How many thieves does it take to change a lightbulb? An interview with Andy Seed

Andy Seed is an author and humorist, known for his funny poems and wordplay, books of games, quizzes and challenges and fun information books for children, which are also full of facts, figures, lists and true stories! Here he talks about his series Prankenstein, top tips for teaching poetry and what he’s working on next…

You’re known for your funny poems, jokes and humour, so I have to start by asking: what’s your favourite joke?

Right, OK, well… that one’s too rude… and that one’s too silly… and that one’s really funny but I’ve used it so often that everyone knows it, so I’ll go for one that I made up for one of my books:

How many thieves does it take to change a lightbulb?

What lightbulb?

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Join Ned, the cheeky red squirrel and find out more about this hilarious book here!

I’m interested in the editing process of your books – how do you know they’re funny? How do you know a joke will work?

Good question. Of course different people find different things funny so humour can be tricky and I have in the past written things which I thought were hilarious only to be told by an editor that they didn’t get it (editors…huh!). But children are more easily amused in the main and anyone who spends time with them will know which buttons can tickle. Written humour is an art and requires a certain feel for the right word, the right moment, which can be elusive – experience helps, particularly in terms of getting into the mind of the young reader, but a lot of it is trial and error too. I’m good at error.

In your books like ‘The Anti-Boredom Book of Brilliant Outdoor Things to Do’ there seems to be a real focus on the importance of being active, having fun outside and the beauty of nature. Do you think children’s appreciation of the great outdoors has declined over the years? If so, why?

Yes, I am a mahoosive fan of being outdoors and right now I am typing this on the patio (I really must get a laptop…). I do think that a great many children are too inactive and spend too much time indoors, especially staring at screens. Being able to explore an environment, especially a natural one, is one of the great joys of childhood. No, more than that, it’s at the core of how we learn and develop as people. I was fortunate to grow up in a time when most kids played out all day and there was less traffic around and so it was safer. But the key was that we were free to explore and play. I think children have too many activities organised for them. If they are taken to a forest, for example, they should be allowed to mooch around, within sight of course. Freedom to play in this way and bring imagination into outdoor activity is sadly not a part of enough children’s lives in my view.

How can children appreciate the outdoors if they are not familiar with it? How can they associate the countryside with fun if they aren’t given the freedom to play and explore there? And being active is the natural state of the child – look at baby animals, they tumble about learning how the world works. What would they be like if they spent a lot of time keeping still and staring at a screen?

It’s my opinion that the world would be a happier place if kids and were allowed to spend more time climbing, jumping, digging, running about, making dens, splashing, doing dubious things with mud, poking stuff with sticks and pretending they are Robin Hood.

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Find out more here!

Soapy Thompson has been in lots of scrapes in your hilarious Prankenstein series. What’s in store for him next? Do you enjoy writing a series?

I did very much enjoy writing the Prankenstein series with Soapy and his friends. It was fun creating a fictional world as I now spend most of my time writing factual books. The series finished at three books, however, and there are no plans for any more. A prankster needs to know when to stop.

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Abi Elphinstone has called this series ‘brilliantly funny’. Find out more here!

Do you think enough importance is given by the media and publishers to funny poems and stories?

You can probably guess my answer to this one! I’m not sure that the media give any attention at all to funny poems and stories, do they? (unless the stories become films or TV shows). I can’t recall seeing more than the very occasional review of a humorous book. Partly it’s the snobbery thing, partly it’s that damaging attitude that children should always be steered towards ‘quality literature’ (which, since so many children don’t read for pleasure at all, is a bit strange – a bit like polishing the Titanic while it sinks) and partly it’s a lack of understanding of children and what gives them joy (and therefore a positive attitude to something, such as books).

Michael Rosen recently sent out a sigh of a Tweet, exasperated that not a single media organisation had covered the ‘Lollies’ – the book awards celebrating funny books, and it didn’t surprise me at all.

But is it possible that the publishing industry undervalues humour at times too? Everyone wants these books to do well. Kids like them. They encourage reading. I’ve heard some people say that publishing is too much a middle-class entity (‘That book’s not nourishing enough, Elspeth, put it down, do.’). Wow, that’s opening up a whole can of worms – infused with garlic and olive oil, naturally – but whatever the reason for the situation, the facts are that we have some superb comic writers and yet they barely get a mention, unless they are celebrities. Factual books can be funny too and these are a particularly powerful way to capture those creatures known as reluctant readers.

