With the latest in the series out next month, Rebecca Moore caught up with Liz Pichon to find out more about the inspiration behind the books.
How did you first get into writing?
I always loved writing stories when I was at school. But it was only when asked to illustrate other people’s stories that I thought maybe I should try and write my own. My first attempts were a bit rubbish but I kept at it and my first book, Square Eyed Pat about a dog who watched too much TV, was published in 2005.
The Tom Gates series is very original, how did the idea come about?
It started off as a picture book idea and morphed over several re-writes into a book for older children. I wrote the first draft in a school exercise book while imagining Tom was writing his own homework. Mr Fullerman (his teacher) added his comments next to Tom’s doodles.
The series has taken the book world by storm. How closely does Tom’s childhood echo your own?
Very closely! Lots of the ideas in the books come from my own life, some from my family and my kids’ lives as well. I get ideas from other places like listening to the radio or visiting schools – I write them down or stick them on post it notes and dot them around my shed to jog my memory when I’m thinking of plot lines for the next book.
Tell us some more about your family.
There’s never a dull moment in our house in Brighton. Mark and I have been married for nearly 25 years. We have three children: Lily, 16, Ella, 20 and Zak who’s 23, so not really a kid, he’s six feet tall and looms over me now. I’m fascinated by families, I don’t think there’s any such thing as a normal family.
What is your strongest memory of school as a child?
I have loads of memories of primary school, mostly good, apart from Wednesday’s school dinners, which was always salad, and what I really mean is: half a boiled egg stained pink from the grated beetroot, grated carrot, grated cheese, slimy wet lettuce and a nasty dollop of salad cream. Just talking about it has made me feel ill, but that’s what salad looked like in the 1970s at my school. Thankfully most of my teachers were fantastic and very creative, which suited me nicely as I was hopeless at spelling and maths. Miss Taylor did a times table quiz every day and if there was one I actually knew my hand would shoot up so fast my arm would almost come out of its socket. I still can’t remember my times tables today.
What were your favourite reads as a child and why?
I loved The Twits by Roald Dahl because of the drawings and it was really funny. Silly Verse for Kids by Spike Milligan made me want to write my own poems.
Being a born and bred Londoner, when you return to the capital where are your favourite haunts?
The South Bank has a bit of everything, now I live out of London I think I appreciate it more. The view from Blackfriars when you’re on the train going over the Thames – it’s stunning. I love London markets too, like Camden Lock and St Martin-in-the-Fields, I used to sell my own t-shirt designs at a few of them. But my favourite place when I was at school was the Ladies’ Ponds over at Hampstead. My neighbour Mrs Bennet used to take me and her daughters there when I was eight. We would just jump in and swim and there were rumours about pike biting your toes.
What did you do before books?
I suppose my first ‘real’ job was working at Jive Records in London. I used to design album covers along with all kinds of other promotional stuff. I then went freelance to do more illustration work.
Why did you decide to write from a boy’s point of view?
I wanted both boys and girls to read my books and sometimes if you write as a girl, publishers can make the covers too girly and pink then boys won’t go near them.
Your books have won a number of awards, which are you most proud of?
I’m proud of all of them! Especially the ones that are voted for by children; that’s always amazing. But the one that really kick started everything was the Roald Dahl Funny Prize in 2011.
The Tom Gates books are great for visual learners and children with dyslexia. What advice would you have for parents of dyslexic children?
My son is severely dyslexic and we ended up having to go to a tribunal to get him a place at a specialist school. The best bit of advice we had was from a solicitor who suggested we kept a diary of all the ways his dyslexia was affecting his life. We knew he was struggling but seeing it in black and white, every comment he made and how he wasn’t able to access most of the work he was expected to do was a real eye opener and it helped us a lot at the tribunal. Dyslexia shouldn’t rule anybody’s life, you just have to find ways around it.
And… we can’t resist, can you spill the beans on the next in the series?
It’s called: Yes! No (Maybe…) and is out in May, so watch this space.