This month we are delighted to welcome Jeanne Willis as our Guest Editor. Best known for her fabulous picture books, many as part of a dream-team with Tony Ross, Jeanne has published over 400 books and won multiple awards including the National Trust Literacy Awards, the Red House Awards and the Smarties Book Prize. She is a striking figure in the children's book world, glamorous and witty, with a keen interest in the natural world. Jeanne is one of our funniest writers for children, but she can do poignancy and tenderness with equal skill, and her books regularly deliver important lessons with a comic touch.

Hi Everybody,

I’m so excited to be guest editor for LoveReading4Kids this month because now I can say hello to you all!  

First, a little bit about me. I’ve been writing since I was knee-high to a grasshopper and I know exactly how high grasshopper’s knees are because when I was small, I wrote stories lying on my tummy in the long grass and the grasshoppers used to read over my shoulder and sing in my ear. 

I’ve always loved insects. When I was young, I collected caterpillars from a tree near my school. When Grandad came to fetch me, he’d bring a jar which I filled with leaves for them to eat.  I kept them until they turned into moths, then I let them go. Metamorphosis is the best kind of magic - I still collect caterpillars and breed beetles in my writing room. 

The creatures I’ve kept often inspire my stories. I’ve had cats, rats, dogs, ferrets, hamsters, rabbits, snakes, mantids, axolotls, toads… the list goes on! Right now, I’m fostering five hedgehogs and have hundreds of tadpoles in my pond. Of all the books I’ve written, Tadpole’s Promise is one of my favourites, even though it has a wicked ending. 

I have lots of new books coming out, including Jacko, a true story about a baby jackdaw and a funny picture book called The Bear Who Had Nothing to Wear. 

Don’t tell anyone but I still take my teddy to bed. 

Best wishes

Jeanne Willis

Q: You're already known as one of the UK's most stylish authors; if you had to choose one of Albie's outfits to wear for a day which would it be?

A: I’m tempted to borrow his clown shoes because they go with everything but I think I’ll choose Albie’s cowboy outfit – yee ha!  The only trouble is, the trousers are too short and my knees might rub when I gallop across the prairie. 

Q: Why is it important that we give children the opportunity to both experiment with and choose their own identities?

A: When I was little, it didn’t seem to matter if I was a girl, a boy or a bear. My nephew is often a cat and my son was sometimes a dog called Jessie. I’m still experimenting with my own identity. Sometimes I’m an explorer in shorts and a pith helmet, sometimes I’m a retro queen and sometimes I’m an old lady wrapped in fake fur – what are authors supposed to wear? Anything they like!  If you look in my wardrobe, you might think the clothes belonged to lots of different characters, but they’re all me. Childhood is a great time to be anyone or anything you want to be and you should never grow out of that.

Q: Albie is fantastically brought to life in Brian Fitzgerald's illustrations, does he look like you imagined him when you wrote the book?

A: Yes, Albie looks exactly how I imagined him to be only even better! Thank you, Brian. 

Q: Looking back at some of your previous books, you're well known for bringing hilarity and not-so-happy-endings to the picture book world. Do you enjoy shocking your readers with these endings?

A: I like to surprise my readers but shock?  It depends, some shocks are good for us because they make us think, but I’d hate to make anyone sad or scared. Usually, I only upset adults with my twisted endings but kids are often tougher than we think and nothing I’ve written is more shocking than the traditional tales I grew up with. My blood runs cold when I remember what Foxy Loxy did to Chicken Licken but I learnt that it was Foxy’s nature to eat poultry. He couldn’t help himself any more than tadpoles can help turning into frogs – forewarned is forearmed or eight armed if you’re an octopus. 

Q: If you hadn't been an author what would have been your dream job?

A: I have always loved bugs and beetles so if I wasn’t an author, I’d like to be Head Keeper of Caterpillars and Grubs so I could watch them feed, grow and morph into beautiful adult insects. I already do it as a hobby but I’d love to scale it up. Right now, I have a beetle grub the size of a sausage feasting on rotten oak bark in my writing attic. 

Q: Was there a favourite book or series that got you through your teenage years?

A: To be honest, no. There wasn’t much Y/A fiction around then. I tended to read non-fiction books about how to keep reptiles and amphibians but there was a brilliant teen magazine called Jackie which helped me through. It explained everything from Abba to acne and had great stories My dad banned me from reading it because he thought the problem page was too rude so I borrowed my friend’s copy and read it in the park. 

Q: What are you currently reading and which books are in your to-read pile?

A: I’m reading the biography of Maria Sybilla Merian who was the first person to discover metamorphosis and painted the most beautiful insects. She travelled to Sumatra to study them in the days when women were meant to stay home, shut up and sew. I wish I could have gone with her, only I get sea sick and it was centuries ago. In my ‘To Read’ pile is my latest novel, Jacko. I keep re-reading it because I really miss the characters when I finish writing a book and it’s like visiting old friends. While The Storm Rages by Phil Earle is also on my bedside table. 

Q: One in three of all books sold is a children's book yet children's books only get 4% of review space in the media. Why do you think this is - and what can be done?

A: When I first started writing, there were lots of reviews which I cut out and stuck in my olde-fashioned scrap book, but times have changed. Newspapers have folded. I wonder if the lack of reviews might be because the editors who believed children’s books had real merit have retired. Sadly, the notion that they are somehow inferior and not worthy of review space is nothing new. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked when I’m going to write a ‘proper’ book, meaning an adult one, as if writing for children was something any old fool could do. Well, this old fool says try walking in my shoes and you’ll soon gain respect for children’s authors and their readers and five stars would be lovely, thanks. 

Q: What does LoveReading4Kids mean to you?

A: It breaks my heart to hear that half a million children in the UK don’t own a book but even with budgets cut to bone, thanks to LoveReading4Kids, many more will able to access books and hopefully become life-long readers.

As our Guest Editor, Jeanne has given us her top five children's book she'd like to recommend to readers - and told us why she loves them!

Stig of the Dump by Clive King

Who wouldn’t want to befriend a secret caveman who defended you from the bullying Snarget brothers?

Charlotte’s Web by E.B.White

My favourite teacher read this to my class in the school field when I was six - we all cried at the saddest bit and I’ve never forgotten how that felt. 

A Bear called Paddington by Michael Bond

You are never too old to enjoy Paddington, I wish he lived with me. 

The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley

This story made my kids laugh out loud when I read it to them and it still gives my daughter the giggles even though she’s 28.  

Skellig by David Almond

Skellig haunted me in the best possible way, I love everything that David Almond writes and wish I’d written this book.  

And Jeanne has chosen The Duck Never Blinks for her July Book of the Month;

The Duck Never Blinks by Alex Latimer is the best read-aloud book in decades. If I was a kid, I’d demand to hear it again and again…and again! Shudder not, parents, teachers and carers, this one is as rewarding to read and perform as it is to listen to. Destined to be a classic, the illustrations are beautifully simple, the words are simply hilarious and as the suspense builds, it’s like playing the best interactive party game. Young or not so young, we all need a good laugh and this book is really blinking funny.

Find the LoveReading4Kids review and hear Jeanne reading from The Bear who had Nothing to Wear - out now in hardback, published by Scallywag Press.  And we have added a small selection of Jeanne's vast collection of books below.

Is it Slug Needs a Hug...or maybe Tadpole's Promise? Or one of her brilliant Online Safety Picture Books? Let us know your favourite Jeanne Willis picture book below!