FUNNY BUMS, FREAKY BEAKS and other incredible creature features is out in paperback. Find out all about how I co-wrote this much-love information book in an interview I recently did, first published on the ‘My Shelves are Full’ website. Also includes news of fresh writing projects with ecologist, Alex Morss…
First and foremost, what a brilliant book this is! The title is fantastic and sure to capture interest immediately. Did the title come early on in the writing of the book?
Thanks. It does feel like a unique book, and it was a total team-effort, putting it together. Each of us contributed different know-how and skills, to make the project special.
Yes, Alex Morss and I came up with the title long before we started work on the text,or got the publisher interested. After coming up with the idea for the book, Alex Morss and I sat down together to brainstorm a list of chapters. Each was based on a piece of animal anatomy that can be strange and wonderful, in certain species. We thought up STRANGE TAILS, TERRIFIC TEETH, PUZZLING TOES… And when arrived at FUNNY BUMS, it jumped out as the one that would make an eye-catching title.
We paired it up with FREAKY BEAKS. And the title of our book was born: FUNNY BUMS, FREAKY BEAKS and other incredible creature features!
Celebrating diversity and difference is important and highlighting differences with animals is a great way to share this message with readers- was this always the intent of the book?
Yes, absolutely. From the word go, we wanted the book to fly in the face of negative judgements about being different. We show, again and again and again, that difference in nature – strangeness, weirdness, extremeness – is there because it’s positive for the animal in question.
A rattlesnake has an unusual tail because the tail helps it survive. A male wild turkey has a very different kind of neck because its eye-catching dangly bits help him attract a mate. A sun bear has a freaky tongue because it helps her eat what some animals can’t reach. As we say in our introduction, “Nature’s diversity makes planet Earth a richer, more beautiful place.’
How much research did you do for the book?
Both identifying the best animals to include in the book and selecting the most interesting information about them, required a lot of research.
We were helped by the fact that my writing partner, Alex Morss, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural world, resulting from decades of studying biology, doing field work, and writing about ecology. It was amazing how much information she was able to come up with, simply off the top of her head!
But Alex is also extremely careful about getting facts right. This meant she spent many additional hours properly checking every fact in the book – and not just by searching on the internet, which is home to much false information and can’t be fully trusted.
Because our research was thorough, we’re confident that all the information is spot-on. (At least we haven’t had a single complaint about it, in the year since the book came out in hardback!)
How long did it take you and Alex Morss to research and write the book?
It was a tremendous amount of work. We ended up writing about 107 different species!
We worked at writing the book for the best part of a year, with an intense spell of about 6 months, in which we dug deep into the research and drafted the various chapters … then redrafted them, and redrafted them again.
Although it was a demanding task, it was made easier by the fact that the subject matter is so fascinating.
Was there something you learned during research which surprised you?
Nearly everything surprised me! I was on the team as the one specialised in creative writing and book-making for young readers. Alex, as well as being an ace writer, was the one suggesting the species we should write about, and coming up with most of the information about the animals.
In every chapter, there were facts I didn’t know, statistics which took me by surpriseand species I’d never come across. These included the shocking blue tongued lizard, the goofy eastern long-necked turtle and (my favourite animal in the book) the extraordinary peacock mantis shrimp.
The illustrations are so appealing for many ages and share some of the weird and wonderful features of animals- what did you think when you first saw these?
We knew we had a very talented artist on board, in Sarah Edmonds. But we were still very excited by the life, child-friendly appeal, and beauty she put into her final illustrations.
Doing the artwork for a book like FUNNY BUMS, FREAKY BEAKS and other incredible creature features requires two skills. Firstly, a technical ability to bring to life a range of little-known animals, with scientific accuracy. Secondly, a creativeability to make characterful artwork that children will find engaging. Some illustrators would be good at one of these two things. Sarah Edmonds is great at both.
Were there any animals who didn’t make it into the book?
The natural world is so rich in wonders that for every chapter we quite easily came up with more species than would fit into the space allowed!
It was hard to choose what to leave out. Sometimes we did a good bit of research about a particular species, and even wrote what we wanted to say about it, but then realised it would have to fall by the wayside.
Examples of some of the animals we ended up cutting: a squid in FREAKY BEAKS, a chameleon in EXTRAORDINARY EYES, an ostrich in PERPLEXING NECKS, and a blob fish in ODD NOSES.
Incidentally, we also cut a number of whole chapters that were a part of the original plan. This included WHACKY WINGS and CRAZY CLAWS!
Are you and Alex planning more books together in the future?
It’s been a fruitful partnership and we have a new book coming out on 28th June this year. It’s called WILD SUMMER, and it’s the third book in a series about life in the different seasons. Each of the books (aimed at 5- to 8-year-olds) features an imagined story and an information section.
