AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Alex T Smith

    Alex T Smith

    MR PENGUIN

    HODDER CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    OCTOBER 2017


    MR PENGUIN is the first in a new illustrated series for younger readers aged 7+ by ALEX T SMITH, the talented creator of the CLAUDE books.

    Beautifully produced with spot colour, large font and of course Alex T Smith's trademark classy, fun illustrations, Mr Penguin will attract Claude readers looking for something more challenging and any child who wants their adventures with plenty of action, clues - and buckets of fish fingers!

    In the first book, Mr Penguin has set himself up as a private detective, ably supported by a friendly spider called Colin, whose first case is to find the treasure believed to be hidden at the Museum of Extraordinary Objects. He has no idea of the adventures and escapades that await....

    We asked author and illustrator ALEX T SMITH to tell us more about how MR PENGUIN came about:


    Q: Will the fans of your Claude books enjoy Mr Penguin?

    A: For me, the loveliest thing about the Claude books was meeting parents at events who would say how their children had started reading because of the Claude books.

    I had decided I wanted to write something a bit more involved with a more traditional plot, but still with illustrations and to keep the element of fun. I wanted it to be accessible so that Claude readers could move on to it if they want to. So yes, I hope that Claude readers will enjoy Mr Penguin's adventures.


    Q: Mr Penguin is a private detective - why did you decide to make him a penguin?

    A: He could have been anything but I have always loved penguins. I remember seeing them in zoos and bird centres when I was a child and there is something very funny about them, maybe it's the way they wobble as they walk.

    A couple of years ago I went to London Zoo to 'meet' the penguins where they take you behind the scenes, and that's when I decided I wanted my detective to be a penguin.

    I like that penguins are small and a bit vulnerable - the opposite of what you might think of when you're developing an adventure hero!


    Q: And there is LOADS of adventure in Mr Penguin. Were there any films that helped inspire the plot?

    A: I am really inspired by cinema. Whether I'm watching an adult live action of an animation, I am always inspired because it's such a challenge to tell a story in two hours.

    I used to love the Indiana Jones films and I still watch those, and I read Agatha Christie's Poirot books, and both of these have helped inspire Mr Penguin.

    Mr Poirot is also small, round and very particular, like Mr Penguin, although Mr Penguin isn't nearly as clever or sharp as Mr Poirot. He gets into a lot of scrapes as a result.

    Mr Penguin is not particularly good at being a detective and he is a really rubbish penguin. He's not keen on being cold, he's not particularly brave and he's constantly distracted by how hungry he is. He is eventually good at his job but in a round-about way


    Q: Mr Penguin gets a lot of help from his friends, especially Colin the spider. Why did you decide to make his side-kick a spider?

    A: When I gave Claude Mr Bobblysock as his companion, it was so that he had someone to go on his adventures with and he would feel safe, but I didn't want that friend to be another animal or a human, so he became a sock.

    It was the same with Mr Penguin, I though he should have someone to confide in and to talk through his problems but that it would need to be someone who was clever at solving clues, so he's a spider who doesn't speak although he can write on his pad. He's also a kung-fu expert as I thought that might come in handy.

    Colin helps give the reader the feeling that Mr Penguin will be okay because there is someone with him.


    Q: Through Mr Penguin, you play with the traditions of detective stories. What is your favourite moment in the story?

    A: I like playing around with what people might expect in the story and how a detective mystery novel works. One of my favourite moments is when Mr Penguin is riding down a river on a log, and he's so busy showing his client how clever he is that he doesn't notice that the log is a crocodile, even though Colin is frantically trying to tell him so.

    It reminded me of the Indiana Jones films when Indiana is trying to be all macho but then loses it completely when a snake shows up.

    I loved that Mr Penguin thought he was going on a safe treasure hunt and then suddenly realises that it's not safe at all, but his friends help him to get through it all and to resolve the case.


    Q: How closely did you plot Mr Penguin's adventures, given all the clues - visual and written - through the story?

    A: I needed to know roughly what was going to happen so I could lay the clues and there are lots of visual clues as I like the idea of children going back, once they know the ending, to find all the clues.

    There is also a twist in the story. I like to surprise the reader and the twist introduces them to the idea of not trusting the narrator too much.

    But while the plot was planned, one of the characters, Edith Hedge, who lives in the park and who has a pigeon on her head, wasn't planned at all. She appeared unexpectedly and demanded to be in the story. She will be in the second book, too.


    Q: Does drawing your characters help bring them to life for you?

    A: The Claude books started with me drawing a little dog in my sketchbook, so in a way, yes. Mr Penguin developed more over time; I have pieces of artwork from years ago, a little painting of a penguin sitting on an aeroplane, so I have kept coming back to this character.

