertaining bunch.
Following a brief talk to the children in assembly about my books I got to slice the ribbon using an enormous pair of scissors - hand-made by the art teacher. Most impressive. Afterwards I took four workshops with children from years 7 and 8 where we drew step-by-step pictures of characters from my New Forest Friends books. Good fun, plenty of giggles, and a pleasure to be part of it all.
On Friday I made my annual trip to see the current Year 2s at Ringwood Infant School to talk about my books and do some drawing with the children. Each class is named after a different New Forest creature, so it’s my task to get the children to draw a cartoon version of it via a step-by-step illustration that they can do along with me. Ringwood Infants is a wonderfully friendly and enthusiastic school, and the children and teachers alike muck in and get cartooning. They also, very kindly, let me sell my books after school, and considering I only ever talk to the one year group there, the queues for a signed book always stretch out of the library.
If you’d like to book me for a school visit, or would be interested in having Val Anne Lee, the author of On The Banks Of Hatchet Pond, or Martin Bradley of Top Gun Of The Sky and Dusk Until Dawn, then do get in touch via the contact page. And if you’d like your own copy of one of the books then do visit my online shop.
I visited Abbotswood Junior School a few weeks ago and have just received the letter below. One of those warm and fuzzy moments:
It’s been a busy few days with three very different school visits. On Tuesday I was at Orchard Infant School with their Reception classes. I love Reception, largely because they’re a little bit off-the-wall as they’re still settling into the rhythms of school life. The topic was Once Upon A Time and so I was asked to help them create a new storybook character that they could then take further during the coming weeks. After reading them one of my stories and discussing what made one of the characters heroic I settled down with each class to create their character by inviting the children to suggest a characteristic, item of clothing or prop. It makes for a tricky drawing because you don’t know what the next child is going to suggest, but the results are always rather satisfying. Cherries went for a blue-skinned female pirate called Pirate Polly Petals who rescued children from dragons; Apples went for the somewhat surreal three-eyed, four-armed, cheetah-legged, top-hat wearing Fantastic Fast Franky who raced around the world stopping arguments and helping children get along; while Pears went for Magical Megan Merlion who had the tail of a dolphin, the body of an elephant, a lion’s mane and a mermaid’s face who protected sailors from stormy weather. All elements and ideas suggested by the Reception children - great fun.
On Wednesday I was with Year 2 at Wildground Infant School who have been looking at the themes in my New Forest Friends children’s books. In New Forest Friends & The Litterbugs, Hatchet the Squirrel imagines a litterbug to be a giant insect made up from the parts of other creepy-crawlies, so after reading the story I asked the children to suggest different animals so I could draw a new litterbug from the various animal parts. Once this had got their imaginations fizzing they were then challenged to write a description of their very own litterbug packed full of interesting describing words (it’s always good to hear Year 2 children using words like humungous). The afternoon session had the children tackling some creative writing where they needed to tell a tale either from their own point of view, Beaulieu the Hedgehog’s, or even their newly created litterbug's. Especially pleased to see two of the boys, who I was told found any form of writing a struggle, really get into the flow of story writing, with one of them completing an entire page and then going away to type it all up, print it out, fold it into a booklet AND add an illustration! That was incredibly pleasing to be part of.
The last school visit of the week was Ranvilles Junior School in Fareham. Last year I created a pair of cartoon children for the school and illustrated them as if they were in each of the four year groups with the idea being that as the children move up in the school the characters grow up and move with them. The children have been using them within their topic work, and I was being asked to go in and expand upon what each class had been discussing by drawing some additional cartoons that the children could copy at the same time. Year 3 were thinking about what the parents of the two children might do for a living so I was asked to draw a Naval Officer (a third of the children’s parents in the school have a Navy connection) and a Museum guide. Year 4 wanted to tie the children into the school’s values, so we drew the boy determined to defend a goal that was too large for him and the girl persevering with the early stages of learning to ice skate. Incidentally, the children have been voting on names for the cartoon pair, with the results being announced today, hence a lack of nomenclature so far). In the afternoon, Year 5 wanted the pair on-board a cruise ship as part of a narrative they’d been creating. They described the boy as a gamer and a bit careless, while the girl enjoyed reading and was more mature and relaxed, so we drew the boy desperately reaching for his dropped hand-held device as it plummeted over the railings of the ship while the girl looked on over the top of her book with a raised eyebrow. Finally, Year 6 were looking at the deeper aspects of their personalities and wanted to show the boy being pressurised by his friends into spraying some graffiti, which we drew with him looking extremely nervous about, while with the girl they had decided that she had issues with occasional bullying and so needed to be shown doing something positive and triumphing over adversity, so we had her posed on the winner’s podium at the end of the school sports day.
All three days involved me having to draw off-the-cuff large scale cartoons without any prior knowledge as to what they might be, and as far as Ranvilles Juniors were concerned, this also meant keeping them simple enough for the children to copy at each step too. When I’m working in the studio I have the opportunity to plan out a drawing, sketch in pencil or digitally, and make amendments before committing a more deliberate line, so it can be quite a challenge when so many eyes are watching to go straight to a bold marker pen, especially when you’re under time pressures too. Fortunately, the children are always immensely positive and excited about seeing live cartooning, and their enthusiasm and subsequent work are testament to how powerful and engaging the process is.
