Inside the brilliant world of a have-a-go hero

23rd December 2011 at 00:00
Funny prize winner Liz Pichon has doodled her way to success

Liz Pichon has long suspected her three children would swap her for a puppy, given half a chance. But even her youngest - a teenager - was impressed when her mum was on breakfast TV talking about her book. Not just any book, but the winner of this year's Roald Dahl Funny Prize, The Brilliant World of Tom Gates.

The book is about a doodler, Tom, who lists his hobbies as annoying his sister Delia, being in a band and eating caramel wafers. Ms Pichon wrote it long-hand in exercise books and the doodles are part of the story - the shadow of Tom's teacher Mr Fullerman looms at the top of the page. One of the book's joyous twists comes when it is revealed that Mr Fullerman has a life outside school. "Blimey," says Tom. "It came as a shock (especially the leather trousers)."

Ms Pichon, 48, remembers her own teachers as less exciting, although her background has a Dahlesque quality. Her father, Bud, met her mother, Joan, in India when he was an RAF pilot during the Second World War. Joan, who is half Burmese, had escaped the Japanese invasion of Burma by trekking across the Himalayas. The couple married and settled in a two-bed maisonette in north London. Bud was a travelling sweets salesman and would sometimes take young Liz, one of four children, with him.

She went to Brookfield Primary School in Highgate, which overlooks the famous cemetery. "If anyone wanted to be disruptive, they'd just shout out they had seen a ghost," she says. Primary school, it seems, was fun. She remembers having a fantastic art teacher in Year 6, Miss Taylor, and she also enjoyed creative writing (although she admits being hopeless at spelling) and music. "It came as a shock at secondary school when all that nice stuff stopped."

She attended St Augustine's in Kilburn, a new comprehensive that her primary teachers had heard good things about, but she clearly had a mixed experience. She left with just seven CSEs and one O-level in art, wondering how that would earn her a living.

"I like having a go at things," she says. "So, after leaving school and before I went to Kingsway college, I had a summer job in an art studio in New Bond Street. It was tiny but it was a proper commercial art studio and it gave an insight into what you could do in the commercial world." She left Kingsway with A-levels in art, textiles and English literature, and then a BA in graphic design at Camberwell Art College.

After college she worked as a designer at Jive Records, where she met her husband Mark Flannery, before going freelance. Her "have a go" philosophy saw her through. The couple were living in a shared flat in Cricklewood when she discovered she was pregnant with Zak, now 20. They ended up in a two-bedroom flat with three children, so in 2000 they moved to Brighton.

By this point Ms Pichon had illustrated some books and she found an agent, Caroline Walsh. In 2003, her first picture book was published: Square Eyed Pat, about a dog who watched too much television. She has now written nine picture books, picking up the Smarties Silver Award for her story about a teenage crocodile, My Big Brother, Boris.

The Brilliant World of Tom Gates was the product of two ideas: a scrapbook-style book for younger children and a story about a boy who kept a journal. The first book didn't have enough of a storyline, so Ms Pichon merged the ideas. When her agent saw the book she said: "Have you heard of Diary of a Wimpy Kid?"

Ms Pichon hadn't. Not then. But now it is the first question most children ask her.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney is a publishing phenomenon: the sixth instalment, Cabin Fever, was the fastest selling book of 2011 and its 500,000 initial print run the largest in Puffin's history. It is also one of a growing number of older children's books that create stories from a mix of illustrations and words. Earlier this year Shaun Tan's "illustrated modern fables" won the world's richest children's literature award, the #163;490,000 Astrid Lindgren prize, and Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret has been filmed by Martin Scorsese. In a screen-based world, being an artist is an increasingly sought-after skill.

Ms Pichon works, as Dahl did, in a shed where she can wear a tracksuit and use a pencil to keep her hair in place. The second Tom Gates book, Excellent Excuses and Other Good Stuff, is already out and she has just finished the third.

"I live a bit of a weird double life now," she says. "I spend my days sitting in a shed, then I send a book out and it takes on a life of its own. It's so nice to go to schools and see kids reading my books. But I can't quite believe it."

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