Ian Whybrow

…coming soon…

March 27th 2015 Of Meerkats and Men

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I’d forgotten that yesterday was publication-day for a new picture book. “That Naughty Meerkat” it’s called and it follows on from a series of children’s novels beginning with “Meerkat Madness”. Furry-chested, yes; but not exactly hairy-chested titles. Still, I remember that years ago my first picture book that I had entitled “This Little Baby” was launched as “Quacky Quack-Quack!” and how tortured I was at the time about having to explain myself at parties. “A writer, eh? So what IS your latest book…?”

Ah well, the consolation is that mums, aunties, grannies and elder sisters like ducks and meerkats – and they’re the ones who buy books for small children. And what a treat to find a presentation-box of Tattinger thrust into my hand by a man in a van as a good-luck gift from Harper Collins!

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To the RAF Club in Piccadilly in the evening – and you can’t get more hairy chested than that. It was for the launch of a marvellous book called Six Weeks of a Blenheim Summer – the autobiographical memoire of , Alastair Panton’s experiences as a young reconnaissance pilot-officer, during the Battle of France in 1940 and as a prisoner of war. It had been hidden away for years since it was a record of a defeat: 1000 planes were lost; Panton was shot down four times in four months; the Lancastria – a troopship – was sunk and all 4000 men killed. These were terrible losses (the latter, the most complete disaster of the war, perhaps) and went unreported for fear of demoralizing the nation. The shameful truth is that they are still unknown to most of us. Thank goodness, then for Victoria Panton Bacon, his granddaughter, who wrote a scholarly foreword for it and found a publisher for it, so determined was she that this lost piece of history should see the light of day.

Apart from Victoria who spoke very movingly, among other distinguished speakers and supporters of the book were  a minister of the crown, several high-ranking RAF officers – including an incredibly vivacious 91 year-old survivor of the Long March who was just about to tell me the details of a happy diversion via a brothel when he was button-holed by another admirer – was Louis de Bernieres. In his speech he described the debacle of the Battle of France as Part II of WW1, where Hitler did what the Kaiser wanted to do – which was to push through to the coast – and in only 11 days. This was achieved largely because the Fuehrer’s generals were wise enough to ignore his direct orders and equally because, although the French tanks were superior to the Germans’, the latter were fitted with radios. In other words, they had the advantage that they could summon an air-strike in ten minutes.

I was fascinated by this and had a little chat with L de B. It’s a measure of his generosity that he asked me what I did. I went all Quacky-Quack-Quack, of course, feeling a bit of a sub-species in the presence of the real thing. At which point he whipped out his notebook and got me to write a little message to his children who, he assured me, were great Harry and the Bucketful fans when they were younger. Incidentally, he expressed (naturally) an admiration for Joanna Lumley who was among the well-wishers and busily engaged elsewhere in the ballroom. Fired up now, and summoning hitherto suppressed reserves of testosterone, I extricated her and steered her in his direction. It was the least I could do.

March 26 2015 Books and Chocolate T-Rexes

March 27, 2015 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

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To Kingsway Jr in Watford to rally the reading troops yesterday morning. Another initiative from Sheryl at the outstanding Chorley Wood bookshop to whom I’m most grateful for creating a buzz about books, mine among them.

Off at a gallop from thence to take two of my grandchildren to see Sam Mendes’ musical production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. I have to say I don’t quite get Willy Wonka – played by the great Alex Jennings in a way that reminds you of Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady” – not only in the way he delivers the songs but in his menace and cynicism. He appears to despatch Veruka, Augustus and the other child-horrors for being pains-in the neck and then to reward Charlie for his imagination… rather than being an all-round decent little chap. A factory full of chocs for having an imagination? Hmm.

Shrewd operator that Dahl, the way he encourage children to adore him when he clearly can’t stand ‘em . And well played the Dahl machine for pumping out the product. The entire theatre is devoted to product placement. Chocolate and Charlie have become inexorably mingled.

