This month we are delighted to welcome Rob Biddulph as our Guest Editor. Author, illustrator and creator of the lockdown sensation #DrawWithRob, Rob is best known for his exceptional picture books that are imaginative, funny and wonderfully illustrated. 

The LoveReading4Kids team are huge fans of Rob's picture books - Blown Away blew us all away, we adored Odd Dog Out and Sunk was simply stunning. A new Rob Biddulph book generates lots of excitement in the office, so we were doubly excited to read Rob's first novel for older children, the glorious Peanut Jones and the Illustrated City. 'A book suffused with the joy of art, by an artist and for budding artists everywhere, but most of all it is a hugely enjoyable, witty and exciting story that will captivate readers of all ages.' The second in the trilogy is just published. Peanut Jones and the Twelve Portals is a great looking book, adorned with stunning illustrations, and a story that's funny and full of adventure. We think it should be on every Christmas Wish list! 

Find out more about the amazing Peanut Jones and hear Rob's recommended reads, but first he has written a letter to his readers....

"My name is Rob and I write and illustrate children’s books. Some of you, however, might know me through my Draw With Rob videos. Draw With Rob is an initiative I started back in March 2020 in order to get kids to pick up their pencils and sketch along with me during lockdown. The response the videos had was incredible – they have been viewed millions of times all around the world – but what I really loved about the reaction to them was the fact that children (and adults) who didn’t think they could draw now consider themselves to be artists. All they needed was a little encouragement to give it a go. And that’s exactly what the team at LoveReading4Kids do too. They steer readers, like you, in the right direction – towards books that they think you’ll like. And this helps you develop a love of reading that will, hopefully, stay with you for your whole life. What a brilliant thing!

That’s why I’m so excited to have been asked to guest edit LoveReading4Kids this month. I hope that you enjoy my recommendations, get stuck into some seriously good books, and have fun exploring the wide world of reading."

So Rob, what makes a perfect picture book?

It’s tricky to boil it down to just one soundbite, cos I’d say there are a few things that need to be in the mix. Firstly, your story has to have a relatable protagonist, even if that protagonist is a kite-flying penguin or a giant imaginary furry monster called Kevin. Children should still be able to see a bit of themselves in there. Secondly, your story should include a generous helping of the two Hs: Heart and humour. Thirdly, there should be enough detail in the illustrations for the reader to spot something on the tenth read that they haven’t spotted before. These little rewards are what will keep them coming back for more. Listen, it’s always tricky to make a really successful picture book because you are trying to appeal to two very different audiences. It’s the parents that usually buy the books, so the cover and the look’n’feel has to fit in with whatever their preferred aesthetic is, but it’s the children that choose the stories at bedtime. So a very cool looking book with a thin story just isn't going to cut it in the long term. It’s a tightrope walk and it’s very difficult to get the right balance. But that’s half the fun of it!  

What are the challenges for writing for an older audience (9+)?

I guess the trickiest part is getting the tone of the dialogue right. I have three daughters so have had plenty of exposure to the way children actually talk to each other, and I really think that has helped. Another thing I wanted to achieve with the Peanut books is trying to make them appeal to slightly more reluctant readers. That’s one of the reasons why they’re so heavily illustrated (there are almost 200 two-colour illustrations in each book). It’s also why I also made the decision to keep the chapters short and snappy, and end as many of them as possible with cliffhangers. I want my readers to have plenty of those “oh, just one more chapter” moments. I have a very similar theory with regard to drawing – it’s something I always talk about in my Draw With Rob videos: if you break something down into bite size pieces, it’s much easier to digest. Before you know it you’ve put them all together and read the book, or drawn the picture. It’s just a question of organising information in a way that makes the task seem much easier. 

How does the writing/illustrating process of Peanut Jones compare to creating one of your picture books?

It’s quite similar in lots of ways. I am a planner, so regardless of the story's format I’ll always start with the main arc and then break that down into progressively smaller segments until I’m left with the bullet-pointed jigsaw puzzle pieces which I can use to write the final text. With the chapter books it’s easier in many ways, because you’re not restricted a) by space (you usually only have 26-28 pages to play with in a picture book) or b) by a rhyming scheme. I have actually found it quite liberating.

For those who missed the first book in the series, Peanut Jones and the Illustrated City, can you introduce us to Peanut and tell us a bit about her? And is she based on one of your daughters?