First of all, we wrote about how plants and animals cope with the cold, in a book called WINTER SLEEP.
Then, last year, we published a book called BUSY SPRING, which explains the big ‘wake-up’ for nature in springtime.
Now WILD SUMMER brings to life the ways nature copes with heat and extremeweather conditions – both of which are typical of summer, and both of which arebecoming more dangerous because of climate change.
A school librarian asked a number of authors to respond those two questions for children in his school. Why read? Why books? I’ve got 6 reasons …
Reading takes you away from screens. Staring at a phone, an iPad, a computer or a television isn’t wrong. But hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours of it is. SO PICK UP A BOOK, INSTEAD.
Reading trains your CONCENTRATION. When you are absorbed in a book, you are learning powers of concentration which will be useful to you in many, many ways, in your life ahead.
Reading about other people – whether they are imagined (in fiction books) or real (in non-fiction books) creates EMPATHY. This is the ability to ‘put yourself in other people’s shoes’. And empathy is a great quality for life – especially for anyone who wants to be a responsible and active member of a community.
Reading teaches IMAGINATION which is essential for our world. No other animal has this gift – the ability to imagine. And human imagination lies behind all books and art, all inventions, all discoveries, and all the many solutions to problems that we depend on.
Reading teaches you how to USE WORDS. You learn the meanings of words and the spellings of words. You learn how to structure sentences well. You learn how to play and experiment with words too.
Reading is FUN. Books are full of drama, adventure, poetry, comedy, magic and many other pleasures. SO PLEASE … CHOOSE BOOKS AND KEEP ON READING!
To mark the launch of HOW TO BE COOLER THAN COOL I had an Instagram Live conversation with my longtime editor at Walker Books, Maria Tunney. Instagrammers can see our chat here.
Maria asked me to come up with ‘five key picture book ingredients’. That felt like an interesting challenge and what I had to say seems to have set others thinking too.
There are no definitive ingredients for picture books, or any other kind of creative writing. But over the years I’ve developed a list of 9 questions which I ask myself, to test the readiness of a developing picture book text. Sometimes a new story is strong in a number of areas, but not all. Checking through these 9 pointers can identify what needs to be worked on. And it can spark the ideas that a story needs, to evolve…
Is there a character with whom young children will fall in love – preferably after one sentence?
Is there something about the story that will ‘hook’ readers in from the start?
Does the story have a page-turning quality as it progresses?
What does the main character want?
Is there an emotional journey, as well as a story journey? (It doesn’t matter what the emotion is.)
Is there visual variety for an illustrator?
Does everything happen across a short time-span? (Picture book stories very often describe a single day, or even less.)
Is the story truly young…truly for and about children under 6?
Is there some kind of ending uplift that will delight young readers? (There are many kinds: twists, jokes, echoes, questions, satisfying resolutions. Best of all, perhaps, none of those…but something no one’s come up with before!)
A BBC investigation, last year, came up with this shocking statistic: 343 British public libraries closed between 2010 and 2016. So what a delight to be invited to open a new library last week, at Harbinger Primary, on the Isle of Dogs.
In the ship-launching tradition of that corner of east London, it felt as if we should be launching the new library by smashing a bottle of champagne on the door. But the Head Teacher wouldn’t let me.
So I did my best to launch the new space by reading a poem written for the library.
All the children and staff at the school joined in by counting 3…2…1!
Then the ribbon was cut…
LONG LIVE HARBINGER SCHOOL LIBRARY AND ALL WHO READ IN HER!
Here’s the poem I read:
A BLESSING FOR A LIBRARY
Let this be a place where reading flows.
Let this be a place where imagination grows.
Let this be a place where facts are discovered –
a calm place, in busy times, where clear thoughts are recovered.
Let this be a place that is safe and warm.
Let this be a place where fresh dreams are born.
Let there be good stories here that make your heart go faster,
poems, riddles and comedies to make you burst with laughter.
Let this be a place of cliffhangers and mysteries.
Let this be a place for sciences and histories.
Let this be a place where you come to feel at home.
Let this be a place where learning seeds are sown.
Let this be a special place for the head and the heart.
Hi wanted to tell you that I really enjoyed reading your book “A waste of good paper” I would like to ask you for some tips on writing a book i like actually i love reading book and i finished reading your book the same day i got it from the library i am happy to add it to my collection of favourite books. I want to write a book about my life so far i am only 15 but i want to achieve something and i have started many times its just when it comes to going on i just become blank i forget everything or i just don’t know what to write. If you don’t mind telling me some of your secrets please do share. Thanks Nikolas [Nik the gamer]
My message back to him,
Hello Nik the gamer.
Welcome to the club.
