Thursday, 26 May 2016

Interview And Cover Reveal: There's A Dragon In My Toilet! by Tom Nicoll and Sarah Horne

We are really thrilled to present the cover to the third book in Tom Nicoll and Sarah Horne's fantastic series, There's A Dragon In My Toilet! As well as the wonderful cover, by Sarah Horne and the Stripes in-house team, we have a fabulous interview with Tom. Read it below, then scroll down to see the gorgeous cover in all its glory!

What was the inspiration for the series?

My main inspiration for the series was all the books and films I devoured growing up where humans develop weird friendships with an alien or a toaster or something. In fact pretty much every film in the eighties was like that from what I can remember: E.T., Flight of the Navigator, Gremlins... er… Predator (Parents – probably best to double check that last one before putting it on for your kids – there’s a decent chance I’m confusing it with Turner and Hooch) But I used to love reading books like The BFG and The Little Vampire and There’s a Dragon in my Dinner! was very much written with those kinds of stories in mind. It basically came from a lifetime of me imagining what it would be like to have a non-human friend that I could talk to. I still don’t know what that would actually be like of course. I’ve tried talking to my kettle, but other than an occasional whistle, I get nothing back, so at least with Pan and Eric I can explore an unusual friendship a bit without my wife having to call the doctor.

Apart from that there are a couple of other influences in some of the books. There’s a Dragon in my Backpack! is basically a heist story – Ocean’s Eleven except with Dragons and not as many people involved, or maybe The Italian Job with golf carts. And of course There’s a Dragon in my Toilet! was heavily inspired by my love of flushing the toilet, which I really think you can get a sense of when you read the book.

I loved your piece for Reading Zone on why children need funny books - and totally agree! What made you want to write a funny book series?

As important as I do think funny books are, my reasons for writing them are mostly selfish. I realized a long time ago that I really don’t enjoy writing when I’m not trying to make myself laugh. I can do it but it’s not fun at all for me. And if you’re going to try to write for a living then I think it’s probably a good idea to actually enjoy the things you’re writing. And what I love most about children’s books is that there’s so much more scope to be funny than there is in adult books. I suspect that’s why you find so many comedians turning to writing kids books because they recognize that there are way more options available to them here than in adult books when it comes to being silly.

Other than your own series, what's one funny book you'd like EVERY child to be given a copy of?

I think every child should read Matilda at least once in their life. It teaches children one of the most important things they can ever learn - that any adult who discourages them from reading is not someone who should be listened to.

Pan gets into some weird and wonderful places - Eric's dinner, his backpack, and now a toilet! But what is the place you'd LEAST like to find a Mini-dragon?

I’d hate to find one living under Donald Trump’s hair. I’d be livid to be perfectly honest.

Sarah Horne illustrates the series. How much input do you have into the illustrations - is it just a case of sending her the text for her to draw from, or do you discuss things and give feedback? What’s it like seeing your story in pictures?

If I have an idea for something I think would be funny I’ll put a suggestion in the text. I also get the chance to provide feedback on draft artwork but I rarely do because Sarah’s usually nailed it by that stage. Anyway my comments would probably be like “Er… needs to be more dragon-y” or something just as useless. It’s definitely one of my favourite moments when I get to see the artwork. The first time I saw her drawings for There’s a Dragon in my Dinner!, after I had stopped laughing I couldn’t get over how perfect she had all the characters. Now when I’m writing a scene it’ll often be at the back of my mind that Sarah will have to draw this madness, which if anything just makes me want to make it even madder to see what she comes up with. It gets me wondering if I can potentially write a scene so mad that she’ll have to reply with just the words ‘Sorry, too mad’. I mean I doubt it, but it’s something to aim for isn’t it?

Your bio on your brilliant website says you're "the man you want on your team in Pointless so long as all the questions are film and TV based." What would be your dream question to get on Pointless? Feel free to give answers to show off your obscure knowledge!

