Friday, 10 September 2010


When I called my blog Granny's Tale I had in mind my father, Paul Coltman's poem, Granny's Tale. Here's an extract from the first issue of Words-the New Literary Forum by Phillip Vine about Granny's Tale:
'In 1980 four of the United Kingdom's foremost poets met together under the auspices of the Arvon Poetry Foundation to decide upon that year's prizewinning poems in one of the most prestigious of the national poetry competitions. This foursome, who in 1984 might have formed the final shortlist for the vacant Poet Laureateship, were struggling for agreement upon a poem called GRANNY'S TALE. Seamus Heaney did not like it much  and talked of its whimsicality; Ted Hughes was explaining that when he started reading it he thought it was mere whimsy but that it had got a hold on him and he now thought it "strong"; Charles Causley, however, was the poem's strongest advocate, talking of its brilliance and of the "real invention of its language" and describing it as a "tour de force. In the final analysis, all four judges, including Philip Larkin, agreed that it was one of the most original poems in the competition and awarded it a fourth prize of £250'.

In 1985 Granny's Tale was published by Andre Deutsch and Farrar Strauss and Giroux with my illustrations as a sort of cross-over book for both adults and children. This proved a bit innovative at that time and, despite being highly Commended in the Kate Greenaway Award, it didn't take off.

The granny I painted was inspired by two old sisters living in a remote part of Southern Ireland - the Miss Collins. I'd visited them once with my father-in-law, a man of the cloth. He warned me not to accept any food  or drink unless it was pure spirits on account of the filthy state of their cottage. The old ladies, in sack cloth aprons, were delighted with our visit and were not at all put out when I refused a raw egg to suck. They enjoyed being sketched. 

As I'll shortly be changing the name and URL of this blog, I'd like to make this post an epitaph to both Granny's Tales.

Sunday, 5 September 2010


I find August a relaxing month even when I work right through it - something to do with everyone around me going away and leaving behind a quiet absence - or recollections of all those long gone August seaside holidays which cast a pleasant atmosphere over my working day. I recall it rained a lot on those holidays confining three energetic boys and a very large dog to a small cottage for hours on end. It was John Verney's books that always saved the day - each holiday he leant us a new one for reading aloud - Friday's Tunnel, February's Road, Seven Sunflower SeedsSamson's Hoard were the ones I remember.

They were humorous and had rip roaring adventures and everyone became absorbed  and listened quietly until the sun came out again.

Later, I read Going to the Wars, a story of Verney's time with the North Somerset Yeomanry and then the Royal Armoured Corps after war broke out in 1939.  It was a wonderful book crying out for a sequel about his escape from an Italian POW camp, but nobody could persuade him to revisit that time of his life and he settled down to humorous painting. I still have his Dodo-pad and one of his Culpepper Cushions and my last memory of him was in his studio, painting chests of drawers with naughty knobs.

Thursday, 26 August 2010


What sends children peacefully to sleep? Last week I travelled to a wedding in Sweden with my two Canadian grandhildren. An important role for me, Granny, was to help wide awake, jet lagged, overtired grandchildren fall asleep - on flights, in churches on mattresses on the floor and in strange hotel rooms. I discovered an unlikely book that did the trick - Nicky and the Big Bad Wolves by Valeri Gorbachev.

It was so scary it ought to have done the opposite. On Amazon it had 'nightmares' emblazoned across it as if to excuse the scariness and say to over-protective parents the book was OK to read as nightmare therapy. But my two and a half year old grandson didn't need nightmare therapy. He just wanted to see some very scary wolves. He would stare intensely for around ten minutes at each page of yellow eyes, pink tongues and white fangs.

I was left to guess what was going through his mind - the process of absorbing fear seemed to require the utmost concentration and this was what stilled him. The cosy pages with Mother rabbit didn't have the same impact and when there were no more wolves left to look at he just wanted me to flick quickly through the remaining pages, reach the happy ending before promptly falling asleep.
    Like Fairy Tales, Nicky and the Big Bad Wolves seems to make children confront extreme feelings deep within them. Doing so is evidently a tiring business.

Sunday, 8 August 2010


The house over the road is let to visiting scholars and an Israeli family moved in last winter. It was several months before I met the mother in the street with her young daughters. Assuming she was a scholar I asked her about her research at the university. She told me her husband was working at the university but she was a children's author/illustrator - Raphaella Serfaty.

But that wasn't all - her sister Shulamit Serfaty was also an author/illustrator -

 her mother Nurit Serfaty too - nominated in the IBBY Honour List of 2004 -

and, with her father a designer, I discovered the Serfaty family run their own publishing house -The Jolly Giraffe.

When I heard all this, I was in the process of creating my own publishing house, Plaister Press.
Suddenly, the small street in Cambridge where I live and work opened out and embraced a wider world.

Friday, 30 July 2010


Last year I did a school residency with artist John Wiltshire in a small fenland school, Wisbech St Mary. I'd gone with the school on an outing to the Stained Glass Museum in Ely and we'd found some interesting characters that were later to inspire a story set in the Fen Floods of 1947.  

