“I can honestly say I’ve never worked so hard and I’ve never had so much fun as I have in the past six years,” says Liz Pichon, author of the ￼￼Tom Gates series. Since the publication of the first book, The Brilliant World of Tom Gates, in 2011, the comic middle-grade series about a schoolboy’s life and adventures has sold 3.2 million copies in the UK through Nielsen BookScan.
This autumn sees the release of the 13th title in the series, Tom Gates’ Epic Adventure (Kind of) (October, Scholastic). In it, Tom gets to know his maternal grandparents better, characters that Pichon introduced last year. She says: “I realised I’d been writing a lot about his dad’s parents, who are called ‘The Fossils’, and not mentioning his mum’s parents, who were away travelling. He’s discovering a lot more about his new grandparents, who he’s nicknamed ‘The Wrinklies’.”
Tom’s family decides to go on an outing, which he is very excited about, but it doesn’t quite go to plan. Pichon explains: “Tom thinks it’s going to be really adventurous, but they end up going to a very gloomy castle where they’re told not to touch anything or go anywhere, and everything is expensive...and then they get lost in a maze.”
The family trip coincides with a tropical disco being held at Tom’s school, which all his friends have been looking forward to. Though he plans to go along after the outing, he falls asleep on the way home and gets stuck in traffic, meaning he misses out. “It’s just one disaster after another,” Pichon says.
Observations of family life are a staple of the Tom Gates books and they are often drawn from Pichon’s own experiences. She says: “A lot of the things I put in the books actually happened to me as a kid. I also think about the stuff my own kids did and I’m always listening out for conversations and writing down things I see in the papers or from watching kids on school visits.”
This realism seems to strike a chord with readers. “Children seem to really relate to the character of Tom, his school life and the family relationships. Even parents tell me that they can recognise the little things that I write about that happen to everybody.”
Another appeal of the books is the lively way in which Pichon blends text in different fonts with illustration. She says: “When I developed the style of drawing, I really imagined Tom was doodling in a school exercise book. One of the unexpected pleasures for me is that a lot of the kids can copy the style of illustration. It’s almost like they own the books now, they feel like they’re invested in them.”
A winning draw
Pichon creates every page as a separate piece of artwork and often brainstorms ideas for the text and the illustrations at the same time. “I’m trying to give the series a picture book feel, in a way. Having worked on lots of picture books, I always thought it was a shame that when you got to the next age level, lots of books didn’t have many pictures in them. Illustrations help to tell a story and bring it to life. Being an avid comic reader, I thought it would be really fun to include them.”
Visual gags in this book include a blank page because Tom is using a secret agent pen (meaning his writing can only be read by UV light). “This obviously gives him an excuse to pretend he’s done his homework already and that his teacher can’t see it because he doesn’t have the right light.”
Tom also gets a haircut in the book. “It’s the ultimate embarrassment; he’s with both of his grannies and the hairdresser has clipped his hair up in a little bun and he’s sitting right in the window when his school friends walk past.” So he starts the book with hair that’s too long and spends the rest of it with hair that’s too short.
Pichon credits her publisher Scholastic for its flexibility in allowing her to be creative with the content of the books. “I always add little extras in at the back of the books, little things to make or quizzes and puzzles, and Scholastic is fine with it. It really is a team effort.”
She often receives feedback from parents (and children) praising the series’ accessibility for reluctant readers. She says: “It was never something I set out to do, but the extra visual element means that children who don’t like reading great big chunks of text or struggle to concentrate find these books quite easy to get into.”
Again, this aspect of the books is partly inspired by Pichon’s own life. Though she has never been formally diagnosed with dyslexia, her son was and she has exhibited many symptoms herself. She believes this is one of the reasons her work is so visual, but “it’s also one of the reasons that I never thought about writing books. I used to love writing stories when I was at school, but when you’re really hopeless at spelling and grammar, the joy gets squeezed out of it and you just assume that that’s not something you can do.”
Instead, Pichon studied graphic design and went on to create illustrations for magazines and design products such as T-shirts, record sleeves and greetings cards. She was approached by publishers to illustrate baby board and picture books, and before long she started thinking about writing her own picture books, because “if you’re just an illustrator, you always have to wait for someone to give you a job”. Her second picture book, My Big Brother, Boris (Scholastic) won the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize Silver Award, which gave her the confidence to keep writing.
Pichon originally conceived Tom Gates’ story as a picture book but as she was finding the voice for it, she realised that it was for older children. The change of style paid off. “When it first went out I got seven offers from different publishers in about two weeks, which had never happened before. It was the first time I’d ever written for that age group and I was completely delighted to get a three-book deal.”
The deal was soon extended beyond the initial trilogy and Pichon, who was the official illustrator for World Book Day’s 20th anniversary this year, is signed up to keep creating Tom Gates books until 2019.
A television adaptation of the Tom Gates series is currently in development with Black Camel Pictures and Red Kite Animation, which Pichon is “really excited about - we’re now at the stage of working out the storylines and exactly what it’s going to look like.”
She is also going on a nationwide tour (“Liz Pichon and the Tom Gates Brilliant Bands and Doodle Live Tour, 14th-28th October) to promote the new book, with musicians in tow posing as Tom’s favourite band, DUDE3, playing original songs inspired by the books.
Despite the series branching out into television and events, Pichon is clear that there is one direction she does not want it to go in - we will not see Tom get older. She says: “If he started to grow up, then the whole range of issues he faces would be completely different.” However, she adds: “I’ve thought about doing something where he was younger, so maybe in the future I’ll try to do a picture book about how he met the original characters. That would be fun to do.
“As long as I keep coming up with ideas and children are enjoying them, I think there’s lots of scope.”