Am working on a close association between dinosaurs and buckets. Maybe chocolate buckets …

Anyway – nice to see that Lindt is making chocolate T-rexes.













March 19th, 2015. On Kings, Ely and the Parlous State of our Cathedrals

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To Kings Ely Acremont yesterday – a pre-prep with bags of life and charm. Proper coffee as soon as you stepped through the door; that sort of thing. And your own box of Jaffacakes.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the large number of nursery children who turned up for the first session and although I’ve coped before with 3 year-olds many times before, a proper gaggles of them is a bit of an unknown quantity. You have to get used to being suddenly engaged in a earnest and confidential conversation across a crowded hall and in mid-flow, about the relative fierceness of certain dinosaurs, what somebody’s brother once did and how many books somebody else has got at home, accompanied by a short threnody on the noises lamented characters used to make. Keeps you on your toes, though.

Took a trip to the cathedral during my early lunch break- partly to walk off a generous roast that I shared with five jolly dinner ladies who rhapsodized about watching Harry on telly with their infants.

It was nippy outside, the fog that drifted over the fen beyond Cambridge having been huffed away by a biting easterly. I reckoned I had half an hour to get round – admire the miraculous octagon again, check out the biggest Lady Chapel in the country, that sort of thing. Not much warmer inside, though. A smile and a welcome from two shivering ladies in sashes who regretted the dear old standard issue gowns that used to keep the chill off. “Through that little gateway,that’s the way.”

“Hello! That’ll be £8.00, sir.”

I abandoned all pride and demanded a concession.

“Really?Are you sure?”

Flattery would normally have done the trick, but as Handcock might have spluttered… “Six quid? I could get meself a chantry for that!”

One is moved to verse.


Desperate Measures

Six pound, the concession, sir.

Forget about the chantry.

Just have a squizz at the octagon

And a nice cuppa tea in the pantry.

March 16th 2015. A Little Touch of Harry (and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs) in the night…

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More request-letters from small fans today – tis the season – and this time unusually challenging.

A class teacher from Penarth was doing a pilot project based on the study of picture books with her Year5/6ers. Then a letter turned up from a Literacy Specialist within the Central South Consortium declaring that there would be action taken on the school if the children continued to read these unsuitable texts.

I ars kew! Action against an initiative to look at what picture books are for, how they work? Le chat, as they say in Wales, etait parmi les pigeons.

Anyway, I sent a couple of girls who wrote to me a supportive email explaining a little about my thinking when it came to writing some of the texts they like:

Dear Edie and Jessica

I’m very sorry to be so late in replying to your beautifully written and interesting letters. This is a busy time for children’s authors and I’ve just dug you out from the bottom of a pile in my in-tray.

I entirely agree with you both that it’s a very interesting idea for older children to make a study of picture books. When I write one, I try to bear in mind that there’s an adult or older person reading it with the 2/3/4/5 year-old – so I have to try to engage both readers.

Edie mentions Harry and the Snow King. Ask a youngster where the snowpeople come from and they’ll tell you – “From the sky!” or “The Snowking sent them.” The important thing to them is the magic. An older person, however, can work out that Mr Oakley being a farmer as well as a friend of the family, sympathises with a little boy who doesn’t understand where his snowman has gone. He tells the boy not to give up hope – having looked up at the clouds and guessed – with his farmer’s experienced eye – that more snow is on the way. A slightly younger person may suspect that Sam put the snow people in the yard – but they will have overlooked the conflict between the children. So the story is about hope and its rewards – and about the kindness of understanding fellow humans; and it provides plenty of things to talk about.

Similarly, a 5 year-old won’t appreciate that Harry and the Robots is partly a story about death. Nan is hospitalised and may not recover but is given a new lease of life by her grandchild’s faith in the robots he builds in order to blast her cough. For little children, the story is about robots that come to life and are commanded by a small boy; about the good feelings that controlling things bring. For older people, the story is about the power of love and belief and the possibility of new life (resurrection, even). I was considering having Nan die in the book but the publishers insisted that Nan should be around for more books – so I had the robot “die” and then get restored to life.