Well I like to think I’d be pretty good if Mini-Dragons came up. I also once got three pointless answers to Ben Affleck films (The Town, Changing Lanes and Chasing Amy I think) which I’m equally proud and ashamed about. Videogames never come up but I’d probably do quite well if they did, especially if it was games released for the ZX Spectrum. My dream question though would be based around Eighties Cartoons. Visionaries, Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, Silverhawks, trophy, jackpot, done.

Thank you for the awesome interview, Tom! Now, are you ready for this cover?

We love it! There's A Dragon In My Toilet! will be published by Stripes on 11th August. Previous books There's A Dragon In My Dinner! and There's A Dragon In My Backpack! are available now. 

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Mystery and Mayhem Blog Tour: Helen Moss guest post

As massive fans of Mystery and Mayhem, the new Egmont short story anthology from lots of amazing writers, we're delighted to take part in the blog tour today! Helen Moss, author of one of our favourite stories in the book, stopped by to tell us about it.

The Mystery of the Pineapple Plot

The star of my story is a rather fine pineapple by the name of King George.

Desperate to marry off his elder daughter, Eliza, Lord Catchpole has invited an eligible bachelor to a sumptuous banquet. Lord Percy Ponsonby is not exactly love’s young dream (and he writes truly dreadful poetry), but his one redeeming feature – absolutely enormous wealth – makes him the perfect choice of son-in-law. 

It’s vital to make a good impression. Everyone’s on their best behaviour and dressed in their finery. The Catchpole silver and porcelain are out in force. The chef has whipped up the most fashionable French dishes and delicacies. And, for dessert, the pièce de résistance (fanfares please!) a pyramid of fruit topped with (hold onto your wigs, people!) an actual pineapple.

And this is not just any old pineapple, imported from Jamaica or Barbados, rather rotten and mushy after the long sea voyage. Oh no, this is a home-grown pineapple, raised on British soil  - or, more accurately, in British manure - right here at Catchpole Hall, in the new state-of-the-art pinery (a special greenhouse designed for growing pineapples).

And then something very unexpected happens! I’m not going to tell you what it is. That would rather spoil the surprise!

These days you’d probably be seriously underwhelmed if you were invited to a high society event and the highlight of the evening turned out to be a pineapple. I mean, pineapples are all very yummy and everything, but you can buy them for £1.00 at Tesco. You can get them sliced or chunked or crushed in tins for even less.

But The Mystery of the Pineapple Plot is set in 1761. This was long before the man from Del Monte said yes. In the eighteenth century, pineapples were new and exotic. They were bang on trend and very expensive. Showcasing a pineapple on your dinner table screamed I’m cool, sophisticated and I’m loaded with cash. Early in the eighteenth century, it could cost up to £80 (that’s £5,000 in today’s money) to grow a single pineapple. Not surprisingly then, you probably wouldn’t actually eat the pineapple on its first appearance; you’d wheel it out to show off for months.  

 ‘It [the pineapple] is commonly cut from the Plant with a long Stalk, so that it may be set upright in a Tube of Glass, to crown the Top of a Pyramid of Fruit; and whosoever once tastes of it, will undoubtedly allow, that it deserves a Place above all other Fruits...' Richard Bradley, A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening (1724)

Pineapples are a tropical fruit, of course – native to the Amazon rainforest - and fussy ones at that. The cold North European climate doesn’t suit them at all. Even if you could cajole them into growing, they take their time – up to three years for a fruit to ripen.

No wonder the very best pineapple gardeners were like rock stars! Wealthy men would vie to employ them and would plough enormous fortunes into building elaborate pineries with special furnaces and high-tech piping systems and ‘hot beds’ full of rotting manure and tanner’s bark to keep the pineapples warm. If you (or rather your gardener) managed to grow a particularly good one, you might even commission a famous artist to paint its portrait. 

Painting by Theodorus Netscher, made in 1720 of a pineapple grown in Sir Matthew Decker’s garden in Richmond, Surrey. Now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Photo from

But if you wanted to impress your neighbours and couldn’t afford to grow a pineapple of your own, you could always hire one for the evening. Alternatively you could show your pineapple love by investing in a fine Staffordshire pineapple coffee pot or set of gateposts or silk wallpaper or, why not go totally over the top and build your own folly with a stone roof carved into the shape of a monster pineapple (as Lord Catchpole’s rival, Lord Fitchett, does in my story).