So, my answer is no.

 What role do you think funny poems and stories play in our children’s lives?

They make reading fun and children like fun so they motivate kids to read. They are memorable, good for sharing, release stress and anxiety, show that the written word can be manipulated in a million different ways and some of them make you giggle, they encourage writing and much more. What is more joyful than seeing a child reading, smiling and then throwing back his/her head and erupting into a belly laugh?

As a teacher, I felt one of my weaknesses involved the teaching of poetry, and specifically writing poetry. What advice would you give to teachers about using poetry in the classroom?

Sheesh, haven’t you got any easy questions? My advice would be:

  1. Read lots of good poems and just let the children listen. Don’t turn them into comprehension exercises.

  2. Get children to read poems aloud – this is how they begin to understand rhythm and word choice. A good way to do this is to let children choose poems from books to perform in small groups.

  3. Use interactive poems where children can join in (I have a book of these). It makes poetry fun which gives children a positive attitude towards it and helps them want to write some.

  4. In terms of writing, it’s partly about using existing poems as models/frames and getting children to produce variations and then just letting them free, to play with language and shape words/ lines/verses/poems experimentally. Typing up short poems they’ve created and then cutting out the words is good – they can then shuffle them to see where line breaks work best.

  5. Get a good poet to visit. Nothing beats professional inspiration.

I know you visit lots of schools and run author visits. What’s the key to a successful author visit?

I visit around 50 schools a year and it’s something I hugely enjoy because I can use my expertise, knowledge and enthusiasm to enthuse children and to get them reading (and writing). Over the years I have developed a formula for a school visit which just fires everyone up and inspires both staff and kids.

A successful author visit needs first to be well organised so that the school can get the most from the visit. I send out an A4 page ahead of visits which outlines what works best in my experience (e.g. number of sessions, group sizes, location, tech, tea breaks and book signing details). It’s then a matter of agreeing on a timetable that works for the author and all staff so that the children get the largest benefit.

The real secret of success, though, is to have an enthusiastic teacher advocate for reading who will coordinate everything, look after the author and, most vitally, get the classes doing some prep so that they are aware of the writer/illustrator and have questions ready, having read/heard some of their books. I’ve blogged about this, giving simple tips – see here!

I typically begin the day with a fun assembly all about the exciting aspects of being an author. Then I work across multiple age groups from young to old, keeping everything interactive and enjoyable. I show children that books can be fun and I tell them about libraries along the way. I give insights into how I write and what makes a good book. I tell them stories, perform fun poems (getting them to join in), do mini-quizzes and challenges and present small rewards. I give my audience ideas for things they can write and I tell them that they can be authors too – if they read a lot. It works.

Have you read any children’s books recently that you’ve enjoyed and can recommend?

I read good children’s books all the time! Here are some I would recommend:

Recep/KS1: You Can’t Take an Elephant on the Bus by Patricia Cleveland-Peck and David Tazzyman (a raucous rhyming picture book with glorious illustrations)

Y3/4: The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp (a story which is just very funny and enjoyable)

So You Think You’ve Got it Bad? A Kid’s Life in Ancient Egypt by Chae Strathie & Marisa Morea (quality non-fic – a humorous and cracking way to learn history)

Y5/6: Moon Bear by Gill Lewis (a moving novel by a fine nature writer)

The Mighty Slide (long poems by the incomparable Allan Alhberg. An old one but recently re-read) 

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Finally, can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on now?

Yes. I have just finalised a factual book for 7-11s called A Giant Dose of Gross (Quarto). It’s a full-colour guide to the world’s most disgusting animals – creatures that we think are revolting for what they do or eat or look like but which are actually fascinating and important. It’s beautifully illustrated by Claire Almon, an American artist who does great watercolours of nature. We worked together on my previous book, the bestselling The Clue is in the Poo (how to be a nature detective). I can’t wait to unleash this new book on children! [Published 15.10.19]

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Find out more here!

My next project will be a title for the British Museum: a puzzle book where readers have to decode hieroglyphics in order to solve clues which will lead to the capture of some very nasty tomb robbers in Ancient Egypt. Oh, it’s going to be SO good!

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