Tracey Corderoy grew up in South Wales, on a council estate firmly sandwiched between the steel and chemical works. She’s a trained teacher, but now writes full-time in an old damp cottage in a valley in the woods. Her first book was published in 2010, and in March 2023, her 77th. You can find Tracey on Twitter @TraceyCorderoy
Steven Lenton grew up in Cheshire and now works from his studio in Brighton, creating an array of charming characters for his books. Best known for illustrating Shifty McGifty series, written by Tracey Corderoy, he has illustrated many lovely books and written his own Genie & Teeny series. You can find Steven on Twitter @StevenLenton
Shifty McGifty & Slippery Sam: Train Trouble (Nosy Crow)
Celebrate ten years of Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam by solving the latest case with the doggy duo, in Train Trouble! When Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam board the Pawrient Express, they soon realise that all is not well; a thief is on board, and it will demand all their special skills to solve this case!
Author Tracey Corderoy reminds us of all the adventures Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam have enjoyed since they gave up thieving for creating delicious pastries instead. She also reads from the first few pages of their latest adventure, Train Trouble; see if you can spot a familiar foe!
Q&A with Tracey Corderoy & Steven Lenton
Find out how Tracey Corderoy's own dog helped inspire the first Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam book; which Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam adventures the creators would like to join; and the detective duo's secret to success!
1. What is your background and what brought you into writing picture books for children? How would you describe the kinds of stories you write?
Tracey: I was born and grew up in South Wales. I lived on a large council estate in between the Chemical and Steelworks. I don't remember being taught to read, but I can't remember a time when I couldn't! I also can't remember a time when I never loved books - although, initially, I didn't own many of my own. From a very young age I was captivated by the colour and sense of wide-eyed adventure that stories added to my life…
When I grew up, I trained as a teacher and taught in primary schools before embarking on a career as an author. I wrote, full-time, for about three years before anyone showed any interest in publishing any of my stories. I loved the process and learned from the constant and sustained rejection. I felt/feel it was a vital part of my writing journey.
Then it happened! I got my first book published in 2010 and 'Train Trouble' will be my 78th published story. I think I'd describe my work as eclectic. Some of my books are very gentle and lyrical and others are an absolute riot! It just depends on how I feel. I write picture books, some in rhyme, some not, as well as young and older fiction. I love the variation!
Steven: I studied animation at Dundee University, worked as an animator for around 12 years then adapted my portfolio for children's books , found an agent and the rest is history! Shifty and Sam was my first ever picture book to illustrate so I was very lucky! I love drawing dogs and cakes, so it was the pawfect first project.
2. It's the 10th Anniversary this year for Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam - what inspired the first story? Looking back, what stands out for you about Shifty McGifty's adventures?
Tracey: The first story about the boys was inspired by my own dog, Dylan. Dylan was a young dog back then (he sadly he died in 2020) and when I took him on a 'normal' trip to the vet's one day, he 'stole' a teddy bear out of the window display. He did give it back - eventually - and he did look very sorry. He looked up at me with his big brown eyes and I could sense this. I knew Dylan wasn't a bad dog - he'd just made a bad choice. It struck me that we all make bad choices from time to time.
A few weeks later, I was trying the think of a story idea, and that day came back to me. I felt that the core concept of what we do with our bad choices was too good a one to let escape. Anyway, I decided to push this bad-decision-making theme to the absolute max with two robber dogs - Shifty and Sam who were totally out for what they could get because they didn't have much to start with. Not a valid justification - and deep in their hearts, they knew this too. Finally, though, they did something about it - and the rest is history!
The thing that stands out for me about the boys' adventures and how they've been embraced is seeing children - almost immediately - empathise with Shifty and Sam's predicament; doing what you want and what you should are often diametrically opposed. The children we see also quickly realise that it's one thing to do a very impulsive or silly thing ie. make a 'bad choice', but it's what we do afterwards that really counts. Do we have the guts to try and change for the better, sometimes when changing might feel very tricky? I didn't want the core theme to be at all didactic, but I did want the message to deeply resonate...
Steven: Tracey's story was such a great text to get my teeth into! I based Shifty and Sam on the burglars from Home Alone and featured some of my favourite buildings in the background of the book. I also got the idea of hiding a spider on every page after it appears in the second spread of the book, and it features on every spread of all the picture books. We have done soooo many events together but my stand out event was our very first Hay Festival together with a 500 strong audience, we nearly didn't make it to the venue and I was so nervous, but we had a great time and everyone was happy!
3. Why do you feel Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam have become so popular? Are there any plans for television for the duo?
Tracey: As I say, I think it's their relatability. Not because we're all robbers (!) but because we just don't do what we know we should at times. I keep the stories pacy and fun, and of course Steven's wonderful illustrations bring everything to life in such a warm and relatable way that greatly adds to their popularity. We've essentially created a whole town now of very diverse characters. This layering of the world is very satisfying for me.
There was TV in the mix, yes - and we went a long way on the journey, but then management changed - and the boys, along with a number of other projects, were very sadly disbanded. I think they'd translate so well, though, because there are so many scenarios we could put them in that would be absolutely hilarious. But of course, I do have to add, I am slightly biased!
Steven: I think the combination of Tracey's funny text combined with colourful illustrations - with lots to spot and laugh along with - is a great formula for their success. Shifty and Sam's friendship is really charming too, and maybe the main reason readers love them so much. There has been some interest in a television adaptation, yes…
4. How does it feel when you sit down to revisit the Shifty McGifty duo with each new book? Can you tell us about their latest adventure, Train Trouble?