The pineapple folly, Dunmore Park, Scotland. Photo from ( You can rent the folly as a holiday home.

When I was asked to contribute a story to Mystery and Mayhem, my first thought (after yipppppeeeeee!) was to write a new mystery for my Adventure Island characters. But while I was mulling that over, I was copied into an email discussion among some of the other authors about possibly writing a historical mystery.  I knew instantly that that was what I wanted to do too.
I love history. I wasn’t so keen when I was at school; it all seemed to be about wars and treaties and law reforms, with the occasional bridge or cathedral thrown in (I know it ‘s taught in much more interesting way now; this was a long time ago.) I’m much more interested in the everyday stuff; what did people eat and drink and wear and read and play? What medicines did they take? What jokes did they tell? What pets did they keep? And, being a mystery-writer, what kind of shady shenanigans did they get up to?

Georgian wigs: because who doesn’t want to wear a ship on their head?
Photo from
It took me only a fraction of a second to settle on the Georgian period (1714-1830) It’s one of my favourite periods of history. It was a time when horizons were expanding and knowledge was blooming. Although life was still very hard for the poor, for the rich it was all about larger than life characters and extremes in everything from fashion (you only have to look at those fabulous wigs!) to finance (gambling and speculation were rife) and food (anyone for peacock pie or a temple built out of marzipan and sugar paste?).

It was also a time of wonderful crazes and fads.  One such fad was the mania for growing pineapples. 

As soon as I’d decided on the eighteenth century, I knew I wanted to make pineapple-mania the backdrop for my mystery. It was a topic I already knew a little about (having come across it when I was meant to be researching something completely different; there’s a reason it takes me so long to get anything done!) 

All my Crime Club instincts told me that the pineapple craze was ripe (excuse the pun!) for a mystery story: 

1) There was big money involved; wherever there’s money, bad behaviour always follows!

2) There were all kinds of top-secret techniques and special tricks of the trade to growing pineapples; wherever there’s a secret, there’s always a story.

3) The pineapple house or pinery was the perfect location for unsuspecting characters to meet very sticky ends. A huge blazing furnace? Pits full of stinking tanner’s bark and rotting manure? It’s just waiting for dastardly deeds!

Staffordshire pineapple coffee pot: Black Country History:

As I set about becoming an expert on eighteenth-century pineapple growing (driving my family and friends to distraction by sharing my lovely new facts at all times of day and night) I considered a range of delicious plot possibilities; rival gardeners stealing each others’ top-secret pineapple-growing manuals; an unscrupulous under-gardener running a racket on the side by hiring out the master’s pineapples; a jilted lover luring his ex to her death in the pinery on the pretext of showing her his pineapples (oops, that sounds rather ruder than I meant it to!)

But, I rejected them all in favour of . . . well, I won’t tell you, as it will spoil the story! Let’s just say it involves love and mistaken identity and a giant centipede.

As I was thinking about the crime for my story, I was also assembling my cast of characters. I knew I wanted to have a little ‘gang’ of young mystery-solvers, and they presented themselves to me very quickly. There’s Catherine, the younger sister of Eliza (the poor girl who’s being married off to Percy Ponsonby), Sam, the gardener’s lad, whose job it is to live in the pinery and tend to the pineapples round the clock, and Quality, the young Jamaican footman (who arrived at Catchpole Hall in a crate of pineapple cuttings as a baby). 

Quality was inspired by paintings I’d seen of the time, in which a young black servant boy would be in attendance, often dressed up in ‘exotic’ costume (like Quality in my story – and probably, like, Quality, feeling like a prize turkey.)

Portrait of Lady Grace Carteret, Countess of Dysart, with a child, a black servant, a spaniel and a cockatoo, c. 1753, at Ham House, Surrey. ©NTPL/John Hammond

It is Quality who recounts the surprising turn of events when the prize pineapple is served at the Catchpole banquet. I had the best time writing this story. I hope you will enjoy Quality’s tale and have fun solving the mystery alongside Quality, Catherine and Sam.

