The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Jeanne Willis and Review of Hom

Jeanne Willis is an award-winning children's author, published worldwide. She has written over 400 books including picture books, novelty, teen novels and poetry. She was shortlisted for the Whitbread for her novel Naked Without a Hat, won the Smarties Silver for Tadpole's Promise, the Nasen Special Needs Award for Susan Laughs and many more besides. Recently, she won the Sheffield for Who’s in The Loo and is short-listed for The Red House Children’s Book Award for Bottoms Up.


Jeanne has over 20 years’ experience as an advertising copywriter and has created T.V, cinema and radio commercials for major clients including Heinz, Mencap and British Gas (If you see Sid, tell him!) She has also written hundreds of T.V scripts including The Slow Norris, Dog and Duck, The Twins, Maisy (Best Script, British Animation Awards) Marvellous Milly, The Ark, Upstairs Downstairs Bears, Dr Xargle and The Wombles.


Some of her books include, Somewhere (2021), What Are Little Girls Made Of? (2021), Old Macdonald Had a Phone (2021), Stardust (2019), Goldilocks (A Hashtag Cautionary Tale) (2019), Troll Stinks! (Online Safety Picture Books) (2017), Wild Child (2015), Supercat vs The Party Pooper (2015), Boa's Bad Birthday (2014), Chicken Clicking (Online Safety Picture Books) (2014), Who’s in The Loo (2013), Fly, Chick, Fly! (2012), I'm Sure I Saw a Dinosaur (2011), The Bog Baby (2009), Bottoms Up (2009), and Tadpole's Promise (2005).

Her newest picture book, Hom, releases in the U.S. April 5th.

Welcome Jeanne, thank you so much for coming by to talk about your newest book and your writing.


Hi, thank you so much for inviting me!


Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)


I live in North London, married with two grown up children, two cats, several exotic beetles and some Giant African Land Snails.


I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil and still have the books I wrote when I was five, which my grandma saved in her sewing machine drawer. These days, I work in my converted attic which is full of houseplants, including lots of carnivorous ones which eat the fruit flies that escape from my banana-eating beetles. Many of my stories are inspired by the mini-beasts and other pets I’ve kept over the years. My pet fancy rat, Lucia was great to have around while I wrote a short novel about rats - she used to sit on my shoulder while I typed.


What is something no one (or few) knows about you?


Where I hide my chocolate stash.


I love that you have a hidden stash of chocolate! Where did the inspiration for Hom come from?

It was a combination of things. I’ve always been interested in anthropology and evolution and often wonder about the missing link between apes and humans. I also loved the book Stig of the Dump when I was a kid and really wished I could be like Barny and discover a caveman living secretly in a dump. There was dump in the middle of a field, in the middle of nowhere when I was young, full of old bikes, scrapped cars, dead washing machines etc. It was a slightly scary but exciting place and my sister and I would hang about there, hoping to find our own Stig. The idea of having a secret friend or creature that I needed to care for always appealed to me as a child and it’s a theme I’ve often explored in my books.


Also, I’ve always wanted to discover a new species and while new creatures are discovered every day, many more are becoming extinct which saddens me greatly, hence the overwhelming desire of the child in the story to protect Hom, who was the last of his kind.


Your enthusiasm definitely comes across in Hom. You write in so many genres, do you have a favorite one?


I’ve written over 400 books in many different genres but picture books are my favourite. It’s all about getting a strong concept across with a few well-chosen words and allowing the illustrations to tell a big chunk of the story, providing the geography, enhancing the tone, and developing the characters. In Hom, I particularly loved the way Paddy Donnelly created such a dramatic sense of place and the emotional bond between the two characters.

I totally agree with you. I love Paddy's illustrations. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?