John Wiltshire used the story in a huge stained glass window he did with the Wisbech St Mary pupils. Painted in acrylic on perspex it hangs in the school hall with the story beside it.

Here are some examples of the original paintings Year 4 pupils did for the story - Old Slodger the Ox  

the Sure Enough Duck 

and the Fen Tiger Fox. 

Wednesday, 21 July 2010


It's exciting helping pupils produce their own published book.  The Wishing Eel was done by Year 2 pupils at Fawcett Primary with sponsorship from Cambridge University Press.  In this project I worked with the children on the story alongside artist, John Wiltshire, who was teaching them watercolour technique during a term's residency at the school.

With The Tale of Cleo and Monty, I worked for just one day with the pupils of Class 4 at Burrough Green Primary on the illustrations of this story.  It had been written by a pupil after a day's workshop given by poet, Tony Mitten,  prior to my visit.  In the morning I encouraged the whole class to paint indoor and outdoor background scenes in watercolour and in the afternoon they did some very free and expressive character drawings of the cat and the mouse.  The day had started with a discussion about page design when I'd shown some of my own picture book artwork.  After my visit the teacher had to help Class 4 select and assemble their own images to fit the text.
    The book was a Business and Enterprise project in association with Linton Village College and Cambridge University Press.
In so many picture books today, the illustrations are executed by adults in a child like way. This page from The Tale of Cleo and Monty could easily be mistaken for one of them but  no - it's the real thing - genuine child art. 

Wednesday, 14 July 2010


Yesterday I had two meetings with my business mentor at UK Trade and Investment, East of England, Chris Kubicki. In the first I was given a lot of sound advice about the business side of Plaister Press which is now a limited company. It was followed by a group meeting with fellow writers and illustrators who have all benefitted from UK Trade and Investment funding and business mentoring. We had a piece in the Cambridge News last week about how this has had a beneficial effect on the overseas co-editions of our books.   

It was great to share news and swap books with friends in the group. I will be giving these two to my grandsons: When Daddy's Truck Picks Me Up written by Jana Novotny Hunter and illustrated by Carol Thompson and Come to Me my Chickadee! written and illustrated by Carol Thompson.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010


I like to use a rigger - a long flexible brush - when I paint the branches of trees. I can suggest the swaying of the twigs better with this brush. The tree here, from The Tiger and the Persimmon in The Land of the Dragon King , is done in a traditional Korean style.
In another of my Korean stories, Clever Rabbit, the tree I painted is influenced more by the anthropomorphic trees of Arthur Rackham which I loved a child.

I did it like this, with a face and hands because, in the story, the pine tree is a character and talks to the man and the tiger.

The story I'm currently working on is inspired by trees I climbed when I was a child.  Trees have always held a fascination for me- they stand so still, yet have so much life in them. I love the bark patterns where the branches meet the trunk - like elephant skin. It took a long time to really understand holes - that branches once grew from them - and to see how the bark patterns work around them.

In this illustration the tree is more of a presence than a character so I wanted only the suggestion of an expression - you have to look hard to see the tree's features.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010


This is the first Selkie cover published by Doubleday. It was supposed to have the title in rainbow-coloured foil (which doesn't come out here in the scan). Unfortunately, the printers got it wrong and used gold instead.

I'd come up with some other cover designs but my editor and designer, influenced I think by the success of the Rainbow Fish, wanted a large seal head with eyes that followed you round the bookshop. They kept making me do the head larger and larger. Interestingly, in his review, Quentin Blake didn't like the rainbow- coloured foil on the first Selkie cover . This is what he says: 'A gleaming seal's head, alert with life, dominates the book's cover. It is on the cover also where there is the only discordant note: the single word title in a silver ribbon-like lettering which, though no doubt kindly meant on the part of the publisher, would seem to have more to do with chocolates  or silk stockings and which doesn't at all suggest the intensity of this curious book.' 

My American publisher Farrar Strauss & Giroux didn't want the UK cover design and asked me to paint another one reflecting the atmosphere of the story.  I used the American cover design for the Plaister Press edition.
    Now I'm working on my new book and I'm faced with the dilemma of how much to give away on the cover.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010


Here are children at a bookshop event.  I don't just do a signing in bookshops but like to have children acting out  parts of my story with puppet characters. Here they are acting out a scene in Selkie at the Steyning Bookshop - exploring their own ideas and changing the story.

Bookshop workshops can be a bit more tricky than school workshops because, even with a specified age range, you have to be prepared for all the younger siblings coming along too. They often sit quietly on their parent's knees and listen but there's always a few who don't... 

Wednesday, 16 June 2010


The story of Dunkirk and the little boats that is currently being celebrated has a special interest for me - I wouldn’t be here were it not for the paddle steamer, the Medway Queen, that rescued my father from Dunkirk beach.