And, now you too can be amazed by my top ten pineapple facts! Who needs Buzzfeed?

1. The first pineapple to be seen in Europe was brought back from the Caribbean by Christopher Columbus in 1496 and presented to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. It was the only one that hadn’t rotted on the journey. Luckily Prince Ferdinand liked it.

2. In the eighteenth century, pineapples were often grown in a pinery-vinery (also known as a vinery-pinery). Grape vines were planted outside the glasshouse, and then trained to grow in through a hole to create a canopy for the pineapples growing below. (Pinery-vinery is officially my favourite word of all time! I like to drop it into conversation whenever I can.)

3. In the famous eighteenth-century play, The Rivals, Mrs Malaprop muddles up pineapple and pinnacle in the line, “he is the very pineapple of politeness.” (Mrs Malaprop, by the way, is also the inspiration for Mrs Loveday in Adventure Island.)

Wendy Craig playing Mrs Malaprop in the RSC’s 2000 production, directed by Lyndsay Posner. Photograph: John Haynes/RSC
4. In 1800, an unfortunate lady called Rose Aylmer ate too much pineapple and died of a stomach complaint. She was buried (rather cruelly) in a pineapple-shaped tomb in Bombay (apparently you can still visit it; it's on my bucket list!)

5. Pineapple diets were very popular among glamorous Hollywood starlets in the 1920s and 1930s; one such was the Lamb Chop and Pineapple Diet. No prizes for guessing which two foods you had to eat three times a day! (Fresh pineapple does actually contain an enzyme called bromelain, which helps with breakdown and absorption of proteins in the stomach.)

6. In 1947 the future Queen Elizabeth received 500 cases of canned pineapple as a wedding present from the government of Australia. I wonder whether she used them to make lots and lots of these?

7. Canned pineapple (mainly from Hawaii) became very popular in the twentieth century. In the 1950s advertising campaigns included some rather delicious serving suggestions. How about Canned Pineapple and Baked Beans: ‘Elegant enough to serve to company,’ ran the strapline,  ‘Easy enough to fix just for the family.” Yum.

8. The most common pollinator of the pineapple (in the wild) is the hummingbird.

9. A pineapple is not, strictly speaking, a fruit. It is made up of 100-200 fruitlets. The individual fruit segments of a pineapple interlock in two helices, 8 in one direction, 13 in the other, each of which is a Fibonacci number (but you knew that, of course.)

10. The biggest pineapple ever recorded was grown in Australia in 2011. It weighed a humungous 8.28kg, (18.25lbs). That rather puts my mystery pineapple in the shade; King George only weighed 7lb, 2 oz.

Fruit towers topped by pineapples are still traditional Christmas decorations in Williamsburg, Viginia, USA: thebluebirdcollection-com
If, like me, you are now slightly obsessed with pineapples, do look out for the excellent source of all pineapple-knowledge; The Pineapple, King of Fruits, by Fran Beauman. Or, if you’d like more Georgian pineapple-themed mystery, there is a great (adult) crime novel called The Serpent in the Garden, by Jane Gleeson (and yes, there’s a body in the pinery-vinery . . .)

You can also arm yourself with heaps more fascinating facts – about pineapples and the eighteenth century world of my story - to entertain your family and wow your friends, by checking out my Pineapple Plot pinterest board.

Now, anyone for pineapple and baked beans?

Monday, 23 May 2016

#CoverKidsBooks – Experts

How important is children's literature in the wider culture?  Why should the media be interested in it at all?  #CoverKidsBooks talked to some experts about these questions.

We interviewed Amanda Craig, novelist and children's literature critic for the New Statesman, and former children's literature critic for The Times and The Independent On Sunday; Natasha Harding, books columnist for The Sun; Daniel Hahn, a writer and translator who has edited The Oxford Companion To Children's Literature and The Ultimate Book Guides, and is a former Chair of the Society Of Authors; Charlotte Eyre, Children's Editor of The Bookseller magazine and Chair of the YA Book Prize; and Dr Catherine Butler, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Cardiff University, specialising in children's literature.