Tracey: Sitting down to plan a new Shifty and Sam is always an absolute joy and a treat. I know the boys so well now that I just know how they'd react in most situations. Finding new adventures is so much fun because the sky's the limit with the boys. While there are baddies to be caught, or mysteries to solve, then Shifty and Sam - I know - will be PAWsome at it!
The latest adventure, Train Trouble, takes them on a journey aboard super-posh train (written long before the train trouble we're encountering in the real world, I might add!). Anyway, when all is going well, who should the boys bump into but a very NOT sorry old enemy. I won't tell you who this is, but if you know the books, you'll recognise her on the cover and - uh oh - she's in another BRILLIANT disguise and is soon up to no good on the Carnival streets of Venice.
This story is a feast for the eyes, from party gondolas filled with cheery folk, to all-the-colour-of-the-rainbow masks and balloons - and a finale of fireworks that decorate the Venice night sky end the adventure with a pop and a bang. Oh! Plus, there's ice cream too. Honestly, what more could you ask for?!
Steven: I love working on the Shifty and Sam books because it is familiar territory for me now, the world building has been set so I can focus on designing the new baddie! In the new book the boys travel to Venice and come across a very familiar and popular villain!
5. If you could join Shifty and Sam on any of their adventures to date, which story would you choose?
Tracey: Well personally I'd hitch a ride on The PAWrient Express - train trouble or not - because I've always wanted to go to Italy, and really MUST do that soon, especially now with our latest adventure being set there! The research for this book was a real treat. I played Venice Carnival music as I planned it, back in lockdown, and the sense of colour and fun made me smile. In my head I was there, you see, and it was everything I hoped for, and more…
Steven: I would love to go to Venice so I would definitely join them on their latest journey. I'd also like to meet Santa Paws in their Christmas adventure Santa's Stolen Sleigh.
6. What are Shifty and Sam's characters, and how do you portray these characteristics in your stories or through the illustrations?
Tracey: Shifty likes to think he's 'in charge' and Sam often appears a bit more silly, but Sam is quite often the more astute of the two when push comes to shove. They are both up for anything, although Shifty will tend to think through the consequences a little more than Sam, who is prone to dive right in. They are great friends and I hope this is portrayed too. They'd literally do anything for each other.
Steven: It's important for characters to have a strong silhouette so when deciding on the designs of the characters I knew we needed a height difference, so Shifty is taller with scruffy fur and Sam is shorter, rounder with smoother fur. We decided they shouldn't be specific breeds because they will interact with so many other dogs they need to always stand out, by not standing out if you know what I mean! They work really well as a team and always help each other if they are tempted to be naughty dogs again!
7. At what stage do you see - or share - the illustrations for each book? Do you have a favourite spread in the latest book, Train Trouble?
Tracey: I see rough illustrations first when all the editing is finished (and this can go on a while!) and when we have an idea of pacing. Because we don't use vignettes in the Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam picture book series, we need to have the pacing balance very finely tuned - so not too much happening on a spread text-wise that cannot actually be seen, but not too little going on either as the story needs to move along swiftly. It takes quite a lot of thought to get this right.
I have two favourite spreads in the new book - the escape through the city square spread because the animals (and pigeons!) are SO funny. I also love the fireworks spread because fireworks always take me back to childhood, and also bring back happy memories of when my daughters were little.
Steven: I show Tracey little snippets sometimes, but in general don't share anything except the cover design towards the end of the illustration process, then Tracey can make any extra comments or spot any mistakes! I am forever forgetting to put the boys buttons on their chef uniforms!
My favourite spread is the one at the Venice Carnival with all the animals dressed in exciting costumes. Can you spot Kitty Le Claw running through the crowd..?!
8. Are you writing a new Shifty McGifty adventure? What else are you writing / illustrating currently?
Tracey: Yes! We're currently creating the next picture book. It's secret, though, so I can't say what happens - EXCEPT, there will be LOTS of baking in this next one.
I'm also currently writing my next 'Story Shop' young fiction book, so there's plenty for me to be getting on with, thankfully.
Steven: We can't say much just yet but there IS indeed another adventure in the piping bag!
9. What do you most enjoy doing when you're not at your desk?
Tracey: I like gardening, sewing, and spending time with my family and pets. We have another dog now, called Brodie, who is very cute. He's sometimes a little bit naughty too, but I adore him!
Steven: I love walking my dog, Big-Eared Bob along the beach in Brighton and reading a book on my sunny balcony.
10. What are your favourite picture books currently, by other authors and illustrators?
Tracey: Gosh! There are so many great picture books out there. So … I love Jim Helmore's books - and when teamed with Richard Jones in stories such as 'The Snow Lion' the end result is a delight! 'Perdu' springs to mind too. The illustrations are a thing of beauty…
Steven: I am a huge fan of Briony May Smith and am collecting anything she has done at the moment. Her latest picture book The Mermaid Moon is just stunning.
- Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: Train Trouble
- Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: Santa's Stolen Sleigh
- Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: The Missing Masterpiece
- Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: Jingle Bells!: Two-colour fiction for 5+ readers
- Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: Up, Up and Away!: Two-colour fiction for 5+ readers
- Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: The Spooky School: Two-colour fiction for 5+ readers
- Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam