Wednesday, 22 July 2009


When we heard that Alien Space Zombies from Beyond Terror had plans to infiltrate this year's Latitude festival, we couldn't merely stand idly by and allow hundreds of young (and also slightly old[er]) Latituders be turned into mindless zombie slaves! So calm(ish)-in-a-crisis author Guy Bass and I, packed up our Zomb-O-Tron 6000 and took to the road with the patented ZOMBALIEN SURVIVAL GUIDE (patent pending).

Unfortunately the Zombaliens were on to us and determined to thwart our efforts at every turn. Literally hundreds of them got in their cars and jammed up the roads, in a bid to clog up the A12 and prevent us from even entering Suffolk. Then, somehow they must have got hold of our tents and made modifications in order to make them stupendously difficult to assemble. Worst of all, they seemingly ensured that flushable toilets were totally uninvented in this particular area of Southwold for the duration of the festival. 

However, you don't mess with Stripes Publishing when there are books to be promoted, and you certainly don't mess with Guy Bass when there are lives to be saved . . . 

This is what we were up against . . . 

. . . isn't it hideous? This is also a little bit like what I looked like by the end of the festival, because there were NO SHOWERS!! AA-AAA-AAH!

Fortunately we soon managed to round up a veritable army of Latituders prepared to learn all they needed to know to combat zombification . . . 

. . . look at all the grown ups! I think they were more worried than the kids!

Guy got straight to work demonstrating the Zomb-O-Tron 6000 with the help of a strong-necked volunteer . . .

We seemed to be pretty lucky with the weather, until Sunday afternoon when the heavens opened. But no Zombalien rains on Guy Bass' parade and on he soldiered through the deluge . . .

AND to our joy and amazement, the audience stuck around too . . .  

. . . (having whipped on their macs!) They're a hardy bunch, those Latituders. I'd like to see the Zombaliens try to enslave them!

All-in-all a cracking time was had by all and I feel certain that many lives were saved. Actor Keith Allen stopped by to watch one of the sessions - we have reason to suspect he is in fact a Zombalien himself. (Surely Vindaloo is some kind of mind-control chant??!)

My other festival highlights included:

#1 Grace Jones leaving her trousers at home, but like a consummate professional, proving that the show must go on!!
#2 Dancing in the woods late into the night. Being at one with nature is many times more enjoyable than being in a horrible nightclub.
#3 Spotting the little girl we dressed up as Herbert the monster, half way through reading her copy of Dinkin Dings and the Frightening Things.

My greatest festival fears included:

#1 The loos.
#2 My tent falling down on top of me in the night.
#3 Waking up to find my tent surrounded Zombaliens . . . AA-AAA-AAH!!!

Our thanks go to Latitude for having us, and Suffolk Libraries for their support. They clearly are truly concerned about safety and security!

If you are intrigued by any part of this, you NEED to read these books (it might very well save your life!!):

Dinkin Dings and the Frightening Things
by Guy Bass
illustrated by Pete Williamson

Dinkin Dings and the Revenge of the Fishmen
by Guy Bass
illustrated by Pete Williamson

You might also like to visit the man himself at and/or Dinkin's Diary of Dread and Desperation at


Thursday, 9 July 2009

The Picture Book Problem

I have my suspicions that no one is actually reading this, so it's probably time to be slightly controversial, just to test the water . . .

Our fine industry's attitude to picture books has really been grinding my gears of late.

This year's CILIP Kate Greenaway shortlist was a triumph of diversity and eclectics. I refuse to be written off as biased as I am talking about the shortlist, and not the winner (which was obviously brilliant!). The truth is the shortlist reflected every aspect of what is brilliant and creative and dynamic about illustrated books for children produced in the UK. I was particularly pleased to see The Savage and Varmints on the list, as it proved that the judges were acknowledging the importance of books with pictures for older readers. There is no doubt in my mind that you are NEVER too old to enjoy a picture book, and it was fantastic to see this recognised by this prestigious award.

