Liz Pichon: “I always thought the Tom Gates series would end very quickly” | Liz Pichon

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THEiz Pichon never thought that being a writer was a viable career path for her. The author and illustrator of Tom Gates – the instantly recognizable stories of the eponymous schoolboy who sold over 11 million copies and were adapted for television and the stage – was excellent at drawing, but didn’t believe that words were his thing.

“I loved writing stories when I was in school, but I was just hopeless in spelling, hopeless in grammar, so you remember that it’s something other people do,” she says. . “I could do the pictures, but I would never be able to write the stories.”

Pichon was “a child of the 1970s” and her obvious dyslexia went undiagnosed. “My school reports all said I was having trouble with reading, writing, math, everything – but it never really got on. Everyone looks like she’s brilliant, very enthusiastic, but her spelling is terrible!

Liz Pichon drew Tom Gates’ first book in a notebook. Photography: Liz Pichon

It wasn’t until she and her husband were investigating their son’s problems as a child – he is now 30 years old – that she became aware of her own dyslexia. “We found out he had different things like hearing problems, speech problems, and while we were going through the process with him, they were still talking to the parents, and everything they said was like, eh well, you are probably dyslexic. So I was never officially diagnosed, but my family always thought so.

Pichon, who zooms in on a plastered background of Tom Gates, wearing Tom Gates earrings, is as upbeat and cheerful as any true veteran of events with children. She has a background, she says, as a graphic designer, “but not very good, because I used to do all my graphic projects with illustration”. She worked on album cover design before she started illustrating greeting cards and T-shirts, “and then because I made a lot of greeting cards, publishers started contacting me to do books “.

She started with those of others, but then began to write her own picture books. Square-Eyed Pat, about TV Addicted Dog, was released in 2003, followed by My Big Brother Boris, in which Little Croc and his brother live in a swamp. “It doesn’t seem so cheerful now,” Pichon says of the title, but it won her the Smarties Award and made her think properly about the kind of book she would have loved to read herself when she was. child.

“I loved fun books and I was offered fun books to illustrate, but I figured if I wanted to illustrate one, I’d better write it myself,” she says. “I wasn’t able to write my own stories until my mid-forties. “

She wrote and drew the first Tom Gates in a notebook – she still has it and waves it to me – putting all of her childhood passions into it: music, doing things, drawing, doodling, having fun and doing nonsense. Tom, who is around 10 years old, strides forward to the fully formed page, informing the reader of his love of gossip and caramel wafers, his best friend Derek, his annoying sister Delia, his teacher Mr. Fullerman, filling in the boxes. pages of his doodles.

Tom dreams of a giant donut in Random Acts of Fun
Tom dreams of a giant donut in Random Acts of Fun. Photography: Liz Pichon / Scholastique

“I just wrote it in my handwriting and imagined Tom’s teacher was writing in his, so I had a lot of different fonts, a lot of different voices,” Pichon explains. “I treated almost every page in the book like a picture book page.” She sent it to publishers, who – seeing the success of Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid books, which Pichon hadn’t read at the time, and the potential for a UK version – jumped. Pichon received seven bids in two weeks, and The Brilliant World of Tom Gates won the Roald Dahl Funny Award when it was released in 2011.

“Mid-level books like Tom Gates never had so many illustrations. You’d have amazing picture books, then big, thick books – it was like, OK, now you’re on the right track, let’s get rid of those terrible illustrations, ”she says. “Now, there isn’t a mid-level book that doesn’t have different sized fonts, lots of illustrations. I totally agree – anything that motivates kids to engage and read.

Pichon loves showing kids how to draw, either in person or through the tutorials at the end of the books. “And they can also copy the designs, which look really complex but they’re very easy to do.”

She creates a story card for each book, noting small events that will take place during her story – Derek gets a dog; homework excuse; squirrel wars – and stuff them into funny stories. And they’re really funny – I’ve seen my eight-year-old daughter giggle on her own on many occasions, and even my 11-year-old hasn’t quite got past them yet, stealing them from her little sister. when she’s in the mood.

Ten years after the publication of Tom Gates’ first, 19th book, Random Acts of Fun – “Dating a kid who likes to eat sugar in a bowl.” (NOT fun.) Watching the squirrels steal stuff in the garden. (Who knew it would be VERY FUN?) ”- just came out, and Pichon has no plans to quit anytime soon.

“I’ve always been able to find new things to write about, and I think that’s because it’s not big, massive storylines, it’s family life,” Pichon says. “Because I’m independent and so is my husband, I’m so used to always trying to figure out what I’m going to do next and being on the limit. When in fact, when I had the opportunity to do it, I always thought it was going to end very quickly – I will do all three books, then someone else will do something and no one will. will want to read Tom Portes. “

Despite sales and readers around the world – Tom Gates has been translated into 45 languages ​​- that “panic” is still here. “I just guess it’s always going to end, and so with every book I really try to put new things in it. If I was a Tom Gates fan, what would I expect? What else can I put in the book that I think the kids would really like? “

This year also saw the launch of The Brilliant World of Tom Gates on Sky Kids TV, with voices such as Catherine Tate and Mark Bonnar – and Pichon herself doing her crafts and drawings; her parts were filmed during closings at her home studio with the help of her music producer husband. The second series will air in early 2022.

“Tom is going to be a bit like The Simpsons in that he’s just going to keep the same age, so I’m not very specific about his age,” Pichon says. “But it would be a whole different story if he went to high school – I’d probably rather write a new character if I had to, although I can imagine a Tom Gates: The Early Years. It would be fun, but for at the moment I have pretty much ideas for a few more books, and maybe a few more.


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