Question and Answers

What made you want to write books for children?

I’ve always been interested in writing but have never seemed to have the time. One of the reasons is that for a long time I’ve always been involved in sport and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. The other reason is that when my wife and I started our family we soon discovered that bringing up children often takes 25 hours a day!

I started writing when I decided I wasn’t getting any better at basketball and my three children were old enough to allow me some uninterrupted time. Part of my interest in writing probably stems from the fact that my grandfather, George Dumbleton, was a local village poet in Oxfordshire, England.

Do you think the illustrations are important?

The illustrations for my work are essential. The manuscripts which I send to the publishers need illustrations to bring them to life. Having said that, some of my books have a greater dependence on the illustrations than others. Dial-a-Croc for example has been read on radio and still works effectively, but books like Granny O’Brien and Cat have more than one layer and use what is called a visual sub-text (a story in the pictures which is not fully explained in the words). Without the pictures they simply don’t work properly.

Who decides how the book will look?

It’s a joint process but initially it is the editor, in conjunction with the illustrator and a designer who is responsible for the size and style of print along with the layout of the cover.

I get to see draft illustrations and cover layouts and I can raise any concerns I might have. Luckily, I’ve worked with great editors and illustrators so I’ve been delighted with the results.

What advice would you give to new writer?

If anyone was intending to write a children’s book I would suggest that they find out as much as they can about the type of book they are intending to write before they start. Check the book shops to see what is being published and by whom. I think it helps to have a clear idea of format and length.

It is possible to write about the same idea in different ways so if you want to be published it helps to know what publishers are looking for. After that, you have to write and rewrite until you are satisfied and don’t be put off by publishers who reject your work. Just send the manuscript off to another publisher and continue work on your next book.

Where do you get your ideas from?

There is no one way of getting ideas. Sometimes they come from something I see which strikes me as being interesting or amusing, and sometimes it can be a play on words, like Dial-a-Croc being crocodile reversed or Passing On meaning both dying and passing things on from one person to another.

The idea for Mr Knuckles was triggered by a story written by one of my students in which a teacher played a trick on his class by wearing an ape suit and teaching a lesson. The thing that struck me was the fact that the teacher seemed to be more effective as an ape than he was normally. I decided to make the central character a gorilla and soon came up with the name Mr Knuckles which gave him a real identity.

The idea for Cat came from reversing the words cat and dog then seeing the potential for a mixture of dramatic tension and comedy which could be developed in the visual text. I remember “holding my breath” and wondering if a series of similar reversals could be sustained for the length of a picture book.

How long does it take you to write a book?

The time can vary a lot from book to book and I don’t always have the full story line resolved before I start. If I think I’ve got a good idea, I get started as soon as I can because when I start writing things down I soon discover whether or not the idea was really that good. Usually it takes me three to six months to get a picture book to the stage where I’m happy to send it to a publisher.

Do you have any pets?

I don’t have any pets now but we’ve had a range of different pets while my three boys were growing up – dogs, a cat, mice, guinea pigs and a horse. Not all at the same time thank goodness!

What are your five favourite ways to spend a Saturday?

  1. Writing in my dressing gown until late morning, without getting shaved because I don’t have to go to work.
  2. Doing some exercise so that I feel as if I can eat more on Saturday night.
  3. Visiting wineries.
  4. Going to a movie, a concert or a play.
  5. Catching up with friends.

What are your nicknames?

I’m usually called Mr D. But sometimes in America, I’m called Mr Mike.

What song always gets you dancing?

Lots of songs get me dancing now because I took some dancing lessons while I was working in New York. The lessons mean that I know some of the steps, but it’s not always a pretty sight!

What were your favourite and loathed subjects at school?

I loved sport and reading at school. Everything else was less appealing because it got in the way of sport and reading.

How did you spend the summer holidays as a kid?

I loved being out of doors and active. It was all soccer, cricket, long bike rides and hikes as well as tadpoling, fishing and acquiring fruit from orchards.

What are some of your favourite books?

I don’t really have favourites. I like many books from classics like Charles Dickens’ Hard Times and J. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to modern picture books. As a teacher I also get a real kick out of introducing my students to books that they subsequently enjoy.

What do you buy when you go to the movies?

I don’t buy anything when I go to the movies, mainly because it’s usually immediately before or after a meal out.

What are some of your favourite meals?

I love fish and mild Indian meals. Anything above medium makes me perspire immediately.

If you could travel to any place in the world, where would you go?

The place I like to go most in the world is France and I’ve been lucky enough to go there several times already. I particularly like Provence in the south of France.

What words would you use to describe yourself?

Tall, curly haired, cheerful, optimistic.

What is your favourite room in the house?

I like every room in the house because if I’m outside I might feel obliged to do the gardening and I’m trying to give it up.

What’s the meal you wish you had not eaten?

Despite my love of France, my worst meal would have to have been when I tried eating snails.

What skill do you wish had?

I wish I could ski with real style and finesse, as opposed to looking like a sliding giraffe.

Who or what inspires you?

Nelson Mandela because of his attitude towards people and his outlook on life after so many years of imprisonment.