Now I have another strand to weave into that story. My father died in 2003 but still alive and living alone opposite my parent’s house in Washington village is a farm labourer, Frank Brooks. He was with the Rifle Brigade in Calais in 1940 when my father was on Dunkirk beach. Frank’s battalion was guarding the port and holding back French refugees; pregnant women and children, all trying to board the ships and escape the 1st Panzer Division that was encircling Calais. Just before the battalion was forced to surrender, Frank attempted to rescue an injured friend lying outside his bunker. He was carrying him to safely when a mortar hit them. The friend took the full blast and was killed; shrapnel tore through Frank’s trousers and arm. So at the surrender, when the Germans pointed their tommy guns and ordered everyone to raise their hands, Frank could only raise the one hand.

After days of no sleep and very little food, the captured soldiers were forced to march 200 kilometres across France; a land littered with the corpses of animals. They ate horse meat and mangle worsels dug out of the earth and finally reached a POW camp at Thorn (Stalag XXA). There the Red Cross documented and photographed them. At the next camp, Frank saw that photo and was unable to recognise himself. From then on he was just a number, 8128.

From Torn they were sent in trucks along a small rail track to the Polish camp at Marienburg (Stalag 20B). For the next five years, Frank worked on a small primitive farm where he was given extra food. The POWs who worked on farms were moved out of the camp to a Fire Station Depot where they were locked up at night and let out to work during the day. The farmers wore military armbands and were responsible for the POWs on their farms. No one attempted to escape.

On the farm where Frank worked there was just the old farmer, his Fraulein and a mentally deficient maid who had been sterilised. During the six winter months, the nearby river froze; wagons had to be converted into sledges and everything was moved into the barns which formed a long line of buildings. It was an orderly life with no waste. The pigs were killed by a single axe blow; their throats cut and the blood made into black puddings and sausages. Every part was used right down to the fat which was made into lard and given to the POWs on rye bread. The German army took a share of everything.

When winter ended the livestock was taken out of the barns. Cows were milked in the fields; hooves shankled by a cord. Eels were harvested in the river and ploughing was done by a team of four light draft horses pulling the plough with a chain; stepping over it at the corners of the field when they changed direction. It was in spring time, when doing the ‘long work’ (ploughing a long stretch of the field), Frank told me he felt happy. Seated on the rear left horse, leading another to his right and two more in front of him, he would crack his whip - made of willow with a dried eel skin tied on to give a bigger ‘crack’- over his head and sing.

Life on the farm came to an end when the Red Army advance meant the area had to be evacuated. The farmers became refugees themselves and the POWs were forced to march for three months back to Brunswick in Germany, covering 20 to 40 kilometres a day along the Baltic coast, sleeping in barns, churches and factory building - sometimes out in the open. This march became known as the ‘march of death’; the winter of 1945 being the coldest of the century. Those who survived it and reached Brunswick were left to fend for themselves in an old disused brewery until they were liberated by the American 8th Army in April. The POWs all had dysentery and their weakened digestive systems were unable to cope with the rich food the Americans fed them. Despite this, Frank’s abiding memory of arriving back at RAF Lyneham in an old Dakota on 19 April 1945 was of the NAAFI serving tea and doughnuts. He weighed less than seven stone. It took a two month regime of malt, cod liver oil and vitamin tablets at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, plus a good delousing, to restore him back to normal.

Frank turned 100 last weekend and there was a huge party in the village. I could not stay on for it and so celebrated with him the day before. All he asked for was a card, a donation to the Poppy Appeal and an outing to a nearby garden centre for a cup of tea and a doughnut.

I'd like to thank Midge Gillies for checking out Frank's details in the Rifle Corps Office, Winchester.  Midge is currently writing a book about Polish POW camps.

Monday, 7 June 2010


The two worst questions asked on school visits are: how much do you earn?and are you famous?
My butcher helped me find the answer to the second question when he told me my book Selkie was on the pub quiz. The next time I'm asked that tricky question in schools I can reply with another tricky question - If an author's book is on the pub quiz does it mean that author is famous?

Tuesday, 1 June 2010


Don't we all love writing and drawing on walls - probably because we were forbidden to do it as children. Well, there's a great place where children's authors and illustrators can do just this; at the Norfolk Children's Book Centre run by Marilyn Brocklehurst. She asked me to let you all know about her wall.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010


When The Seven Stories Children's Book Centre bought three of my Selkie pictures, I donated a Selkie rough, the dummy and a sketch book. I was concerned to find, when I looked them out, that there were yellow stains on some pages of the dummy and sketch book where I'd used a glue - probably any old glue I had to hand - Pritt Stick maybe -  not thinking about long term consequences.  I consulted a paper conservator and was told the stains could probably be removed. The safe glues he recommended were: Shofu starch paste which has to be made up fresh each week and if I wanted something that was less bother to make up, then sodium carboxymethylcellulose. Both are available from Conservation by Design.

Conserving artwork is one more thing to think about but, one day, it will be worth it.