    When the story started to develop, I decided to give him an Indiana-style look so I put an arrow through his had, it was just something fun and silly, and he kept developing while I wrote the book so there was a lot of going back and forth.


    Q: How was the final 'look' of the book - the spot colour, illustrations and fonts - decided?

    A: The credit for this has to go to Alison Still, who designs all my books and who I've worked with for the whole of my career. She brings something magical to each book, she knows what I want to do with the books but then enhances it. She came up with the Claude format. For Mr Penguin, I sent her a mood board and she came back with the designs.


    Q: We can't wait to see the new Claude animated series which will be showing on Disney Junior - have you been involved in its creation?

    A: I've been incredibly involved with it. The animation is being made in Belfast by Sixteen South and they wanted me to be involved from the beginning.

    I've helped design some of the new characters and reviewed every script, I've even written six or seven episodes myself. I go to Belfast every couple of weeks to see how it's progressing and it's been an incredible experience working with such inventive people. It's a lovely, lovely project.


    Q: What are your top tips for children who like drawing, but who worry that they can't draw well?

    A: I think that everyone can draw, including adults who think they can't. The problem is that, as we get older, we think that everything we draw should be realistic whereas everything we see on screens and in magazines is stylised.

    So draw confidentally and have fun with it! Experiment to find your own style - and keep drawing, all the time. Keep a sketchbook with you and your drawing will keep evolving.




    CLAUDE ALL AT SEA

    HODDER CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    JULY 2016


    With news that the Claude series is coming to Disney Junior television next autumn, this diminutive character is getting big! So it's good to see that younger children will also be able to enjoy Claude not just on television but in a new Claude picture book, Claude All At Sea.

    The Claude young fiction books are written for early readers aged six years plus and many of them will also enjoy Claude's first picture book adventure with its adventurous plot, playful text and sophisticated spreads.

    In this story, Claude and his trusty friend Sir Bobblysock are taken out to sea in his bathtub, where they are unexpectedly swallowed by an enormous octopus. Luckily, Claude finds a way out for himself and his friends.

    We asked author and illustrator Alex T Smith to tell us more about Claude's adventures:

    Q: Often we see successful characters in picture books being developed into young fiction. With Claude, you've gone from young fiction to picture books - why did you decide on that route for Claude?

    A: I didn't really think about what sort of book it would be when I wrote the first Claude story but I knew that it would be slightly longer than a picture book. To begin with the stories were going to be a series of short stories but I decided that each story should be a single book, heavily illustrated, so they became what is known as young fiction.

    So they weren't quite a picture book and not quite fiction. For me it was nice to have more space to tell a story and to have a longer word count, because you can have more fun with those.

    While I was writing the young fiction books I had a few ideas for Claude that weren't long enough for young fiction. One of these was a flooded bathroom and Claude sailing off to sea in the bath so we decided a picture book would be the best format. It would be something funny and unusual.


    Q: Do you think early readers will also be enticed by Claude's picture book?

    A: It is a slightly older picture book and I think there is a gap between traditional picture books and more text-heavy young fiction that this could meet. There are a lot of children who are ready to move on to more sophisticated stories but who still want lots of pictures. I also didn't want the story and humour in the picture book to feel very different from the young fiction books.


    Q: Are young readers becoming more demanding about having illustrations in their stories?

    A: When you look at a child's world, they are bombarded on television and in films with sophisticated imagery and just because they can read fiction doesn't mean that they should miss out on the imagery. Stories with images can be as sophisticated as you like.


    Q: In the story, Claude finds himself at sea in a bathtub when he comes across a rather large sea monster called Nigel. Was Nigel always going to be an octopus?

    A: I always knew he would be a sea monster but I played around with other ideas like a Lock Ness type creature with lots of humps coming out of the water but I found I couldn't do very much with it - unlike a giant pink octopus with a hat and moustache! And all those tentacles gave me lots of design options....


    Q: The tentacles and other visual clues mean the child sees the problems coming before Claude does. Do you like your readers to be one step ahead?

    A: I think these stories work best when the reader is one step ahead of Claude and you can see them grinning or getting ready for whatever is about to happen when Claude is doing something and it's going horribly wrong.

    That's a big part of the Claude books, he manages to get himself into some real scrapes and the child reader sees it coming through the visual clues - in this case, the tentacles and the 'jolly important' warning signs!


    Q: How do you produce the illustrations, digitally or by hand?

    A: Everything is drawn by hand and then digitally coloured but there is also some real paint splatterings in the picture book, which I made with paint brushes.


    Q: You use a very limited colour palatte in the Claude young fiction books; why did you decide to do the same in the picture book?

    A: From very early on, I knew that I didn't want the Claude books to be produced in full colour, so the young fiction titles had a limited palatte (red and black) and I decided to keep to this in the picture books. However, there's a lot of water in Claude All At Sea so we also added blue and spot yellow.

