Monday, 16 September 2013

Me Then And Me Now

DFB authors and illustrators were asked this question for their latest round of blogs.

I’m interested in the connections between our child selves as readers, and our adult selves as writers/illustrators.  Can you remember the stories you most loved when you were a child?  Do they connect at all to what you do now?  What would Child You think of what Adult You is writing now?

Here is my response:

I never have been a very sophisticated reader. As a child I loved the usual comics, The Dandy, The Beano and Beezer. My favourite comic characters were The Numskulls – I was enthralled by the idea that our insides could be populated by little people, peering through telescopes from our eyes, directing operations over telephones whilst others shovelled piles of food down hatchways into our stomachs. I found it entirely believable, and still think it a wonderful idea.

To think all this is going on inside you!

In a comic called Look and Learn, Mary Norton’s ‘The Borrowers’ was serialized, and I loved these little people too, scurrying about behind the wainscoting and under the floorboards. A magical and entirely believable world was created and I’ve been a fan of alternative places and parallel worlds ever since.

I was a huge fan of Alfred Bestall’s Rupert Bear annuals, another creator of a magical land. You never questioned the fact that walking, talking forest animals lived alongside jungle creatures and human beings, where a walk through the wood could lead you to a tower where a magician lived and miniature dragons fluttered about breathing little plumes of fire. One of my treasured possessions is a Rupert book from 1938 that belonged to my mother. Written and illustrated by Rupert’s creator, Mary Tourtel, it doesn’t quite have the magic of Bestall’s later stories but the ingredients are definitely all there.

A very precious possession

From these early comics, via Wind In The Willows and Tintin, I began to read Enid Blyton’s Adventure series. I know she comes in for a certain amount of criticism now, but I devoured this series, and can still recall the thrill of reading them. I only have to look at the cover of The Island Of Adventure to be transported out onto the waves, heading for the Island of Gloom. Terrific!

Terrific stuff!

Then, during a short stay in hospital for an operation, my mum bought me the boxed set of C S Lewis’s Narnia books. It was only when I read these books that I realized the power a book could have, and I think from that moment on I wanted to be able to write my own stories and create my own worlds.

This book changed everything for me

When I was about twelve my dad gave me an old book of his, and this too made a lasting impression on me. Written by the thriller writer Dennis Wheatley, it was presented as a crime dossier, typewritten with poisonous tablets, torn up photographs, newspaper reports and all sorts of evidence glued into its pages. The reader had to solve the crime from the evidence supplied before breaking a seal at the back of the book to see if it matched the real solution.

Really exciting stuff!

This book had a direct influence on my Charlie Small and Alfie Small books, where these intrepid adventurers stick all sorts of finds and proof of their adventures into their journals.

The glass eye of the Steam-powered Rhino, proof of Charlie's encounter with this magnificent mechanimal!

The pirate's pipe, proof of Alfie's encounter with the notorious Captain Bonedust

So, I think there is a direct link between what my child-self read and what my adult-self writes, although I’m really not sure what my child-self would make of my efforts!

Link to DFB blog

The button on my Home Page linking to the David Fickling Books blog page has now been updated.

Friday, 2 August 2013

If you like to read the David Fickling Books Blogs, the site address has moved to:
Check it out! I will update the link on my home page soon . . .

Thursday, 27 June 2013


Tilda recently asked DFB authors the following question: From either your own work or a favourite book… Can you tell us a little about how introducing one unusual element or idea has transformed an everyday situation; creating a new story, character and/or world for you to explore?  Or perhaps the way you as a writer/artist have approached a particular character, story or world has made it unusual, transformed it?