I’m a firm believer in sharing books – in books providing opportunities for conversation. 80% of parents – according to Professor Winston – never have a conversation with their children about things that matter. A book that opens a door (maybe not while the story’s being read but later perhaps) to a conversation about matters of life and death, one that provides a chance to deal with loss or the potential loss of a grandparent, say; surely that deserves some attention.

About “Splash”. Here the story is (for a youngster) about mucking around in a swimming pool with a gang of fun-loving dino-chums and Nan; about the joy of swimming. However, it’s also about self-consciousness and about two people helping each other overcome fears and anxieties. Like my mother, Nan fears that she’s too old and ugly to be seen in a swimming costume. However, she sees how nervous Harry is about the water (having been knocked over by a wave) and realises that he needs help to get his confidence back. To that end, she sets aside her worries and buys a costume. (Incidentally, a small child won’t notice that Harry’s scared; only that the dinosaurs are nervous. The dinos help Harry and the child-reader cope by allowing their anxieties to be put on others.)


There’s plenty more to say, of course and I hope other correspondents will. I’m just dis custard of Middlesex.

March 15th, 2015. Nice Turns of Phrase & a Glimmer of Hope for Picture Books

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At 94, my mother-in-law can be Shakespearean. “That wind is naughty,” she says. Her arthritic fingers are often dismissed as equally worthless – as are the last twinges of the shingles that got its talons into her back in September. Naughty, naughty.

“’tis a naughty night to swim in,” the Fool warns Lear as he starts to strip off his clothes. And there it is: “naughty” stripped to its origins. Like a zero; worth nothing; of no account at all.

I love that sort of discovery – which reminds me: must order up Robert Macfarlane’s latest – Landmarks. So it was a treat to have presented to me a phrase that I simply could not unpick but that was used unselfconsciously in an email I received recently from Andy Davidson, a Year 2 teacher at the British School in Jakarta, asking me if I would like to read some of the letters his class have written about Harry.

He was generous to a fault about the books, providing not only a thoughtful summary of some of the things his children got out of them – but a defence of picture books threatened by modern technology, so I’ll quote him.

“Attached are a selection of (mixed ability) letters to you.

We have had a wonderful time unpacking your books – looking for familiar happenings and words regularly used. Definitely and Endosaurus are used with abandon by my Snakes now. They love the conflict between Sam and Harry – and loved it when Nan got involved in putting Sam’s gas at a peep in the Splash book. Next week we will be attempting to write a story using Harry. Thank you so much once again for providing the wonderful stories as a catalyst. My Snakes’ letters are pretty good too…


Third Culture (Techie) children can still be charmed by a good old fashioned picture book!”


Now there’s an encouragement. And naturally, I had to ask him what he meant by “putting Sam’s gas at a peep.

Here’s his answer


“My mother used this phrase a lot.

PEEP: A tiny light or flame, the lowest level at which a gas flame can be at without going out, hence the phrase PUT SOMEONE’S GAS AT A PEEP to cut someone down to size, to put someone in their place, to take someone down a peg.”


My correspondents want to know what happened to Harry’s dad. If only I could take up their invitation to drop by and read them one of my books. If I could afford the fare I’d be off like a gos from an austringer’s glove.














Mar 11th 2015. A Small Blow for Higher Literacy Rates. www.literacytrust.org.uk

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The big green Cyclone van turned up at 8.40 this morning. Took away my old man. Felt like it, anyway. Twenty-five years-worth of foreign editions in a dozen boxes. I know it was vanity that kept them on my shelves and they’ll do better to be read than sit there reminding me of the absurdity of clinging to them like Silas Marner.

“You are only one of many and of poor account if any,” saith the poet. Stevie Smith, that is. To argue with myself that they might be worth a few bob – or of value to my grandchildren (who will probably be living in largely book-free homes) was crazy. And it was painfully easy to get the boxes from Waitrose. Nuff said. I have trusted the books to the National Literacy Trust. In case anyone else is teetering on the brink in this regard, here are the details.

