Liz Pichon never thought that being a writer was a viable career path for her. The author and illustrator of Tom Gates – the instantly recognisable stories of the eponymous schoolboy which have sold more than 11m copies and been adapted for television and stage – was excellent at drawing, but didn’t believe that words were her thing.
“I loved writing stories when I was at school, but I was just hopeless at spelling, hopeless at grammar, so it gets drummed into your head that it’s something other people do,” she says. “I could do the pictures, but I would never be able to write the stories.”
Pichon was “a child of the 70s” and her obvious dyslexia went undiagnosed. “My school reports all said I had issues with reading, writing, maths, everything – but it was never really picked up. Everybody would say she’s bright, very enthusiastic, but her spelling – terrible!”
It was only when she and her husband were investigating issues for their son as a child – he’s now 30 – that she realised about her own dyslexia. “We discovered that he had various different things like hearing problems, speech problems, and as we were going through the process with him, they always talked to the parents, and everything they were saying was like, well, you’re probably dyslexic. So I’ve never officially been diagnosed, but my family have always thought it.”
Pichon, who Zooms in from a Tom Gates-plastered background, wearing Tom Gates earrings, is as upbeat and jolly as all true veterans of events with children are. She trained, she says, as a graphic designer, “but not a very good one, because I just used to do all my graphics projects with illustration”. She worked designing album covers before starting to illustrate greeting cards and T-shirts, “and then because I did lots of greeting cards, publishers started to contact me about doing books”.
She started out with other people’s, but then had a go at writing her own picture books. Square-Eyed Pat, about a telly addict dog, was published in 2003, followed by My Big Brother Boris, in which Little Croc and his brother live in a swamp. “It doesn’t seem quite so jolly now,” Pichon says of the title, but it won her the Smarties prize, and got her properly thinking about the kind of book she would have loved to read herself as a child.
“I loved funny books, and I was being offered funny books to illustrate, but I thought if I wanted to illustrate one I’d better write it myself,” she says. “I didn’t actually get to write my own stories until I was in my mid-40s.”
She wrote and drew the first Tom Gates into a notebook – she still has it, and waves it at me – putting in all her childhood passions: music, making things, drawing, doodling, fun and silliness. Tom, who is around 10, strides on to the page fully formed, informing the reader of his love of chatting and caramel wafers, his best friend Derek, his annoying sister Delia, his teacher Mr Fullerman, filling the pages with his doodles.
“I just wrote it in my handwriting, and imagined Tom’s teacher was writing in his, so had lots of different fonts, lots of different voices,” says Pichon. “I was almost treating every page in the book like a picture book page.” She sent it off to publishers, who – seeing the success of Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid books, which Pichon hadn’t read at that point, and the potential for a British version – pounced. Pichon had seven offers in two weeks, and The Brilliant World of Tom Gates won the Roald Dahl Funny prize when it came out in 2011.
“Middle-grade books like Tom Gates never used to have that many illustrations. You’d have amazing picture books, then big thick books – it was like, OK, now you’re on to proper reading, let’s get rid of those terrible illustrations,” she says. “Now there is no middle-grade book that doesn’t have different size fonts, lots of illustrations. I’m all for it – anything that gets children engaged and reading.”
Pichon loves to show children how to do her drawings, whether in person or through the how-tos at the back of the books. “And they can copy the drawings as well, which look really intricate but they’re dead easy to do.”
She creates a story map for each book, noting down small events that will take place during her narrative – Derek gets a dog; homework excuse; squirrel wars – and fleshes them out into funny stories. And they are genuinely funny – I’ve watched my eight-year-old chortling away to herself at them on many an occasion, and even my 11-year-old hasn’t quite outgrown them yet, stealing them away from her little sister when she’s in the mood.
Ten years after the first was published, the 19th Tom Gates book, Random Acts of Fun – “Hanging out with a kid who likes to eat sugar from a bowl. (NOT fun.) Watching squirrels steal stuff from the garden. (Who knew that would be SO much FUN?)” – is just out, and Pichon has no plans on calling a halt any time soon.
“I’ve always somehow managed to find new things to write about, and I think it’s because they’re not massive big plotlines, they’re family life,” Pichon says. “Because I am freelance and my husband is too, I’m so used to always trying to work out what I’m going to do next and being on the edge. So that actually, when I got the opportunity to do this, I always just thought it was going to come to an end really quickly – I’ll do the three books, and then somebody else will do something and nobody will want to read Tom Gates.”
Despite the sales, and the readers around the world – Tom Gates has been translated into 45 languages – that “panic” is always still there. “I just assume it’s always going to end, and so every book, I’m really trying hard to put new things in it. If I was a Tom Gates fan, what would I expect? What else can I put in the book that I think kids would really like?”
This year also saw the launch of The Brilliant World of Tom Gates on Sky Kids TV, with voices including Catherine Tate and Mark Bonnar – and Pichon herself doing her crafts and drawings; her parts were filmed during lockdowns in her home studio with the help of her music producer husband. The second series will air in early 2022.
“Tom’s going to be a bit like the Simpsons in the way that he’ll just stay the same age, so I’m very unspecific about how old he is,” says Pichon. “But it’d be a totally different story if he went into secondary school – I’d probably rather write a new character if I were to do that, although I can imagine a Tom Gates: The Early Years. That would be fun, but at the moment I’ve just about got enough ideas for another few books.” And maybe a few more.