And here is my response:

I wrapped the tooth in some leaves and pushed it right to the bottom of my rucksack. I couldn’t wait to show everyone at school. It was undeniable proof that I’d wrestled a croc and lived to tell the tale!
But then, as I looked around to get my bearings, I began to wonder if I’d ever be going to school again. Because I could see immediately that EVERYTHING had changed!
The waterfall had tumbled me down over three hundred metres of sheer cliff, and there was no way I could climb back up. And I couldn’t see any paths leading away from the lake either. It was surrounded by trees that grew in a tangle right up to the water’s edge. Trees so tall and thick and vine-covered that they looked suspiciously like a jungle. A dark, steamy jungle!

This is the moment Charlie Small finds himself marooned in a new and dangerous world and realises that things are not as they should be – although finding that giant crocodile in his local stream might have given him a clue! I don’t know what caused this transformation. Perhaps it was the storm in the night that had flooded the wasteland behind his home, or the bolt of lightning that passed right through his body and fizzed away down the stream, but something had taken Charlie away from his home, his mum and dad and everything he knew. Charlie was right, everything had changed, and his amazing four hundred year adventure was about to begin.
Stories that contain transformations, secret worlds and hidden places always appealed to me as a child. I loved the idea that countries or worlds such as Narnia could exist somewhere. Reading about Rupert Bear crawling along a tunnel inside a hollow tree trunk to discover a world of imps or miniature dragons or crazy professors, enthralled me, and these changes and new worlds are important in the stories I write now.
Ride The Black Horse, a very old picture book of mine, was all about a child’s fear of the night and how that fear transformed him into a minion of a dark magician who stole children from their rooms and locked them in his vast, gloomy castle.
 Only by overcoming his fear could the child defeat the shape-shifting magician, free the stolen children of the night and make his way back home. 

 As for a character that transforms a story, in Charlie’s case it is undoubtedly the introduction of the Steam-powered Rhinoceros. Not so much for its role in the book, as the rhino makes a relatively brief appearance, but because I then had to find a backstory for this mechanical wonder. This led to the creation of Jakeman the inventor, who became the main reason that Charlie ended up in his strange world in the first place. The introduction of Jakeman led to the creation of a host of other inventions, especially the wonderful Mechanimals that help Charlie in so many of his adventures. It’s amazing that the introduction of a relatively minor character can have such a huge effect on a series of stories, stories that are still continuing and developing in the wonderful comic, The Phoenix.

Friday, 7 June 2013

I've been having some fun making a little slideshow trailer for the Charlie Small books. Why don't you take a look?

Monday, 25 March 2013

Charlie Small Spotted at Fulbridge School!

-->As keeper of the Charlie Small Journals, I spent a fabulous day at Fulbridge School in Peterborough, on Monday 18th March. I explained just what had happened to Charlie, how all his adventures started and whether he was ever going to get back home. There were lots of volunteers amongst the students to join the crew of a risky rescue expedition and go in search of the lost boy adventurer. Many of the pupils had special skills that could be useful on a dangerous mission, and lots of them were willing to be away for four hundred years, the same amount of time that Charlie has been gone!

Fulbridge School is a wonderful place – welcoming, friendly and creative. The corridors have been expertly decorated with different themes, lending a magical atmosphere to the school. One of the best is the volcanic corridor, pictured below, painted by professional artist Colin Slater. Just a mo! Is that Charlie Small himself, leaping over the streams of molten lava? 

Thursday, 7 March 2013

It’s A Tragedy!


I’m not sure I have ever dealt directly with tragedy in my books. Many have been picture books, and although Baby Duck may have thought it a tragedy when his teddy bear blew into the cold, grey, scary pond and there was no one to help rescue it, I don’t know that it would count as such to anybody else!



Overcoming small obstacles and dealing with new and scary situations is important in picture books, though, and can help children cope with new experiences by making them familiar or funny. My books often deal with difficult situations and emotions through fantasy, but a fantasy that is firmly rooted in the real world. So, in various picture books I have been able to portray a cold-hearted boy made entirely of ice who was created by the continual drip of a stalactite in a frozen cave, and who reacted violently to any kindness.
Illustrated by Peter Bailey

Shadowland told of a girl’s serious illness, which was treated as a strange, haunting journey through her bedroom wall and across an ocean to a rocky island; Ride The Black Horse was about the dark manifesting itself as a magician who spirits children away to his vast castle, and it is only Oliver who is able to overcome his fear of the dark and defeat the magician.