    It's actually easier when you have more colours because when your work is printed in two colours, you have to work backwards with the illustrations with the lighter colours first and darker colours laid over that. So there is more freedom with more colour.

    The picture book is also what the television show will look like; the colours will be black, white, red and pink, as well as some blue, grey and yellow. That little extra colour means you can do a lot but limiting the colour keeps things tight and pulls the imagery together.


    Q: How involved are you in making the new television series?

    A: At the moment I'm writing some of the episodes myself and looking over a lot of the scripts from other writers. I'm also working with the show helping to design some of the characters for the series, and I'll be overseeing the television tie-in books. So it's pretty full on!


    Q: Does that mean you don't have time to work on other projects?

    A: There is a Claude book coming out for Christmas - called Santa Claude - and I'm working on my next fiction series which I'll be writing and illustrating again. It's slightly older than the Claude books, so for ages 7/8+, and it's about an adventurer called Mr Penguin who goes on adventures, so he's a bit Indiana Jones. But yes, the television work and writing these is keeping me busy!





    CLAUDE ON THE SLOPES

    HODDER CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    OCTOBER 2013


    Alex T Smith, a rising star in the world of children's illustration, is behind picture books including Home, Ella and Primrose (Scholastic) and he writes and illustrates the Claude series (Hodder Children's Books), about a little dog and his best friend, Sir Bobblysock, for emerging readers aged six years plus.

    He has had a busy year having recently been announced as the World Book Day illustrator for 2014 and it has also just been revealed that his Claude character is going to be made into a television series!

    Claude's many adventures have included Claude in the City, Claude in the Country and Claude in the Spotlight. The latest story, Claude on the Slopes, is a suitably chilly adventure for the upcoming winter and sees Claude spending the day making friends and dodging avalanches on a snowy mountainside.

    Each of the stories covers a single day, from the moment Mr & Mrs Shinyshoes depart for work until their return home. This leaves Claude and Sir Bobblysock (who is 'both a sock and quite bobbly') free to get up to all sorts of mischief. The stories are brilliantly paced, very funny and slightly mad - a perfect combination for younger children.

    The books are published in black and white and various shades of red. The pages are carefully designed to be as enticing as possible, with dramatic landscapes, entertaining characters and endless surprises appearing alongside short, manageable stretches of text.

    Alex T Smith first conceived the Claude books when he was doodling an illustration for his new kitchen wall, he explains. "One night I couldn't sleep and I doodled this dog sitting at a fancy table in a cafe. As I drew him, I knew his name was Claude and he had this friend called Sir Bobblysock and that they lived with Mr and Mrs Shinyshoes. It was as if he'd been waiting for me to discover him. I didn't think I was writing it for a particular age group, I just wanted to write something that I thought would have entertained me when I was younger."

    Smith adds, "My grandfather was a big influence on my life and Claude came about four months after he had died, so I was also thinking about what my grandfather would find funny. He was a big influence on the humour in the stories."

    Claude is in many ways like any six year-old child; inquisitive, positive and keen to get involved in everything even if he doesn't quite know what he's doing. "Children maybe respond to that and they like the fact that he's silly and they can stay one step ahead of him," says Smith. Although Claude is a boy, the books have just as much appeal to girls as to boys.

    Sir Bobblysocks, Claude's best friend, is very much like the grandparent in the story - he worries about things like getting wet and his bunions, and cautions against a number of Claude's escapades. He also gives Claude an element of much-needed security as he heads off on his wilder adventures. Smith adds, "Children like the fact that Sir Bobblysocks gets worried. They know he's just a sock and it's a bit silly."

    In Claude on the Slopes,Claude opens his front door to discover it's winter! After a snowball fight (in which he gets over-excited and throws a welly), he decides to head for the mountains where he discovers that sledging down a mountain on a tray is lots of fun, although learning to ski is a lot harder than it looks.... He also gets very over-excited about being on the top of a mountain and manages to set off an avalanche.

    There are some wonderful touches in the stories which will appeal to adults and children alike, such as the mysteries of Claude's beret which he dips into every time he needs something (such as his ski suit) and the prizes he wins in the story - a small silver shovel and a heated footbath! As Smith says delightedly, "It's all so silly!".

    The humour in these stories is what makes them so special and so enjoyable at an age when children can struggle to get through a whole (albeit shorter) book. Smith says, "I like children to enjoy my books and I love making children laugh. I used to really like funny and unusual books when I was a child."

    He adds, "Children can have quite a surreal approach to things. When I am giving talks at schools and say that Claude's best friend is a sock, they laugh, but then it quickly becomes quite normal to them."

    The humour might also encourage children to read about Claude's adventures a second or even a third time - and it certainly helps the adult sharer to enjoy the story, too!