Well, the seed for the story came from my youngest daughter Poppy’s packed-lunch post-It notes. When she was four and first starting at primary school, she was really nervous about it. So someone suggested that I hide an illustrated post-it note in her lunchbox to cheer her up at lunchtime. I did it on day one, and it worked really well. That evening, Poppy asked what I was going to draw for her the following day. I had thought it was a  one-time-only thing, so was somewhat taken aback, but not only did I draw a picture for her the next day, I ended up drawing one for EVERY SINGLE DAY that she went to primary school. That’s over 2000 drawings (search #PackedLunchPostIt on the socials to get a full picture of the madness). Over the years drawing these pictures, I knew there was an idea for a story in there somewhere, and eventually it came to me: what if these post-it note drawings were magical, in some way? What if you could reach your hand into these drawings and pick up the apple, or pick up the bunch of flowers? What if they were drawn with a special magic pencil? What if everything you drew with that pencil became real? And what if… you drew a door with that pencil? Where would it lead to? And so the Peanut Jones trilogy was born. The story centres on twelve-year-old Peanut, her sister Little-Bit, and her friend Rockwell as they journey through the aforementioned door into the Illustrated City of Chroma. Once there, they encounter a colourful cavalcade of characters, including Doodle the Dog, the Markmakers, a giant talking alligator called Jonathan Higginbottom, and Table Guy, the world’s most underwhelming superhero. When you throw in a missing dad, a tumultuous relationship with mum, real-life portals between the two worlds (a secret door behind a bust of Queen Victoria in the National Portrait Gallery, anyone?) and a Big Bad called Mr White who wants to rid the world of all its creativity, it makes for, I hope, an exciting adventure. It’s certainly been fun to write, anyway!

The LoveReading4Kids team are huge fans of your picture books - which of your picture books are you most proud of creating and why?

Odd Dog Out has resonated with the most people around the world, I’d say. So I’m pretty proud of that one. It’s amazing how powerful a simple but important message (blaze a trail - be who you are)  told through the medium of sausage dogs can be! I also love my latest book, The Blue-footed Booby, cos it’s just so unapologetically silly. Sometimes, a bit of escapism is just the ticket!

Your online Draw with Rob series was a viral phenomenon and brought welcome entertainment to locked-down families. How did it start and why do you think the lessons were so popular?

I remember watching the news on the Sunday night back in March 2020 just before they closed all of the schools, and I thought “I can help families out here”. I already did the drawalongs as part of my live act, and had even filmed some and put them online a few years previously, so I knew how to do it form a technical standpoint. So I decided there and then I would record a couple of videos a week, put them out for free for as long as people wanted to watch them. Hopefully it would keep kids busy for an hour or two, I thought. Anyway, I recorded the first video on the Monday, put it up on YouTube on the Tuesday, and on the Wednesday I was on the Ten O’clock News because so many thousands of people watched them! It was crazy! I guess it was that thing where it was a good idea, well executed, and delivered at the right time. The planets just aligned. I have to say that I feel hugely lucky that it has been so successful, and I really love the interaction it gives me with my little artists and readers. I still make the videos now. It’s such a fun community to be a part of.

#DrawWithRob broke the Guinness World Record for the largest online art lesson. How does it feel to be a record breaker?

That was such a cool day. I’m very proud of it, and very proud of the 130,000 people that joined in with me, not least because we raised a heck of a lot of money for the NHS. One of the things I love most about Draw With Rob is the fact that although lockdown meant that we couldn’t physically be with the people that we love – our friends, our grandparents, other members of our family – we could be together through drawing, via Zoom and via the social media galleries. I really love that notion.

Who is your favourite fictional hero from children's literature?

I’m a big fan of the Grinch. One of the best redemption stories in kids books, and a truly brilliant character. Deliciously bad when he’s being bad, but so likeable when his heart grows two sizes.

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?

It’s incredibly frustrating. We do so much to keep the industry buoyant, yet we don’t get the plaudits or exposure in the media that our place in the market deserves. Unfortunately, I do think that writing for kids is still seen by some as an easy option, and less worthy that writing for adults. I have been asked many times when I’m going to write a ‘proper’ book. Invariably, people who say this sort of thing have never written for kids themselves, which, I think, is telling, because, let me tell you, it’s not remotely easy! I think there’s also a reluctance to take risks among editors and commissioners in the press. The same can be said, to an extent, for mainstream retailers. A lot will only cover/stock kid’s books by one or two hugely successful, big-name authors, which means that their books will continue to become more and more ubiquitous, cornering the market at the expense of other writers delivering stories of equal worth but without a platform on which to share it. It’s a vicious circle. It’s totally out of my control, however, so I came to the conclusion long ago that the only thing to do is stay in your lane, keep your focus, and concentrate your energy on writing and illustrating the best books that you possibly can. 