From Shadowland

But when it comes to, well not so much tragedy but certainly disaster, Charlie Small has more than his fair share in the strange and frightening world he finds himself in. Dangerous characters and strange monstrous beasts people this world, and when he manages to contact home using his mobile, his mum repeats the same thing every time.

One disaster occurs when Charlie encounters the Puppet Master. Charlie thinks he hears his mother calling him, and he follows the voice across hills and valleys to a petrified forest, where he finds a cloaked figure hunched over a campfire:
The Puppet Master
            ‘Mum?’ I whispered.
‘Charlie,’ said the figure turning around. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
I stepped back. Oh, I wished I had stayed in bed at the shop! I wished I’d stayed at home. I wished I were a million miles from that clearing in the rotted forest, for, as the sky turned opal white and a new day dawned, I could see a man’s face; his grey skin and large hooked nose, his fat dry lips and empty black eyes. Behind him I saw the legend painted on the side of his caravan:

Incredible, wonderful, and solely for your delight,
A maestro of marionette manipulation!

No! I turned to run, but somehow my feet seemed rooted to the ground.
‘Don’t go, Charlie,’ smiled the Puppet Master. ‘I have something for you.’ He dipped a mug into the pot that was bubbling over the glowing embers of the fire, filling it with a liquid that steamed in the cold morning air.
The smell was intoxicating. It floated in the air, a visible blue mist that wrapped itself around my head, filling my nostrils. I knew I shouldn’t, but I couldn’t help myself. I grabbed the mug from his hand and drank the warm, syrupy liquid.
The sweet taste flooded through my body, making my fingers tingle and the breath judder in my chest. The tingling in my fingers increased to a dull throb, making them feel swollen and numb. I looked at my hands and gasped in fear. Tiny crystals were forming on my fingers, multiplying and joining together to form a new, outer skin.
The tingling sensations travelled up my arms and across my chest, the new skin forming like a crust as the sensation spread across my body. As the warmth of the liquid cooled in my tummy and the tingling subsided, I could feel the new skin start to harden. Now my face began to grow a second, solid skin. I tried to call out, but my jaw was set as solid as stone.
I couldn’t believe it! After all the old woman’s warnings I was becoming another of the Puppet Master’s marionettes. I felt as if I had been coated in concrete, or squeezed into a tight fitting shell, exactly the same shape as my body… and I was no longer able to move!
Charlie becomes a puppet!

That sounds like a disaster to me! Of course, with Charlie being Charlie, it doesn’t end there and with his usual mixture of ingenuity and bravery, humour and fun, he manages to overcome his plight, which is really about his being powerless and trapped in a world he has no knowledge of, far away from home and everything he knows.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Oh, well. I didn't win the Colorado Blue Spruce Book Award, but it was a great honour to be shortlisted – especially as Charlie In The Underworld was not, to the best of my knowledge, even available in the States. Congratulations to Rick Riordan for his book The Lost Hero.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Alfie Small, The True Adventures Of A Brave Explorer!

As Custodian of The Charlie Small Journals, imagine how delighted I was to discover that his young cousin, Alfie, has been having adventures of his own. They are every bit as exciting as Charlie’s, and they are ALL TRUE!

My job was to sort through the notes and sketches Alfie had hurriedly made on his swash-buckling voyages and turn them into full-colour, easy to read books. I had a huge amount of fun doing it!

Alfie Small is a young explorer who discovers a special place at the bottom of the garden, behind the shed and through the long weeds, that leads him on incredible journeys of excitement and danger. Two of his escapades have just been published, and more are coming in the summer!