Jason Vit: Literacy Hubs Manager 020 7820 6273


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March 8th 2015. De-cluttering my bookshelves and other evacuations

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                 “Now I am chesty, chilled, confin’d,

Clogged up by saucy bouts and smears… “

                                                                 (Macbeth [ Nastikoff version])

The insidious little creatures that began to moss my bronchus on Friday 13th February have never really been away. Sometimes they take cover for a short while but encouraged by my regular outings to various schools, and clearly irritated by my incessant chatter, they revenge themselves by morphing to green slimy things with fish-hook feet. And now my darling is rendered horizontal by their cousins who have invaded and occupied her nasal passages. The tissues that she has stuffed up her nostrils to thwart their flow puff like poached eggs, like ectoplasm. She is reading Donna Tartt for comfort and I have turned to “H is for Hawk”. I love it. It is so steeped in Shakespeare and particularly in the madness of Hamlet; so tender towards the unhinged TH White and towards the thankless, savage otherness of a goshawk – that one cannot but feel privileged, like Conrad’s Marlowe when he meets Mistah Kurtz, to have peeped over the edge and seen proper horror without actually having to descend personally to the lower depths.

Away man-flu and woman-flu! Apart from that we’re fine.

Well, nearly; because I’m feeling very torn about parting with my foreign editions. Being bunged up and de-cluttering are clearly inter-related in some Freudian way and I am determined to stop hoarding the books and put them to work. I am going to give them to the people from the Literacy Trust who, working in the poorest wards of Bradford, Middlesbrough and Peterborough, aim to break the cycle of inter-generational low literacy by encouraging parents and children – on the cusp of coping with English as their second language – to enjoy reading together.

I have torn my books kicking and screaming from the shelves, noted what language each one speaks, stamped them all with a little library stamp that I’ve never used before and signed them – as an earnest of my devotion to them. Now they’re piled up in the hall waiting for boxes, almost ready to fly free.


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The hard thing now is actually to go out and get the boxes…

March 4th, 2015. Witnesses

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March 4th, 2015. Witnesses


Up betimes and off to Woodford – a testing trek by mini-cab and tube across practically the whole of North London. The children of Woodford Green Prep were entirely cheery and encouragingly attentive even when cramped together on hard floors in small spaces and made it all worthwhile.

Only when I reached the iron gate of the school did I have a faint sense of deja -vu – a feeling that quickly evaporated as I was led through unfamiliar labyrinthine corridors to the library.

At the end of the day, someone produced a couple of photographs of myself – looking just as raggy-haired and haggard as I felt today – doing my stuff in 2009. I had – and have – no memory of that first visit. Unnerving.

As long as I don’t turn into a weird old geezer like the fellow I saw last Sunday in the otherwise deserted market square of Sudbury in Suffolk. It was sunny but there was a cold wind blowing and there he was, sitting quietly on a bench wearing no coat or sweater, just an open jacket and shirt. I felt compelled to ask him whether he wasn’t cold, at which point he stood up and talked as if we were well known to each other and in the middle of a conversation.

I was spooked.This came out.



No other soul in Sudbury that Sunday;

Only a man who I thought old

(so white his silky beard) benched by himself.

He wore no coat though it was bitter cold.

I asked him was he warm enough.

He stood, his eyes behind blue glasses steady,

And spoke as if we were good friends already.

“That’s where she died,” he said.

He looked toward the buildings, tall behind me.

Two thoughts crossed my mind. Who? Had she jumped, then?

“Jehovah’s Witness, see? He wouldn’t have her in the house.

He threw her out. She drowned herself in the river over there.

He shouldn’a bin so harsh on her but then

They’re terrible, them witnesses.”

I nodded, muttered Terrible and hurried on –

A witnesses now myself, though an unwilling one.