What does LoveReading4Kids mean to you?

A lot. On a personal level, you guys have always supported me and my stories, reviewing my books, asking me to guest edit the site, etc, etc. Honestly, it means so much and I never, ever take it for granted. Secondly, the work that you do is just incredible. I can’t imagine how many children you have helped develop a love of reading and a love of books over the years. As we know, it’s one of the most important gifts that anybody can give to a child and you guys are literally doing it all the time. I am constantly in awe of the good work that you do, and am always delighted to help in any way I can.

As our Guest Editor, Rob has given us some of his top book recommendations and has chosen Spark by M.G. Leonard as his Book of the Month.

Book of the Month - Spark by M.G. Leonard

Not many people know that I am a keen birdwatcher, mainly because it’s not true. I do, however, have a small feeder outside my studio and an A4 British Garden Birds print on my pinboard that I regularly use to help tell the difference between the Goldfinches and Nuthatches that visit my little corner of North London. As such, I was delighted to see that one of my favourite middle-grade authors, M.G. Leonard – I’ve been a fan since Beetle Boy – had written a follow up to Twitch, a fabulous book full of twists and turns that I devoured last year. Spark, the second novel in a series of four, doesn’t disappoint. This time Jack takes centre stage, and when he discovers that someone is brutally injuring (and sometimes even killing) the neighbourhood cats, he decides to try and solve the mystery with the help of Twitch and the rest of our ornithologist detectives. They go on the hunt for the perpetrators and, needless to say, end up uncovering a lot more than they bargained for. The plot takes hold within the first few pages, pulls you along at pace and regularly fires the reader off in unexpected directions, but for me it’s the characters that really make this story shine. The entire cast is so beautifully drawn and the genuine friendships, particular that of Jack and Twitch, warm the cockles of the heart. Not only is Spark is a skilfully crafted mystery adventure, it’s also a clarion call for environmentalists everywhere, and will, no doubt, help nurture a love of birds and nature in readers young and old. I’m now looking out of my studio window hoping that a lammergeier pays a visit to my garden soon. I think I need a spark bird.

Rob's top five book recommendations -

While The Storm Rages by Phil Earle

The follow up to my favourite book of 2021, When The Sky Falls. Based on true events, this wartime drama tells the story of a boy fighting to save his beloved dog after the government decrees that all pets should be put down to help prioritise wartime resources. A flawless read, this book is full of heart, courage and love. Phil has, in my opinion, delivered another book for the ages.  

Grimwood: Let the Fur Fly by Nadia Shireen

The further illustrated adventures of Ted and Nancy, the fox siblings doing their best to settle into their new woodland home, do not disappoint. We meet lots of brand new (and totally bonkers) characters, including a squirrel called Ginger Fiasco, and a stoat called Susan Kidneys, and many of our favourites (hello, Sharon the party crow) make a welcome return. Honestly, this book is so funny it should come with a health warning.

Kitty Quest: Trial by Tentacle by Phil Corbett

The first Kitty Quest graphic novel had me rolling in the aisles, and the second is equally mirth-inducing. I love Phil’s brilliantly characterful illustrations and in Wolfrick and Perigold he has given us two heroes that really inspire. The myriad of menacing mushrooms and salty sea monsters that they come up against don't stand a chance!

A Duck Called Brian by Al Murphy

Another funny one, this picture book is properly hilarious and had me quacking with laughter on every page. And just look at that iconic cover! Al, you must have Jedi-level persuasive skills to talk your publishers into going with that. And thank goodness you did because I love it.

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

This was published a few years ago, but Katherine’s books are such favourites in the Biddulph household that I felt the need to tell you about them just in case, for some strange reason, you’ve not read one. I could have chosen any of her titles, but I’ve gone for Rooftoppers because my daughter Poppy told me it was her favourite. It tells the story of Sophie, who as a baby was found floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel, and her rescuer (and subsequent father figure) Charles Maxim. His parenting methods might be fairly unorthodox – chips and a drop of whiskey for tea, anyone? – but there is no doubting the love he has for his ward. Their relationship only serves as a backdrop to the main storyline, but it is the bedrock to which the book’s emotional heart is anchored. Trust me, if you read this book you will love it, and become as big a fan of Katherine’s as we are.

With huge thanks to Rob for his recommendations, insight and support to us at LoveReading4Kids. Find a selection of our favourite books, written and illustrated by Rob, below.