Why are children's books important?

Amanda Craig: You fall in love with reading through children's books.  They are an art form; they're fantastically sophisticated artefacts.  And your personality is formed by them.  When you find a great book that speaks to you, you're never the same.  These are life-changing experiences and they should be part of every civilised culture's gift to every child.   

Catherine Butler: There are two main reasons.  The first is the intrinsic quality of many children's books; it's a form that has attracted some of our best writers.  The second is that they are fundamental in nurturing an interest in reading and in shaping our sense of language, story and character – all of which are prerequisite to an enjoyment of literature for adults.  In the edifice of literature, children's books are the cornerstone.

Natasha Harding: My son is a voracious reader, and I've seen how far ahead he is because of it, on every level.  Equally, I've got friends whose children don't read, and they're not doing as well.  So I think it's important to try and get the message across about all the wonderful children's books that are out there.

Charlotte Eyre: If you catch a child with the right book at the right age, you'll have a reader for life.  And Britain is one of the best countries in the world at children's books.  If you look at the classics – Roald Dahl, JK Rowling – these are loved all over the world.  When Chinese publishers buy children's books from other countries, the number one country they go to is the UK.  It's an amazing cultural product that we have.  It's also a huge part of the books industry in general: 33% of sales.  And yet there seems to be this attitude of, "Oh, it's just children's books" – which is totally daft, really.

Daniel Hahn: I don't think people should indiscriminately read children's books, but I think people who like good books should recognise that some of the good ones are not in fact written by Jonathan Franzen.  I don't understand how you can be interested in the kind of graphic novel that is sold for adults and not think that Where The Wild Things Are is possibly the best piece of storytelling you have ever seen, because it says it's for children and doesn't have many words in it. 

"In the edifice of literature, children's books are the cornerstone"

Can children's literature be literature?  Can it be of interest to adults?

DH: I review them in the same way I would review any piece of fiction.  When the Oxford Companion came out, I kept being asked, "What makes a good children's book?"  And I kept saying, "It's what makes a good book!  It has to have the right words in it, and they have to be in the right order, and there is nothing more mysterious than that." 

AC: I treat it as seriously as I treat literary fiction or biography or any other form.

NH: Absolutely it's literature!  It's all writing.  Actually, I think it's harder to write for children, because you have to be succinct; you don't have 50 pages to draw your reader in.  And children's books can be really enjoyable for adults too.  I love reading them myself.  I mean, how phenomenal was Wonder?

Why is media coverage of children's books important?

CB: Most children's books are bought by adults, and for this reason alone it's important that children's books are reviewed and more generally covered in adult media outlets such as newspapers.  Even if children's books were only read by children – which is assuredly not the case! – adults would need the resources to be able to choose wisely.

CE: At the moment, only a very few books get talked about, and all the rest get ignored.  Bookshops are closing down, libraries are closing down, so children don't have as many options there.  A really good newspaper article can help guide parents in the right direction.  They can find this stuff online, of course, but newspapers are read by people who don't know that they're looking for children's book reviews, and I think that's really crucial.  Children's books need to be talked about where they're going to reach people who weren't necessarily looking.

DH: I think probably we have the right book for anyone out there, but how they find it if we only ever review the same few books is slightly problematic.  I think Julia Donaldson is wonderful, but I don't think she is in fact the only person writing picture books.  With more space, there's space for more range. 

NH: I'm not necessarily saying 7 year olds are reading The Sun, but their parents might be, their aunts, uncles, grandparents.  And as much as there are amazing blogs out there, would a 70 year old know how to find a blog about books?  No, they probably wouldn't.  So that's why it has to be in the newspaper, and as a newspaper, I think we actually have a responsibility to cover children's books.  I don't think we can go, "Oh well, maybe next week…"

AC: I think the problem with a number of national newspapers is that they're edited by middle-aged men who have studied history and politics at university, and they've gone into newspapers because that is their passion, and the only books they are interested in are history and political biography.  Those can be perfectly interesting – but what this overlooks is that there is a whole huge audience for newspapers which consists of people who have children or grandchildren, and people who read the books pages are particularly interested in finding books for them.

