We are thrilled to have the wonderful Alan Dapré join us in The Reading Realm today to talk about his popular series of children’s books Porridge the Tartan Cat…
I wonder if we could start by you telling us a bit about your latest book in the Porridge series, Porridge the Tartan Cat and the Pet Show Show-Off?
Thirty years ago, I wrote a poem about an unwanted guest called Auntie Hettie who is very tiresome. I thought I could use this character in Pet Show Show-Off. She arrives unexpectedly for a pet show and is convinced her special dog Fluffy-Wuff will win. Porridge the Tartan Cat has other ideas. Meanwhile Isla becomes invisible thanks to a mix up with Auntie Hettie’s special pet pampering pack. I always like weave two stories together in each Porridge the Tartan Cat book. The reader is left wondering if Porridge will be crowned the Best Pet, and whether Isla will ever become visible again. As usual, the story has wacky wordplay, quirky jokes and zany characters. Expect the unexpected.
Porridge the Tartan Cat and the Pet Show Show-Off is the sixth book in the series. Congratulations! What is it like writing a series?
I always love writing a series of books because it gives me time to develop the characters, and explore the crazy world they live in. I planned the Porridge books to be about a family with special skills and hidden talents. Not everything goes to plan for the McFun family. Mum is a super-scientist (who ends up shrinking herself), Dad is an archaeologist (who becomes a dinosaur). Ross turns into a Scarewolf, Grandad is a secret spy, Gran was a singer in a best-selling band. And Isla becomes invisible. All of this is cat-a-logged by Porridge the Tartan Cat, who is suPURR cool!
Is it fun to re-visit your characters?
Meeting the characters again and again is wonderful. I especially love writing about Isla because she is based on my daughter, Isla. I originally used the name as a place-holder and it stuck. Yuliya Somina, the illustrator, drew images from photographs of my daughter Isla then about six years old. These drawings became the basis of the girl you see in the books. Short bobbed haircut, glasses and a big smile! We call my daughter Real Isla and the one in the book Drawn Isla. Real Isla sometimes comes to my author events, and each appearance is a big surprise for the audience.
Do you have the books already planned our or does each book come from a new, unconnected idea?
The stories were plotted right from the start. I wrote a synopsis of each book for the publisher, as it is better to pitch a series idea rather than a single book. I knew I wanted to make Mum a scientist who shrinks, and turn Dad into a dinosaur, etc. I was going to have Isla become super-stretchy, but then the alliteration took over. Invisible Isla. Roaring Ross. Groovy Gran. Dino Dad, etc. So Isla’s invisibility came from the fact I needed a word that began with ‘I’. Also, I really wanted Porridge to become invisible too – and be a bit like the Cheshire Cat in ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ who ends up with just a smile.
I know that you’ve written a lot of television scripts. How is this different to writing a children’s book? How is it similar?
Television is very visually orientated and so is a chapter book for young readers. When I write, I like to see the action in my mind. Often, I will draw it on sticky notes and move the sketches around until the action feels right. My stories are all about DOING. I do not have my characters standing on the spot spouting out what they might do. I just get them to do it. Television scripts are always required yesterday. There will be a production team desperate to find locations. create props and film scenes. It is a lot of pressure on the writer. Writing a book involves fewer people. Once commissioned, I will have an editor who helps shape the story and tweak my words. In the world of television there will be producers, a director, actors and production staff. Lots of voices all chipping in. A key difference is that reading a story is more of an active task than watching one. I like my readers to really engage with the story and have fun with the jokes.
One of the workshops you offer to schools is all about wordplay, which features a lot in the Porridge series. What sort of things might children be doing in this workshop?
The main thing I want children to do is have fun. To come away enthused about creative ways they can play with words and sounds. I get volunteers to interact with me and my props. So we might investigate how loud a dinosaur roars, tackle three tricky tongue twisters, invent new character names, have fun with puns, make up silly sounding world championships, mess about with meta-stories, and fish for piranhas! It is all about running around and thinking side-ways!
There’s a very strong sense of humour and fun throughout your writing. How do you know if something you write is funny? Do you test your jokes out on family, friends, publishers first of all?
I have an in-built sense of what is funny. I tend to write a line and read it back. If it feels right it stays in. If not, I’ll rework the line. I am happy to cut anything that doesn’t work. If it feels forced then it probably is. Often an editor will question a joke and possibly rewrite it. I then have the opportunity to accept, reject or rewrite the text myself. I tend to write each joke first and get feedback later. My daughter is a brilliant unofficial editor and is always offering up super suggestions. I get a kid’s eye view which is very helpful. Sometimes grown-ups do not get particular jokes but I like to keep them in as I know my young readers will.
What are the challenges of writing for the 6-9 age group?
Kids that age show no mercy. If they don’t like a book, they will drop it like a hot potato. They have a sophisticated wired-in sense of humour. The writing therefore must surprise, delight and challenge them, often all at the same time. Books for this age range are usually accompanied by illustrations. It is important to think visually as you write, to enable the illustrator to pick out scenes. I offer suggestions to the editor and illustrator then sit back and let them work their magic.
What five top tips would you give to teachers who wish to encourage and celebrate reading in their classroom?
- Let the children see you read.
- Have a captivating library of books in the classroom that pupils are free to explore.
- Invite authors to send you tweets, postcards, letters and posters. Give children a greater appreciation of the people behind the books. If possible, invite authors in to share their work and the magic. Focus on a particular author or illustrator, perhaps?
- Have a word of the week. Special words that children love to say out loud, or that have a quirky meaning. Help children to develop a broader vocabulary; awesome words they can use in their creative writing.
- Make reading part of the classroom DNA. Turn a rectangular door into a book cover, fill walls with children’s writing, have a shared story time, enjoy the brawsome buzz of books!
Can you remember how you felt when you first saw the illustrations by Yuliya Somina? What do you feel they add to the story?
Porridge is beautifully illustrated by Yuliya Somina. I asked for a bold style with lots of energy and lively line work. Yuliya took this note and added so much more. I love her illustrations, and it is a treat to see my daughter drawn in Yuliya’s uniquely expressive way. She nailed it right from the start. A picture can, indeed, speak a thousand words. Instead of me describing a dancing elephant, you can see it cavorting on the page. It will be so much funnier. ‘Show don’t tell’ is my motto. Stories are all about action. Illustrations are there to enhance and reflect that action.
What’s been your proudest moment as an author?
Seeing my daughter pictured in her own story – being bold, adventurous, funny and kind. Just as she is in real life.
Finally, can you tell us what’s in store for Porridge the Tartan Cat next?
I am toying with the idea of having a series of picture books, perhaps about Porridge as a young kitten. I will have to get the stories just right or he won’t be aMEWsed.