What a shame it was then to see the award overshadowed to such a great extent. Prior to the announcement I was warned by the CKG PR team that it is always a struggle to secure anywhere near as much coverage for the Greenaway as for the Carnegie. Don't get me wrong, I thought it was wonderful to see Siobhan Dowd recognised posthumously for her wonderful book Bog Child and if I'm honest, I don't think even this achieved the coverage it deserved (publisher David Fickling's assertion that " . . . the name of the Carnegie winner should be on everybody's lips, on every front page . . . " was sadly not realised), but it was a real shame to find everywhere the awards were mentioned, the Greenaway winner was something of an after thought. An 'also presented at the same ceremony . . . ' much as the award for Best Make-up is flashed as a time filler on the Academy Award coverage. 

We were fortunate to have some fantastic support from the Scottish press, Catherine being an adopted Scot since taking up permanent residence in Edinburgh, but the coverage in the national press and even The Bookseller was woefully lacking. 

I suppose the problem is the turnover of young readers is much higher than in adults. That is to say, children's interests and reading levels develop at a phenomenal rate. A book which maybe 'suitable' for a five year-old will rapidly be outgrown and new five year-olds will arrive to discover the book afresh (not to mention the fact they will happily listen to the same book over and over). Within the adult readership people are likely to spend fifty years reading their way through the literary ether therefore, I suppose, it is necessary to have a larger number of titles for them to choose from. However, I think it is a big mistake to write kids off as less discerning, and to therefore give them fewer options. It is little wonder that so many parents/teachers have trouble encouraging readers when kids are often given an incredibly limited and uninspiring selection of books to choose from. It seems that publishers, booksellers and buyers are going for the 'easy sell'. My worry is that playing it safe is likely to produce a generation of 'safe' readers. We have a responsibility to readers of this age to stimulate them as much as possible, not to mention give them the opportunity and appropriate support to make their own choices about what they read, rather than spoon-feeding them from a nice, safe, baby-sized selection.

I was glad to see Klaus Flugge's letter to The Bookseller regarding Kate Skipper's limited selection in The Bookseller's picture book supplement, but it seemed to me a little misdirected. Although it is a crying shame that we struggle to sell hardback picture books to the general trade, what bothered me more was the obviousness of her choices. I have no doubt that Kate reached her position by demonstrating commercial nous and a passion for picture books, but I can't help but feel that any randomly selected non-children's specialist from one of the chain's stores could have told us that Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler's latest (two!) offerings will be among the biggest sellers of the season. I know it's wrong to look a gift horse in the mouth, and I was pleased to see two of our titles featured, but both books are the next instalments in already high performing series. It would have been far more enlightening and invigorating to have been given a sneak peak at some of the exciting new treats which I know we all have in store.

Also, even more worryingly, the supplement itself lost its stand alone status and got relegated to the centrefold of the magazine. Now I'm not actually going to blame The Bookseller for this. I am going to take a wild stab at it and guess that this was down to a lack of funds i.e. a drop in advertising. I had booked a half page advert but got bumped up to the full front cover of the supplement. Clearly publishers themselves are being reticent about investing in the promotion of picture books. This troubles me . . . 

Respect should be paid to Booktrust for the valiant efforts of The Big Picture campaign. Along with then Children's Laureate Michael Rosen, they launched an offensive to 'put picture books firmly in the public eye'. Unfortunately the public seems to have been keeping their eyes firmly shut, as the initial dream doesn't seem to have quite been realised. Thank god, then, for the fact that Anthony Browne has been installed as the new Children's Laureate. Anthony was heavily involved with 2008's Big Picture campaign, taking up the helm on the judging panel for the Best New Illustrators Award. I only hope Anthony takes up Michael's well-worn mantel and runs with it, as this campaign really hasn't hit its peak . . . yet. We're proud to be adding Little Tiger's name to the gaggle of children's publishers sponsoring the Children's Laureate post and I hope that through commitment and hard work, together we will all be able to solve the picture book problem. After all, today's picture book readers could be tomorrows Booker Prize winners . . . or reality TV stars. What's it gonna be?