"As a newspaper, I think we actually have a responsibility to cover children's books"

Can you think of an example of coverage making a difference?

AC: I was always told that when I reviewed a book, it would go up a lot in sales.  I know championing people like Anthony Horowitz, Cressida Cowell, Michelle Paver made a difference.  I picked up The Hunger Games when nobody else was touching it.  It had a terrible jacket, and I made it Book Of The Year, and people were slightly embarrassed.  They said: "Amanda, are you sure this is a serious book?" And I said, "Yes! This is it!"   That happened because I kept pushing it.  When I get passionate about a book, I get very determined that as many people as possible will hear about it.  I was one of the first people to review Harry Potter, and I was told by JK Rowling's agent that she's got that review stuck to her wall! 

NH: I'm always a bit dumbfounded when people say to me, "I've seen a massive surge in sales," but lots of people have said it.  Holly Smale, who writes Geek Girl: I was the first journalist to give her an interview, and she's always said to me it made a massive difference to her career.  Apparently it does really help.  But my thing is, if I make a difference to one child a week – if one child's book is bought on the back of my page – I feel like I'm doing something positive.

Our research shows that children's books typically get 3% of newspaper review space, despite accounting for over 30% of the market.  How do you feel about this under-representation?

CE: It just shows that the media haven't moved with the times.  If you speak to someone like Barry Cunningham, who was the first editor of Harry Potter – he famously told JK Rowling not to give up the day job.  No-one wanted to publish children's books then, because they thought they weren't selling.  But there've been huge developments.  Business is booming.  The industry is growing every year in terms of sales.  This year, already, we're 7% up on the first part of 2015.  So the fact that the media's still got this idea that it's this small, irrelevant industry – they just haven't caught up. 

NH: It's a real pity that it's so low, because the market is so vibrant, and there are so many wonderful books out there.  You could never say, "I couldn't find a children's book this week!"  I do think that all the newspapers and the magazines should have some kind of children's coverage – even if it is just one book a week – but something regular.  I think that's the key: regularity.  Because people then look for it.

AC: I feel absolutely outraged and I think they need their heads examined!  It's heart-breaking, because every parent and grandparent and teacher longs for children to fall in love with books, and how are they going to do that if they don't know what books to get? 

CB: I see an unfortunate tendency on the part of some (perhaps rather insecure) adults to try to prove their own maturity by actively denigrating literature for the young.  I will take the opportunity to quote CS Lewis on the subject, from his 1952 essay, On Three Ways of Writing for Children: "When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."  That nails it, I think.

"Business is booming.  The industry is growing every year"

What would you like to see the media do in order to #CoverKidsBooks?

AC: I would like to see at least a page every week devoted to children's books. Maybe they should do it on a different day; don't do it on Saturday, do it on Monday, when there's no news.  Why not?  Anything that gets it going, why not?  And also think about the people who write these books.  They're really interesting, they've often got fascinating stories to tell.  They're worthy of being interviewed in their own right. 

DH: The thing I'd most want is for them to treat it the way they treat other things.  And do more!  The more the better.  And everywhere.  Big TV shows!  I would love someone to do a six-part history of British children's literature: Alice In Wonderland to the present.

CE: It'd be nice to have a bit more critical coverage.  All industries need healthy criticism.  I also think the media should pay more attention to children's books as a business.  There's the idea that "It's for children, isn't that sweet?" – whereas actually, there are multi-million pound businesses behind this, with very well-paid publishers flying all over the world selling British children's books, because they're one of our finest cultural exports! 

CB: It's important to acknowledge that there has been some progress.  I don't think we'll ever go back to the days when, for example, children's books were officially ineligible to win the Costa Book Award.  All the same, it would be nice if they were seriously considered for the Man Booker, too!  We all owe it to good books of whatever stripe to recognize their quality.

#CoverKidsBooks invites you to join in a public conversation about children's books.  Leave a comment, write a blog of your own, or tweet about it using the hashtag.  Tell us why children's books matter to you, and what you'd like to see the media do to #CoverKidsBooks!