Liz Pichon on her Tom Gates series going from publishing phenomenon to the small screen
PUBLISHED: 09:44 28 March 2017 | UPDATED: 09:45 28 March 2017
Brighton children’s author Liz Pichon’s Tom Gates series is a publishing phenomenon – published in 43 languages, it has sold around four million copies worldwide. This year’s World Book Day illustrator tells Jenny Mark-Bell that Tom is set to become a star of the small screen
Liz Pichon is drinking tea in Brighton station’s refreshment room, talking about a young boy who’s very close to her heart. Liz’s character Tom Gates is something of a publishing phenomenon – first published 2011, the series is now available in 43 languages and has sold around four million copies worldwide.
Tom Gates is an enthusiastic schoolboy whose small frustrations with his sister Delia and know-it-all friend Marcus Meldrew form part of the stories. The first-person books are packed with Tom’s own doodles and observations – it’s Adrian Mole for the Minecraft generation.
Liz, who moved to Brighton with her family 18 years ago, came to publishing at 43 after a career first as an art director in the music industry and then as an illustrator. After enjoying some success with picture books for young children, she started experimenting with the idea of an ‘All About Me’-style scrapbook. Tom Gates was originally intended for a much younger audience: “And it gradually morphed into this book for older children. I used all the things you would in picture books – using different fonts in different sizes, trying to have that page-turning moment. Within two weeks of sending it off I had seven offers from different publishers.”
The first book, The Brilliant World of Tom Gates, won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, The Best Book for Young Readers – Red House Book Award and the Best Fiction for 5-12 year olds category of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.
When asked about the genesis of the character Liz says: “Tom Gates is me! I really wanted to make a book that included all the things I would have loved in a book at that age.” So there are comic book references, funny details, things to create and lots of music references.
The stories are based on Liz’s own memories of childhood: “I don’t know any children who don’t like those mini packets of cereal, and there’s a sort of running thing where Tom always hides the good ones from his sister Delia. It always used to be the same in my house if my mum bought them.” She also refers to her memories of her three children’s early years.
She says that when she visits schools, “Children always want to know what your inspiration is. I tell them, ‘Every single one of you has a story of some kind that you could tell, whether it’s about a pet or your family or something that happened to you. All I do is I remember them and I’m collecting them all the time.’”
Liz, who grew up in London and went to Camberwell School of Art, worked in the music industry in the 1980s as an art director at Jive Records, where artists included Billy Ocean and Ruby Turner. “We had some good acts but I always had to get everything done on no money,” she recalls. “I remember being introduced to The Stone Roses and my boss saying to me ‘They do all their own artwork’ and me thinking ‘Well, thank God for that.’”
It was across the road at Battery Studios that Liz met her husband Mark Flannery, who is now deputy head of songwriting at Brighton Insitute of Modern Music (BIMM) and an engineer and producer who has worked with U2, Depeche Mode, Boy George, Yes, Will Smith and Black Sabbath.
That music background comes out in the books: Tom is an enthusiastic fan of rock band Dude3 and starts his own outfit, DogZombies. Recently the lyrics in the books found their way off the page and into real life when Liz persuaded Mark to set them to music. “He got some of the people who work at BIMM to do it with him and they came up with some fantastic songs, really good fun. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if I could bring a band on tour with me?”
So last year Liz’s reader events included a live band and sing along. “And it’s great because unless they’ve got parents that go to festivals they won’t have been to gigs – and they absolutely loved it.”
Excitingly, Liz reveals that she has signed a television deal – “I have held back because I did feel like I wanted to have some involvement in it. We’ve done a smaller deal with the hope of being able to grow it in the right way.”
It’s thrilling news for fans but they will have to wait a little while, Liz thinks. In the meantime they can learn to play DogZombies and Dude3 songs on publisher Scholastic’s Tom Gates webpage.
It’s quite an empire to be building, particularly for someone who initially felt like an imposter due to her dyslexia. “Even when I started writing I felt that I wasn’t a proper writer,” she says. “And what’s been so brilliant about these books is I feel like I’ve found a way to tell stories in a way that’s very accessible.” Liz and Mark had to battle for a place at Lewes special school Northease Manor for one of their children, who also has dyslexia and who finally thrived after receiving specialist teaching. “So I really understand what it’s like when parents write to me and say ‘My child’s picked up your book for the first time and they’re a reluctant reader’. It’s such a big deal.”
The spirit of reader inclusivity extends to the style of the illustration, too – Liz is evangelical about the power of doodling.
All the time we’ve been talking my eyes have been sliding to Liz’s fingernails, earrings and shoes – all populated with Tom Gates doodles and worn in honour of the previous night’s Specsavers Bestseller Awards (she took home five silver awards). She bought the shoes on a whim in Edinburgh and drew on them with a Sharpie marker: “When I’m doing school visits all the kids are usually sitting on the floor. They spot them straight away! It’s a great way of showing the kids you can do all these other creative things too.”
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