Feb 28th, 2015. Fitness, Fastness and a Shrinking Latvian Chum

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Still able to play the sympathy card when I went to Hemel on Thursday to spend the day at Galley Hill Pri. it’s easy when you sound like the creature from the lagoon.

Invited by Emily the Literacy Co-ordinator to bring her 3 year-olds along to a session with Years 1 and 2, the lady who ran the afternoon nursery session very wisely decided that she would wait until she heard from the morning lady how her smalls got on with me. Come the afternoon, they turned up, the children blinking up apprehensively as 3 year-olds and baby owls do when they’re sat in a row in a strange room. The reports can’t have been too bad, then.

My darling has decided to fast on Tuesdays and Thursdays, inspired by a visit to old Latvian chums in Kington last week. Viktor had slimmed impressively by employing this method and Biruta assured us, “He gets ratty only in efenings”; so Ann decided that she’d give it a go. Biruta doesn’t say much. But she does like to get her oar in now and then. For example, Viktor was lamenting something that his put-upon- by- Nazis- and- Russians dad had told him “before he died…”

“Oh!” put in Biruta sweetly. “BEFORE he died, was it?”

Ann thought this was particularly neat, so I am expecting one or two chastening sideswipes as well as a more sylph-like companion.

Neatness of figure must have been on my mind this morning when I saw two mallards flying over Long Melford at astonishing speed early this morning:



One More Slice?

Those two ducks that just flew past

had their skates on!

How fat can you be and still go fast?

The debate’s on.



February 26th 2015. Animals: What is the Point of Them? The Unfluffy Truth.

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For the past few days I’ve been incapable of coherent thought and without motivation. It’s me chest, doctor. And me doze. Gawd, the stuff I’ve bin a-corfin up. I blame it on the Guernesaiaise. I spent a week among those Channel Islanders between Feb 9 and 13 visiting three primary schools a day in regions as much as twenty-five minutes from St Peter Port, to talk about my books for one of the best Schools Library Services still in business with professionally trained children’s librarians regularly seconded to schools to advise and direct reading . Sadly, there are not many of these left on the mainland and our children are the poorer for it.

Anyway. Those schools. And all that time ago. Delightful establishments they were, every one of them, but there is a rule that I always overlook until it’s too late: it states that the younger and more  innocent-looking the kids in the audience, the more potent , gripping and poisonous their germs. What I am suffering from is the authorial equivalent of farmers lung or pneumoconiosis. Every fule know that.

I did manage a short visit to St Martin’s Prep in Northwood on Tuesday 24th Feb but had to cut my losses and pack as many small boys as possible into a combined session in their splendid hall. I played the sympathy card, natch, and they responded with a quiet and intense attention – except during the Raaahry bits – that was humbling. Oh, come off it; it swelled the head, temporarily cleared the pipes and got the blood squirting round nicely.

The theme was animals, so that was alright; they got dinosaurs, endangered creatures, small wolves, meerkats, heroic hamsters, the lot – animals being the stock-in-trade of writers who need, not just to co-edition but simply to get published as children’s writers these days, while avoiding the problems that writing about humans incur – such as appealing to a particular race or sex; acting independently of parents; discovering secrets; doing daring things like rowing a boat, cycling through the countryside or the city, swimming without supervision in a lake, climbing up things, striking up relationships with strangers, etc. In other words, animals can get away with the things that health and safety rules and political correctness no longer permit. Of course, you can stay out of trouble by writing fantasy, by being facetious and exaggerated and by shifting the action to another time – but these modes don’t necessarily suit the readership or match the writer’s shifting sensibility. Oo, it’s a demanding bizz, this.

By the way, if in your germy state you visit (as plagues are said to visit) independent schools, naturally you get a kind and attentive minder like Dawn Davies here, but every now and then you get one of these, too … your own parking space.




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I’m off to Hemel today to Galley Hill Primary today. Softly I go now. Pad, pad. Cough cough.

Space! I must have space!