Category Archives: Picture book

The #19 profile – Ross Collins

Scotland is sending some of its best authors and illustrators away. But don’t worry; it’s done with the best intentions. Next week Scottish illustrator Ross Collins will take part in the Scottish Friendly Children’s Book Tour run by Scottish Book Trust, sharing his top tips for illustration with more than 900 pupils in Nottinghamshire. So it’s a little too far for me to tag along, which is why I twisted his arm and made Ross answer some questions instead.

Here he is, and using my best judgement, I’d say he’s mostly telling the truth. Probably.

Ross Collins

How many books did you write before the one that was your first published book?

I’m slightly ashamed/delighted to say that the first book I wrote was published. I entered the MacMillan Book Prize in my final year of Art School with my book The Sea Hole. I was lucky enough to win the competition and the book was published. It was a great door opener with publishers, and kick started my career.

Best place for inspiration?

Inspiration tends to come anywhere at any time, when you are least expecting it really. I have had a couple of bits of inspiration when I’ve been dog walking alone in the countryside when I have space to think. The idea for the Elephantom (what would it be like to be haunted by an elephant?) came to me walking up a hill by Loch Lomond with my lab Willow.

Would you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Perhaps you already do?

I don’t think so. I’m not sure what the point would be – unless I was sent down for crimes against humanity and couldn’t get publishers interested in my picture book ideas anymore.

What would you never write about?

Probably religion.

Through your writing: the most unexpected person you’ve met, or the most unexpected place you’ve ended up in?

I met the pope at the Linlithgow librarian’s conference once…

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

That is HARD! I could be a vampire, a germ, the thing under the bed… so many possibilities.

I once wrote the story of Medusa when she was a little girl, dealing with school life. It was called Medusa Jones. Being Medusa would be kind of cool, she had a hard life in my book but at the same time she did have snakes for hair, could turn people to stone (even though her mum said it was rude to do so) and had a puppy Cerberus. Probably the most interesting thing would be being a girl. I’ve never been a girl.

Do you think that having a film made of one of your books would be a good or a bad thing?

I’ve had lots of my books optioned for film but it’s a hard thing to make happen.

I guess the closest thing I’ve had to it was when the Elephantom was adapted for the stage by the National Theatre’s War Horse team. That was probably the most magical experience of my life. I was really lucky though, because I was working with the best of the best who completely honoured my book so I had nothing to worry about.

Having your book made into a film would probably change it beyond all recognition which would be difficult, but I think if you accept that early on, then it would be a fun ride to go on.

What is the strangest question you’ve been asked at an event?

As a children’s author you get asked lots of very strange questions that don’t really seem to relate to anything you’ve been talking about. You forget most of them.

Last year in Melrose I was asked by a wee girl if I’d ever bled out of my eyes. It turns out that she once had a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop so she started to cry and the blood came out of her eyes. She was immensely proud of this fact. Her mother less so.

Do you have any unexpected skills?

I can remember the lyrics to hundreds of really awful songs when they come on the radio – much to my partner’s dismay.

The Famous Five or Narnia?

The Northern Lights Trilogy.

Who is your most favourite Swede?

It’s shallow, but Anni-Frid Lyngstad was a very early crush. (I should really say some notable chemist shouldn’t I?)

How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically?

My partner Jacqui is in charge of that – she has a serious book collection and everything is alphabetisized. Occassionally she allows me to add my books which I just put into three categories, Art, Film and Children’s books..

Which book would you put in the hands of an unwilling eight-year-old boy reader?

This sounds like a shameless plug, but I’m being honest when I say one of my most recent books, The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones, by Will Mabbitt. It’s about a wee girl who is kidnapped into a future populated by animal pirates. I only read the first chapter before I signed up to do the illustrations.

It’s probably the funniest book I’ve ever worked on – it’s funny, it’s dark, it’s icky – it’s everything an eight year old boy would love. I’m delighted to say that I am currently working on the third of her unlikely adventures. In fact I really should be doing that now…

If you have to choose between reading or writing, which would it be?

That’s like asking whether you would rather lose your arms or legs – what a horrible question.

I’d hate to give up reading as it’s such a pleasure visiting the worlds that other people create. I suppose if I gave up writing then at least I could keep illustrating which I’ve done since I was three so it wouldn’t be that bad. Just don’t try to take illustrating away from me!

He’s a rebel, that Ross. I like him! His choice of Swede is pretty good, too. Correctly spelled, even. (That’s early love for you, I suppose.) And the whole thing leaves me still as unsettled as far as Linlithgow is concerned. Now maybe Loch Lomond, too.

The Arabian Nights

When I was quite young, I read what sounded to me like a boring story collection; Tusen och en Natt (i.e. The Book of a Thousand Nights and One Night). I soon discovered I was wrong, and that it made for fascinating reading. I was under the impression it was a children’s book, and so is – I think – this version of The Arabian Nights by Robert Leeson.

The reason I’m giving it some thought is the fact that deep down it’s quite adult, content wise, isn’t it? It’s about sex and marriage and killing people on a whim. But I believe I knew this back then and thought it perfectly acceptable, so perhaps it is adults who find the concept too grown-up.

