Dear Elf Children

Goodness me, but what a busy weekend it has been at work. We had well over a thousand visitors to the museum and I think I spoke to all of them. Our theme was animals as we were celebrating 30 years of the picture book Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell. We had animal inspired crafts and story times and the front of house team dressed up. I was a giraffe. I’ll leave you to ponder on that one.

Of course with so many visitors it’s very easy for elves to slip through reception without being noticed. But they can’t get past Ziggy. I took a few minutes rest to sketch a couple of elf children that were in the Attic.  Nice to see elves taking an interest in reading though.



Fact or fiction? You decide.



Constable and Toop; Me and Mr Jones

 I love it when I find myself immersed in the world of a book that I feel reluctant to leave. And when I reach that final page I feel exhilarated yet a little melancholy because I’ve got to say goodbye to some fabulous characters. Constable and Toop by Gareth P. Jones left me feeling exactly that way. Set in Victorian London it follows the fortunes of Sam Toop, a fourteen year old living and working with his father in a funeral parlour, and Lapsewood (deceased), a quill pushing clerk who works in the Dispatch Department of the Bureau. Sam has an unusal talent; he’s a “talker.” That is, he talks to ghosts. They seek him out and unburden their miseries on him or ask for his help in contacting the living. However, it is a gift that Sam would rather live without preferring to lead a quiet life. Much like Lapsewood, who loves his predictable and structured life, or should that be death, sorting and filing paperwork to keep the world of ghosts in order. But through a series of ghoulish, wicked and often bloody events both find themselves drawn into an adventure to save London’s ghosts. Above all, this is a very witty tale, crammed with a huge cast of well written characters that move the story along at a cracking pace. Ooh, and there are dogs in it…and you know how much I love dogs.

Ghostly sketch of Gareth

So it was with great delight that I went along to Seven Stories to meet Gareth P.Jones himself who’d popped by the museum as part of his promotional Ghost Tour 2012.  Looking every inch the dapper Victorian, dressed as he was in a three-piece suit complete with top hat, he entertained the group reading an interactive Gothic Ghost story. Set in Highgate Cemetary Mr Jones introduced us to Helly Hoxton and a ghost chicken, pausing periodically to ask the audience what should Helly do next? The children in the group eagerly discussed the character’s dilemmas and then voted on which action Helly should take. Just like Constable and Toop, the story had twists and turns and comic moments giving a wonderful flavour of the novel for those who had yet to read it. Mr Jones then picked up his ukulele (as well as being an award winning novelist he has mastered a variety of stringed instruments) and taught us the chorus to the Constable and Toop song. He likes to write songs for all his books and we enjoyed singing along. A Q & A session revealed he started writing short stories at secondary school,  after university wrote a novel and a children’s story that were never published but found success with The Dragon Detective Agency. And his advice to aspiring writers? Learn to take critisism….especially from your wife! We finished off with some more singing, this time The Meercat Rap inspired by Mr Jones’s Ninja Meercat series, which involved alot of Kung Foo “hi-ya’s” and clapping. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and joined everybody down in the fantastic Seven Stories bookshop to get my copy of Constable and Toop signed.

You can find out what Gareth thought about Seven Stories and his trip “Up North” here.

Well, it wouldn’t be a Ziggy Shortcrust post without an elf, and the very lovely and charming Mr Jones gave me permission to create his “elfter ego.”

I would highly recommend this novel, be you teen or adult. And if you can purchase it in an independent bookshop so much the better.

How to Train Your Baby Dragon

It’s always a busy and exciting time at work as we say goodbye to one exhibition and welcome in a new one. Seven Stories, the national centre for children’s books, has just bid a fond farewell to “Daydreams and Diaries; The Story of Jacqueline Wilson” which has proved a huge success over the past year and I loved the Nick Sharratt illustrations, as you’ll know from a previous post here.

Well, the new exhibition is entitled “A Vikings Guide to Deadly Dragons with Cressida Cowell.” The main focus is on Cowell’s How to Train your Dragon series, with lots of original artwork and manuscripts but there is also going to be items on dragons in general and their place in myth and legend. You can get a taster here.