In the first book, Pirates And Dragons, Alfie is rescued from the ocean’s depths by a friendly Sea Serpent; he fights a despicable old pirate in hand-to-hand combat and becomes captain of a band of unruly brigands. Here is Captain Bonedust, the terrifying old pirate Alfie encounters on a desert island:

The second book, Ug And The Dinosaurs, sees Alfie attacked by a terrible T. Rex, befriended by a stone-age girl and captured by a tribe of pea-brained ogres.

But, however dangerous or incredible the adventure, Alfie always manages to get back home in time for his tea! Here, Alfie’s hot air balloon is swept inside the grinning mouth of an ogre-shaped cloud that propels him into another, crazy world:

I hope Alfie Small is pleased with how I’ve turned his sketches into full, bone-crunching colour illustrations and, with the help of reading consultant Prue Goodwin, his notes into terrifically exciting stories that are dead easy reads for all young adventurers!

So, keep your eyes peeled for these adventure-filled stories and, if you like the sound of them, why not visit the website of his older cousin Charlie (, who is an eight-year-old boy who has lived for four hundred years. Don’t believe it? I can assure you, everything in his and Alfie’s journals is true!

Finding a Classic Classic

I have never tried to rewrite or adapt a classic book, but characters from classic stories and nursery rhymes have certainly made many a guest appearance in my picture book work. Little Red Riding Hood, the three bears, the big bad wolf, the three little pigs and others, have all had walk-on parts. Their presence has leant these stories a certain familiarity and made it seem as if all these nursery characters, whether mine or somebody else’s creation, inhabit their own, real world where new stories may be happening, unrecorded, all the time; much as the cartoon characters in Toon Town in the film Roger Rabbit. I find that idea quite reassuring. One only has to enter that world to discover a completely new adventure.

It sometimes takes a long time for a book to worm its way into my heart. I have to re-read it and flick through its pages again and again, savouring sentences and studying illustrations, seeing how the ink sits on the page. Then it becomes like an old and trusted friend.
One of my favourite classic books is Treasure Island, but I didn’t fully appreciate its brilliance until the right edition came along and everything clicked. I first became familiar with Treasure Island through the film starring Robert Newton who, with his greasy beard and rheumy eye, created the archetypal screen pirate. ‘Arrr, Jim lad!’
 When I did eventually turn to the book, I was a bit disappointed. I have the same problem with music – it takes me years, sometimes, to appreciate what many people seem to get straight away! Anyway, the book didn’t quite work for me, until I found an edition that I fell in love with.

This was illustrated by one of my heroes, Mervyn Peake, where everything seemed to be right – the design and layout, the quality of the paper and, of course, Peake’s wonderful illustrations. Here was a pirate that enhanced the character on the page, and surpassed the screen version, which now began to look rather cartoony. Peake’s Long John Silver is so real you can almost smell the salt and sweat on his clothes.

All of a sudden the story came alive and I appreciated Stevenson’s wonderful and economic writing for the first time. Could there be a better opening passage to an adventure book:

"I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails; and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty livid white. I remember him looking round the cove and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:-

‘Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest-

Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!’"

Treasure Island still has a hold on me, and I find pirates popping up in my stories all the time. Each has something of either Robert Newton, Robert Louis Stevenson, or Mervyn Peake in them, whether it’s Captain Cut-throat, leader of the band of lady pirates in my Charlie Small adventures, or Captain Bonedust in Alfie Small’s first journal. But to create a character as real, as devious, but as appealing as Long John Silver, now that would be something!

I don’t know if anyone else has to find the right edition of a classic to really connect with it, but it happens to me quite a lot. With this 1976 edition of Treasure Island, I found a book that felt absolutely right as a physical, functional object. Any other edition is not quite the same somehow, and I certainly think Ebooks will have a hard job replicating the qualities of classics like this, that make them such a pleasure to hold and own and love. Don’t you?