Robert Leeson and Christina Balit, The Arabian Nights

Robert’s re-telling of this classic is another gorgeous volume illustrated by Christina Balit, telling new readers about Shahrazad who tricks the King into letting her stay alive for three years, as she tells him story after enticing, exciting, story. (And, it seems, there were a few babies made as well.)

So, not terribly boring at all. And this particular book has far prettier pictures than the one I read all those years ago.

A Scottish Year

My own first Scottish year is almost complete. The weather is a little on the wild side at the moment, but I’m trusting we will get safely to the end, and out the other side into 2016.

Tania McCartney and Tina Snerling, A Scottish Year

A Scottish Year, twelve months in the life of Scotland’s kids, by Tania McCartney and Tina Snerling, is as the title suggests not entirely a Scottish production. I had hoped for a more specifically Scottish book, with interesting facts about children in my local area. It seems that this is part of a wider series of ‘kids’ years’ and it shows.

Their Scottish advisors, and the local school children who helped, are very local to me, and I’m sure they gave all he right answers. I’m less convinced that the questions were the right ones.

But anyway, it’s a nice enough book, and the children featured are nicely pc, comprising three girls and two boys; one with red hair, one white immigrant and one Pakistani.

They trail through the calendar, telling the reader about typical things that happen in a year, which includes both the same stuff that nearly everyone knows about, or does, as well as typically Scottish things. So you might eat pieces, or curry. There’s haggis and blaeberries and loud bagpipes.

You have shinty, unicorns (apparently) and caber tossing. Lots of tartan. Castles.

The Christmas Eve Tree

This is not your average tale about your un-average Christmas tree.

Delia Huddy’s story – illustrated by Emily Sutton – tells of the wind-damaged, future Christmas tree. When the time comes, all its pals are bought and put up in various places where they look great. But no one wants this one.

In the end it is given away for free, to a homeless boy. He dresses it as best he can, and that’s when the magic begins. People gather round, there is music and singing, and the little tree is very happy.

Delia Huddy and Emily Sutton, The Christmas Eve Tree

But the end has to come, even for ugly-but-rescued trees, and so it does for our tree. Or does it?

You just never know what will happen.

All of them

‘You must read a lot of books?!’ people say when we meet.

Well, I don’t know. How long is a piece of string? Who am I comparing myself to? You? Them? My own wishes? My past reading habits?

I don’t always count the number of books I read in a year, but I have just done so. 146. Is that a lot? Or perhaps a disappointingly low figure? 37 were picture books, so around a quarter. Eleven non-fiction books and ten adult books; mainly crime.

Quite clearly I am not someone who has a review up every day. Not even every other day. My gut instinct has always told me that I might average three book reviews a week, and that seems to hold. Meaning that four days a week I have to make something up.

Maybe not really. There are events. Perhaps I should count those? (I just did. 44 of my own, plus a few by others.)

Philip Pullman, Penelope Lively and Daniel Hahn

Interviews (4) and the odd guest blog. Eight profiles, and – sadly – five author death announcements.

Actually, 2015 will be more than 146. I still have a few books coming. In contrast, Christmas means much more making stuff up and writing very little, hoping that no one will notice. After all, you are face down in mince pies and turkey stuffing, aren’t you?

That last sentence presumably counts as either one of my opinionated posts, or as one of my ‘musings,’ rather like what I’m doing now.

There are awards, shortlists and longlists, cover images, other photos, travelling. Stuff.

Do I read a lot?

Stuff You Should Know!

There is a lot I don’t know. Like what the insides of things look like, or how those things with insides work, and any number of other similar facts.

In Stuff You Should Know! by John Farndon and Rob Beattie you can find out. I don’t remember well, either, but will admit that since looking things up, I have thought of how my mobile phone knows what my finger is doing when it dabs or ‘paints’ a line on the glass screen. It appears to be magic, but it seems there is some sensible logic behind it.

I don’t need to know these facts, but I can see that lots of readers would like to. And the younger they are, the likelier it is they will understand and remember. I’m just pleased I can use a food processor. No more is needed.

And the extra long explanation of how a letter makes its way from one end of the globe to another was probably something I did know. Maybe it’s because I’m old. And with a postal past.

John Farndon and Rob Beattie, Stuff You Should Know!

Weather, rubbish* and 3D printers all get an airing in this fascinating book of facts. I wish I was younger! (On the other hand, new-fangled ideas won’t have time to take a hold these days. Someone is bound to invent new stuff before today’s children are very much older.)

It’s still fun.

(*It says rubbish in the British version.)

Mog’s Christmas Calamity

I was pleased to see that the new book about Mog – Mog’s Christmas Calamity – is a little different from the television commercial. I suppose in much the same way most books differ from the film. I have no idea if Judith Kerr wrote it for television, or if she wrote a Christmas story featuring dear Mog, and it was then adapted for the small screen.

Judith Kerr, Mog's Christmas Calamity

Some of the laugh-out-loud comedy is not in the book, which feels right, as that would have made this new book different from its predecessors. What there is, is pure Mog, and a proper Christmas tale, with misfortune and a solution.

Book-Mog doesn’t look like her television actor either. (Who would play you in the film, Mog?)

This is – naturally – a lovely picture book, and I hope many children will be given a copy. Not just because it’s a sweet story, but because the proceeds go towards child literacy.

Buy one for every reader you can think of. It’s not every day Mog rises like a phoenix. Make the most of her.