The other day I was chatting to a friend and colleague about the exhibition and my fondness for dragons and how much fun it would be to have my very own pet dragon. Imagine my surprise when she came to work the next day with this little chap.

He had just hatched and needed adopting. Did I want to take him on, she asked. I was overwhelmed. Of course I would take him. I’ve named him “Sedgwick” after my favourite author Marcus Sedgwick and he will need quite a bit of training.

He is very small.

Tries to camouflage himself against my laptop. And is very inquisitive.

I thought he would be meat eater but he has a strange fascination with vegetables.

(I grew that pumpkin)

He has also made friends with the skinny dogs…..sort of.


Poor little Sedgwick! He was understandably rather frightened and flew off to the vegetables and hid in a cabbage.

Where eventually he went to sleep.

I think that part of his training should be to avoid cabbages as it would seem, given this video, Brassica can be fatal for dragons.

 Hopefully, Sedgwick will be well enough trained to leave the house in order to see the opening of the new exhibition at the end of October. I’ll keep you posted.

Collecting Authorgraphs

I am very lucky to be able to spend my working days at Seven Stories, a unique museum that collects and preserves original manuscripts and illustrations from British children’s literature. Authors and illustrators visit on a regular basis and I stalk my hero’s and heroines to get my books signed.

Most of the illustrators like to include a little doodle.


This is from Paul Hess. I spent a day at his illustration masterclass and learned so much. He stamped the gold crown then drew the face.

I’ve chosen this illustration from my copy of The King with Horses Ears because look…..there’s a skinny dog!

Next up is Emily Gravett and of course I had to get her to sign my copy of Dogs.

And yes…….more skinny dogs!

I am a huge fan of Jane Ray so was delighted to the spend the day with her when she visited last summer. This time I got a delicate little bird.

Sleeping Beauty from Fairy Tales by Berlie Doherty illustrated by Jane Ray


We were delighted to welcome Shaun Tan to Seven Stories last year. The Artist’s Attic was full with people eager to meet the award winning author and illustrator.


I had to queue for this authorgraph!

 That is his actual finger print. A nifty way to sign a book eh?

A page from Eric, my favourite story from Tales from Outer Suburbia

Anthony Browne delivered an illustration masterclass earlier this year and you can find out all about my day with him here.

My very own Willy the Chimp

This is how Anthony signed my book, a reminder of a brilliant day with a brilliant man.


Detail from Little Beauty


And finally, my favourite illustrator ever is Shirley Hughes. I know she is not particularly fashionable these days but I love her sketchy, observational style. And my favourite picture book happens to be Dogger. A friend bought it for my daughter for her third birthday (she’s nineteen now) and we read it over and over. It was first published in 1977 but for me, has lost none of its charm.


A couple of years ago, Shirley Hughes created a special illustration for Seven Stories fifth birthday. Kate Edwards, the chief executive, travelled down to London to collect it from Hughes and very kindly took my rather tatty copy of Dogger to be signed. Even though I didn’t get to meet the author and illustrator myself this is one of my treasured literary possessions.

If you could choose an author or illustrator to sign a book, who would it be and why?


Playing the Shape Game with Anthony Browne

At the museum  we are about to say goodbye to “Through the Magic Mirror” a retrospective of author/illustrator Anthony Browne. I have long been a fan of Browne’s work so this exhibition was never going to disappoint. The wonderful thing about his illustrations is that there is so much going on in them, far more than the text suggests. Browne is a great admirer of the Surrealist artists and this is evident throughout most of his work.

Last week Anthony visited the museum to conduct an Illustration Masterclass, which was part of our adult programme, and I had the pleasure of being his assistant for the day. Some  people attending had formal art training but most were enthusiastic amateurs with a love of illustration.

Anthony chatted about his early life and influences and career as a medical illustrator and greetings card artist before becoming an award winning children’s author and illustrator. He went on to explain how he works, his daily routine and where he gets his ideas from which led him to explain the Shape Game.  He thought that he and his brother, as children, were the inventors of something unique to them but, as he has had the opportunity to introduce children all over the world to this game he has come to realise it is universal.

