Pamela Butchart | 'Funny books can break down some of the barriers of children believing 'books aren’t for me''

Pamela Butchart | 'Funny books can break down some of the barriers of children believing 'books aren’t for me''

World Book Day is “a big deal, a real honour”, says Pamela Butchart when she chats to me from her Dundee home. As a teacher, she has seen first-hand the barriers children have to accessing books. “The school I work in is in a fairly deprived area. A large proportion [of children] have never been to a bookshop or owned a book. I champion World Book Day (WBD) because I know for a fact that for tons of kids that’s how they get their first book.” Her first title for WBD, The Baby Brother From Outer Space, is a 2018 WBD £1 book, and in February comes The Phantom Lollipop Man (Nosy Crow).

Both continue the award-winning series about Izzy and friends, illustrated by long-term collaborator Thomas Flintham. The young fiction series, which is set in a primary school, was launched with Baby Aliens Got My Teacher. In each story Izzy and friends discover a sensational event and set out to solve the mystery. Is their headteacher really a vampire rat? Is the new girl actually a spy? The plots are a riot of rumour and escalation, inspired by Butchart’s own childhood. “It comes from adults not telling you what’s really going on. This happened at my school a lot - maybe because I asked hugely inappropriate questions - but nobody would tell me why this lady had left or why we weren’t allowed to do things, and we would just let our imaginations run wild.” Butchart has enviable comic timing and a shrewd understanding of how children think, speak and speculate. Coupled with punchy short chapters and genuinely laugh-out-loud humour, the series has rapidly attracted a huge fanbase. She is “hugely relieved” to have Flintham and his zany art style on board and credits Nosy Crow designer Nicola Theobald with creating the distinctive, commercial cover design and punchy text layout.

In The Phantom Lollipop Man the madcap humour is laced with a more poignant message. At the school where Butchart teaches, a lollipop man disappeared and nobody seemed to know if he had retired or passed away. “It made me feel strange that someone could work at a school for so long and not be acknowledged.” It also challenges how adults speak about the elderly in front of children. “Everybody rolls their eyes when old people tell stories but this is a wealth of information that is just going to be lost.” The book will, she hopes, encourage greater respect for the elderly and foster a sense of community.

Butchart grew up in a block of council flats in Dundee in the 1980s. An only child, she had the best of both worlds. “I could go into my room and come up with wild stories and ideas, but equally I could pile outside with all the other kids in the tenement and do our secret clubs. We were so naughty.” Reading was always part of her life - “my mum and my gran would make sure I went to the library every single Saturday” - and Judith Kerr is a lifelong favourite. She vividly remembers writing her first story aged eight; it would eventually be published as The Toilet Ghost. She told stories more than she wrote them down. “I was the oldest one [of my friends] and really bossy, so when someone would ask why something was happening, even if I didn’t know the reason I would come up with a really elaborate, authoritative answer and they would all believe me.” Readers of the Izzy books will know that this is exactly how children operate.

A class above

A degree in philosophy followed school, but when researching teaching she had something of an epiphany. “Teaching was the first thing I was really good at. I really remember being [a youngster] and I just understood them. I’ve always found it easy to take difficult concepts and bring it right down to a level that children understand. It makes me worried that I’ve not really moved on,” she laughs but I think this is the essence of Butchart’s popularity: she really gets kids, understands their sense of humour and what they are interested in, and she doesn’t talk down to them.

In 2010 her then fianceé bought her a book about writing for children. “Writing professionally seemed as foreign as being a movie star to someone like me,” she remembers, but she wrote every evening and a year later had “11 terrible picture books”. A visit to the Winchester Writers’ Festival resulted in her winning its picture book competition. She signed with agent Becky Bagnell, and within months had deals with Bloomsbury and Nosy Crow. “It was intense,” she says now.

On 9th January 2014 she made her double début with picture book Yikes Stinkysaurus! (illustrated by Sam Lloyd) and Baby Aliens Got My Teacher! “It set the pace for how things were going to be.” Since 2014, she’s had a prolific 18 books published: a variety of picture books, the Wigglesbottom Primary series (illustrated by Becka Moor), the Pugly books (illustrated by Gemma Correll) and the Izzy series with Flintham.

Butchart is a passionate advocate of funny books. “They have a special power, which is accessibility. A lot of funny books are also easy to read books, easy to relate to, easy to pick up and feel good about yourself. Funny books can break down some of the barriers of children believing ‘books aren’t for me’. The confidence they gain is invaluable.” Funny books seldom appear on the big prize shortlists, and Butchart was “devastated” when the Roald Dahl Funny Prize ended. “I was so happy and relieved when Scholastic announced the Laugh Out Loud Book Awards.”

She’s equally enthusiastic in her recommendations. Katie Davies’ The Great Hamster Massacre inspired “the way that I wanted to write. It pulled me back to being that age.” Other favourites include Joanna Nadin’s Penny Dreadful series and Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum books - ”they really push the boundaries”. Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging is also “an absolute favourite... Louise Rennison was properly a hero of mine.”

The outsider

I get the sense that Butchart sees herself as very much outside the literary “establishment”, so how did it feel to be approached to continue an iconic series like The Secret Seven? “My first response was, ‘Have they read my other books! Do they think the way I write is socially acceptable?”’ Editorial director Alex Anterschel was already a fan, which gave Butchart a lot of confidence. Re-reading The Secret Seven, she recognises their influence. “The secret clubs, the code names, the mysteries. It’s funny how these experiences come together. In Izzy’s stories that’s what the four of them are doing.’ Butchart has worked hard to keep The Secret Seven stories distinct from her other work. “Everyone expects me to go wild but I’ve kept it really close, very true to the time period.” The Mystery of the Skull will be published by Hodder in July, followed by a second title early in 2019.

On top of this are a clutch of new books for Nosy Crow and her first baby, due in December. Time to give up the day job? Absolutely not, she says, teaching grounds her: “It’s a big part of my identity.”

For now, she’s planning WBD events, which may well include an appearance from her imminent new arrival - in an alien onesie, naturally. “The baby kicked all the way through [me writing] that book, so it’s only fair!”