Finally, I should mention that both Val Anne Lee, who wrote On The Banks Of Hatchet Pond, and Martin Bradley, who wrote and illustrated Top Gun Of The Sky (published by Ceratopia Books) are also available for school visits. Val is an immensely talented writer of witty and fun poems, while Martin has a passion for wildlife, particularly birds, and even more particularly birds of prey. If you’d be interested booking them, or would like them to come along with me to a school visit, please do get in touch. I should also mention that all the children’s books mentioned above are available from the Ceratopia shop
, Amazon, and New Forest shops and attractions.
Yesterday I spent the day with the children of Poulner Infant School, on the edge of the New Forest. It's their book week, so I was asked to come in and talk about my books, draw some superhero cartoons, and help the children plan for some creative writing.
With each class we talked about how every superhero is thought up in the imagination of its creator, and that what I was looking for was to create a superhero team with their help, like The Avengers, made up of lots of different heroes with different powers, that together made a formidable team. I explained that what I was after was their character's origin story - the tale in which an otherwise ordinary person obtains their powers, and what then made them want to do good with it. We could then think about what their character would dress like, or look like, and what superhero name would they adopt.
To give them an idea of what I was after we developed one character as a class with each group of children. There were some brilliant suggestions, such as pilot called Flash Rogers who spies a hero battling with a villain from his plane and flies down to help, only to discover the hero is badly injured and passes on "the King's Seal" to Flash so he can turn into Sonic Boom Boy. In another class we had an Antarctic scientist, there to study penguins, fall down an icy chasm where he lands amongst blue glowing ice. This gives him the power to turn into a man of ice and rock with the ability to shoot freeze rays so he can defend the North and South Pole - he was The Incredible Icer (and, oddly, he dressed like a baseball player).
The children were then left to write their own heroic origin stories, and it was really pleasing to learn that some of the boys who would sometimes struggle to get their ideas down on to paper were rattling off line after line of story, with one boy giving up some of his lunch hour to do more.
Poulner were also kind enough to let me do a book signing at the end of the day in their library which was very well attended. Thank you to all the staff and children who looked after me, particularly for the home-made cake!
It was a busy day at Our Lady & St Joseph Catholic Primary School in Pennington yesterday tackling three different topics with classes across the school. The youngest children had been looking at nocturnal animals, so I shared my New Forest Friends books with them and talked about what animals come out at night. We then created a new nocturnal creature from the parts of other animals with the children making the suggestions and me doing the drawing before the children were split into small groups to produce their own. Considering their young age the results were spectacular (one was named the Beaver of Doom!).
The next eldest age group were looking at ecological issues, so first of all I read them my New Forest Friends & The Litterbugs book and we discussed some of the issues it raised. Then, with suggestions given by the children, we designed an eco-warrior with a costume made entirely from recycled material that the children suggested. Once they'd got to grips with that they then went away and had a go at designing an outfit of their own.
The final session was with the eldest children who were looking at superheroes, so we spent some time talking about cartooning methods to give them some assistance with their superhero designs. Their drawings were great, with some of the more ambitious children tackling more complicated poses, expressions and costumes based around what we'd talked about.
The day was completed by a bustling book signing session which went incredibly well considering the small size of the school. Thank you to everyone at Our Lady & St Joseph Catholic Primary School for looking after me!
Ringwood Infant School have been very good to ask me back every year for ten years now to talk about my children's books and do some step-by-step drawings with the children, and last Friday I joined the current Year 2 again.
All the classes are named after New Forest animals, so after I'd shared my books and read a tale the children of that class got the opportunity to draw the creature their class is named after. This is done by me using simple lines and shapes on a large sheet at the front and the children copying after each step until the animal is complete.
At the end of the school day the children are given the opportunity to buy my books in the library, and every year the school is fantastic at letting the children and parents know all about it in advance. This year it resulted in my best year for sales to date and a queue that stretched the length of the library and double-backed to the doors.
I always get a warm welcome from the staff and children alike, and I'm starting to feel so at home in the staff room I've requested my own pigeon hole.
Thanks for having me, Ringwood!
Have been along to a further two schools this week as part of the Wessex Literary Festival, so Applemore College on Tuesday and The Romsey School on Thursday.
On both occasions the aim was to share my children's books, show how I work, and then do a bit of cartoon illustration with the students. Where I had time we worked on some character design for a children's book and then planned an illustraion for an imaginary book using that character and a simple piece of verse I put up on to a board.
Throughout the week there have been some genuinely talented individuals that have shone, but what was particulalry pleasing was seeing the different results and individual paths of all the students.
I sat in on a presentation by another author, Craig Simpson, who has written some great adventure books inspired by events from World War II, and on Thursday I got to meet Dan Freedman who writes novels about football. Both authors write to engage everyone but are also tackling that difficult audience, boys, who are so much harder to get into reading.
It's been a very enjoyable week - looking forward to next year.
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