“Children everywhere have invented their own versions of The Shape Game” says Browne “It has certainly been a very important part of my career, for I have played it in every book I have ever made.”

The rules are very simple; the first person draws an abstract shape, passes it to a second person who transforms it into something.

Browne continues “Looking back I can see that although the Shape Game is fun, it also has a serious aspect. Essentially the game is about creativity itself. Every time we draw a picture, or write a story, or compose a piece of music we are playing the Shape Game.”

Browne went on to tell us he is inspired by films, paintings, dreams and childhood memories. His book The Tunnel, is based on a childhood incident where Browne and his brother were dared to crawl into a tunnel that was part of an incredibly deep well. Transforming the shape of the memory into a picture book is all about playing the Shape Game. “Everything comes from somewhere else” says Browne, “and when we create something we are transforming our own experience….we are playing our own Shape Game”

Browne then invited the audience to play the Shape Game. The blank flip chart paper at the front was begging to be drawn on but the group became a little shy. He understood the reticence of the audience “after all” he said “drawing is not a spectator sport.” But this was not about great art it was doodling, and soon everyone was leaping up to create a shape and have it transformed into something weird and wacky.

Playing the Shape Game at Seven Stories

Children are much better at playing this game, as I’ve witnessed countless times in the exhibition where we have an area devoted to the Shape Game. Browne says “it’s an unfortunate part of growing up that we lose a great deal of contact with our visual imagination. The wonder with which we look at the world diminishes, and this inhibits both our inclination to draw (most adults give up entirely) and also our ability to draw with truly unfettered creativity.” Above and in this video clip children have fun playing the Shape Game

Playing the Shape Game turned out to be  a great limbering up exercise for the final part of the Masterclass. The group was asked by Anthony to come up with sketches for the theme “Transformation.” This is a recurring theme in Browne’s work from the stepmother in Hansel and Gretel who “transforms” into a witch, the Dad in Gorilla who “transforms” into the little girls dream of the ideal father to Piggybook, where the Dad and son quite literally transform into pigs.

From then on the group were busy working on ideas and sketches transforming the Artist’s Attic into a hive of creativity. Anthony Browne, meanwhile, looked through the portfolio’s of those who had brought them offering advice and encouragement.

My sketches

It was a fun day with everyone producing some great work and playing their very own Shape Game as their ideas evolved. I played around with an egg turning into an elf which had started as an idea from fellow blogger Face on My Egg. A Shape game all of its own.

In its simplest form it’s a fun game to play but, until meeting Anthony Browne  I had not realised that I play the Shape Game every time I put my pencil or fine liner to paper.  And its a game I will never tire of playing.

Inspiration from Nick Sharratt

At the children’s book museum we are currently running an exhibition dedicated to the work of Jacqueline Wilson. Of course her stories and characters are brought to life by illustrator Nick Sharratt. He has a very distinctive, cartoon style that, until now, I had paid little attention to. For the last couple of months I have had the privilege to live with his original art works and sketches while at work and I have been inspired. Sharratt’s work is deceptively simple. Oodles of ideas and sketches have gone before the finished piece, but it’s the detail that he leaves out that creates the character. For Sharratt less is definitely more.

Illustration by Nick Sharratt

The work that really caught my eye was for Wilson’s novel “My Sister Jodie”. He designed twelve different versions of the book cover alone. But it is the line drawings that I love. Although the figures remain simple there are lots of patterns and detail in the background which sets it apart from much of his other illustrations. It is wonderful to be able to press your face almost up to the glass and study the pictures so closely.

It’s this work that has been the starting point for my “Five Minute Faces” as I struggle to keep line to a minimum and learn when to stop adding detail.

There are several different originals from this book in the exhibition as well as notebooks kept by Jacqueline Wilson for My Sister Jodie. We also have a studio area inspired by Sharratt’s own workplace complete with light boxes that looks remarkably like the real thing. But my absolute  favourite illustration in the gallery is a personal piece he did for Jacqueline Wilson to celebrate the ten millionth copy sold of her books. It is a tiny pen and ink drawing of Wilson’s hands complete with rings on each finger marking the figure out in roman numerals. Exquisite.

If you are in Newcastle before the end of September 2012 stop by and take a look.