Today we welcome children’s author and illustrator Jane Porter into #TheRealm to talk about her new book TINY PENGUINS AND THE NEW BABY…
Firstly, welcome to The Reading Realm! I wondered if we could start with you introducing yourself and telling us about TINY PENGUINS AND THE NEW BABY?
My name’s Jane Porter, and sometimes I’m an author, sometimes I’m an illustrator and sometimes both! My new book is called ‘Tiny Penguins and the New Baby’, and this time I’ve done both words and pictures. It’s all about a group of little penguins who love secretly doing odd jobs in people’s homes while they sleep (one of my favourite fairy stories when I was little was The Elves and the Shoemaker, so I think this must have been an influence!). Unlike the elves though, the Tiny Penguins get things a bit wrong and polish shoes with ketchup and try to paint the cat. But when they meet a girl who’s feeling a bit sad because her family are busy with her baby brother, they find a job they are REALLY good at. When I was stuck writing the story I spent a lot of time looking at the penguins in London Zoo for inspiration, so I was VERY excited when the penguin keeper there, Hattie, read my book for the Zoo’s online bedtime stories…
What are the main themes in your books?
I’ve done quite a few books now and it’s interesting to think about whether there is a common thread. Each of them takes a little bit from real life – ‘The Boy Who Loved Everyone’ (wonderfully illustrated by Maisie Paradise Shearring) was inspired by a real boy at the nursery I used to visit once a week, and ‘Pink Lion’ was also inspired by a child there! ‘King Otter’ was inspired by some cowboy boots that I was given for my birthday – I noticed when I put them on that I started swaggering about feeling more important, which is just what happens to His Majesty King Otter in the story! With Tiny Penguins I think I was connecting to how I was as a child – I really liked making things, and would have loved to make a little cardboard box house for some real-life penguins.
What was your journey like to getting an agent/publisher?
Being an author and illustrator is a second career for me – previously I worked as an editor on magazines about gardens and landscape design. Switching over was a long journey – I did a part-time MA while freelancing, then spent a long time getting a portfolio together and building my confidence. A turning point was when a little art gallery opened up around the corner. I popped in to say hello, and became friends with Joe who ran the gallery. We did some community art projects together and then he invited me to have a solo show, and it was then that I finally had the confidence to send out some ideas to publishers. Several of them invited me in for a chat, then I got an agent and things developed from there.
What does a day in your life look like when you are working on your children’s books?
I like to go out early for a walk – usually with a notebook in my pocket. If I’m stuck for ideas, a good old stomp around outdoors usually helps a lot. Sometimes ideas start to flow so fast I have to stop every few paces to write something else down! Not always – there are also days when nothing seems to work, and that’s only natural sometimes. If I’m working on illustrations for a book I like to get stuck into that – I’ve just finished illustrating a book all in collage, so that involved lots of tiny bits of paper all over the place. This past year I’ve also been doing quite a lot of teaching and school visits on Zoom, so preparing for that takes up part of the day too. If I’m up against a deadline or really in the flow, I might work into the evening, but usually I stop about 6 and do other things. I am learning to play the fiddle so try and fit some practice in at some point.
What is the editing process like for you? What does it involve? What did you have to edit out of this book to make it work?
That’s a really good question! Editing is so important, and so is being prepared to let go of parts of your writing that you were feeling pleased with. For my book ‘Pink Lion’, I went through TEN different versions. With ‘Tiny Penguins and the New Baby’, it was also a lengthy process. Originally there was no baby – and only two penguins. Initially the story was narrated by the little girl, but I decided it was funnier if the penguins narrated and described things in their own way, like saying ‘tiny human’ for a baby, ‘ice cave’ for the fridge and ‘stripy iceberg’ for an ice lolly.
What’s the best thing about being a children’s author and illustrator?
It’s a lot of fun but the BEST bit is when I get to read my stories to children – and then help them to invent their own stories.
Did you have a favourite story when you were younger?
I had (and still have) a book called ‘Modern Tales and Fables’ that was always my favourite. It’s translated from Czech and quite surreal. In one of the stories a boy plants his grandfather in the garden, and then grows a tree with a hundred new grandfathers on it. There’s another one about a singing light bulb! Very bizarre but I loved it.
What advice would you give to teachers about how to develop reading for pleasure in their classrooms and schools?
I know teachers are very pressurised by the curriculum and lots of things have been squeezed out, but I do think listening to a story read out loud by the teacher is magical – I remember this happening when I was at school and it was a great pleasure, and I’m sure helped me to love reading. Also I’d put in a plea to let older children read picture books if they want to. Visual literacy is more important than ever – it makes me sad when I’m in a bookshop and I see a child looking at picture books, only to be told by a parent “You’re too old for those now”.
How would you envisage teachers using your book in their classrooms? What age group is it aimed at? Do any activities or ideas spring to mind?
I have a whole playlist on my YouTube channel which is packed with ideas for schools! I’ll be adding something soon with classroom ideas for Tiny Penguins, but in the meantime, there are plenty of writing and art projects connected to some of my other books.
Can you recommend a children’s/YA/teen book you’ve enjoyed recently and one you’re looking forward to?
I recently read ‘Freedom’ by Catherine Johnson – a very powerful story demonstrating the human cost of slavery through the eyes of a young boy born a slave. Another great read is ‘We Played with Fire’ by Catherine Barter – a really gripping true life story about two sisters in 19th century America who became famous for seances and talking to spirits.
Finally, can you describe TINY PENGUINS AND THE NEW BABY in three words?
Helpful secret friends!