If you get as far as becoming blank, forgetting everything and not knowing what to write, that sounds very hopeful.
People who are not writers don’t get that far!
If you keep reading other writers (of all kinds, from all over) and keep taking yourself to that place of not knowing what to write…and keep doing both these things some more…you will find out what it is you’ve got to write.
With all good wishes for your adventures with words,
As well as being the author of some books for children, I am the father of two boys under 10. Like many (most?) parents, I can feel regrets about the things I’ve not managed to do together with my boys. We’ve never built a tree-house. I haven’t taken a half-day off to sit down with them and make that model pirate ship they were once given. The campervan trip to Ireland hasn’t happened yet… But I have read to them as much as I possibly can. And there are no regrets about that.
These are ten reasons why:
1. THE SHARING
In modern times, many parents have lost touch with what you could call ‘traditional children’s culture’. I’m thinking of the stories, games, songs, rhymes, traditions and rituals which would once have been passed from one generation to the next. Reading to your children can go some way to making up for that. If there were books you loved as a child, it’s easy to pass them on. I’ve had a fantastic time revisiting (by reading aloud) old favourites of mine like John Burningham’sHumbert, Winnie the Pooh, Moominsummer Madness, James and the Giant Peach and Treasure Island. And the fantastic-ness is doubled when it’s shared with a child.
Books offer language that goes beyond the range of everyday talk. And stories offer delights that ordinary conversations rarely do. So reading aloud to a child is a great way to help them become confident language users. This has been particularly important in my family. I’m British, but my wife is Brazilian. Our boys grew up in São Paulo. Their ‘mother tongue’ is (quite literally) Portuguese. I know the fact that they are both good English speakers today, owes a lot to all the books in English we’ve enjoyed together.
3.THE BOOKS THEMSELVES
As you can see from my post on Maurice Sendak (somewhere below) I think picture books are one of the great art forms to come out of the 20th century. (Up there with the three-and-a-half-minute rhythm and blues song!) You get characters that children love, page-turning stories, inventive, skilfully-crafted illustrations, flights of imagination, colour, humour, emotion and – as if all that wasn’t enough – endings which uplift, provoke, surprise, or do all three. The wealth of picture books available is a treasure chest to share with any child. And it’s not just picture books that are special. Middle grade fiction is very much abuzz. So I’m not planning to stop reading to my boys any time soon!
Most children find learning to read and write a tough business. But if they’re being read good books they’ll be more motivated to succeed at it. They’ll be more at home in the landscape of words on pages. And you can give them bits of practice too – by pausing the flow of a story, and getting them to read out words. Our six-year-old doesn’t have much patience for practising his phonics and key-words. But if I give him reading challenges from a book that I’m reading aloud to him, he’s noticeably more motivated, calm and persistent.
Children’s questions are wonderful (wonder-filled) things. They are a marks of curiosity and the desire to learn. They contain hope. So I always listen carefully to them and give the best answers I can. (Even if the conversation goes: “Does everyone in the world die?” “Yes, it’s sad but everyone does.” “What about mermaids?”) Reading-time with children is a great space for these questions to come out – whether they’re old questions waiting to be asked, or new ones inspired by what’s being read. When you’re reading together, there’s time and space for reflection. Your child can ask you things. Or you can ask them.
Sometimes children need you to go with them on the journey into a book. Our 9-year-old likes to read a lot of things on his own, these days. But there are books he’d like to have read to him. This may be because the story looks challenging to him, in some way. Or it may be that it’s a book from a different era that he’d like an adult to help ‘interpret’. One way or another, if you offer yourself to a child as a book companion, you’ll broaden their reading horizons.
There is so much comedy in writing for children. And laughter (like most things) is best enjoyable when it’s shared. I did actually fall off the bed from laughing so much…when reading our oldest son Roald Dahl’s, The Twits.
It’s not just questions. There is other talk sparked during and after the reading. Good stories stay with us. My boys and I chat about books we have read days, weeks, months or years after we have finished them.
You can choose what direction to travel (towards adventure, humour, poetry, magic, or more besides.) You take a break from the busyness of things. You can do it every day, home or away. You find somewhere comfortable to sit yourselves down. There is calm. You journey into the imagination, together with a child. It’s a delight.
All around us as night draws in, parents start up the quiet rhythms of telling stories to children. It goes on right round the world. And there’s nothing new in the knowledge that a story is the best way to end the day’s excitement and settle down for sleep. It’s been going on for tens of thousands of years. They are bridges that lead from the real world into the world of our dreams. (And if the adult readers sometimes fall asleep too…well…it happens!)
These are ten reasons why I have spent hours and hours reading to my sons. On reflection, I suppose those hours have really been our tree house, our pirate ship and our campervan adventure across the sea…