I have several but my favourite author as a child was Michael Bond. I loved the Paddington books. As an author, I had the great honour of being asked to write a Paddington book to go with the first film and one of the best days of my life was having tea with Michael Bond at his house – I met him at a party and he invited me round. Sometimes, childhood heroes can turn out to be a disappointment in the flesh, but not Mr. Bond! He was funny, friendly and charming and had lots of guinea pigs running round his room. They kept chewing the hems on his trousers, but he didn’t mind. He told the most wonderful stories and was so modest and such fun it was impossible not to love him. When he died, I went to his memorial and everyone spoke so fondly about him. A wonderful cartoon appeared in the daily paper shortly afterwards - an illustration of Paddington and Michael Bond, hand it hand at the Pearly Gates being welcomed by St Peter and the caption was, ”Please look after this author.” Which was just perfect. I tracked down the cartoonist and he drew me a copy from the original which now hangs above my bedroom door.


Wow! what a special time and memory. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about Hom?


I’d just like to encourage them to respect and appreciate all forms of life; every species, every race and to express their humanity in the most compassionate way.


I truly hope it helps spread an appreciation of ALL life. How many revisions did Hom take from first draft to publication? How long did it take to get the conclusion so poignant, yet open-ended?


I always revise texts many times before I send them to a publisher editor, but in this instance, the editor made very few changes- if there were some, I can’t remember them. It was one of those stories which seemed to write itself. The conclusion needed to be open-ended as I wanted to finish on an optimistic note. The boy promises Hom he’ll be ‘the first and last human he ever sees.’ In other words, he’s going to stay and protect Hom until he dies of natural causes, however long that may be, but I didn’t want to show a death scene or explain what happened to him exactly - we all hope Hom will pass away peacefully in old age with his devoted friend beside him and we’re lead to imagine that will be the case. Of course, it’s tragic when any species becomes extinct, but in this rare instance, the boy not only enables Hom to live his best life, he records it - Hom was a peace-loving creature and he wants everyone to know that.


I think you succeeded. When you first saw Paddy Donnelly’s illustrations in Hom, did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?


Initially, Hom was supposed to look like a pre-hominid but in the end, nothing looked quite right so that’s why he looks like he does – neither too ape-like nor too human.

Text © Jeanne Willis, 2021. Image © Paddy Donnelly, 2021.


I love the island Paddy created – it’s so mysterious and exciting. I quite fancy being shipwrecked there myself so I could hunt for new species of insect. My favourite spread is the one where they’re in Hom’s cave looking at the cave drawings of his lost family; I just find it really moving.


It is a very poignant image. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


There are all sorts of projects in the pipeline – several new picture books in various stages of production, a secret project for Winnie the Pooh which I’m really excited about and possibly a short novel about a baby jackdaw.


Ooh, that sounds exciting! What is your favorite Park (regional or city) or forest? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

My favourite city park is Regent’s Park because it’s next to London Zoo where I got married. There’s also a bluebell wood near to the house where I was born where I used to go fishing for tadpoles with my sister when we were little. I also went for walks there with my beloved grandad, who’d wheel my doll’s pram full of teddies for me when I got too tired. He appears in lots of my books even when I haven’t planned to write about him, so although he’s long gone, he’s always with me which is all kinds of wonderful.


Thank you, Jeanne for participating in this interview. It was wonderful to get to know you.


To find out more about Jeanne Willis, or contact her:

Website: https://www.jeannewillis.com/


Review of Hom: The Best of Friends,

the Last of His Kind


After this dismal winter, who wouldn't want to live on this gorgeous, lush island? This seemingly straightforward friendship story possesses a powerful undercurrent on environmental stewardship and the treatment of "others." I am so excited to get to offer you all a sneak peek at this wonderful picture book, which sails onto shelves in the U.S. on April 4th.

Hom: The Best of Friends, the Last of his Kind


Author: Jeanne Willis


Illustrator: Paddy Donnelly


Publisher: Anderson Press, USA (2022); UK (2021)


Ages: 4-9


Fiction

Themes:

Friendship, family, ecology/environmentalism, and kindness.


Synopsis:

When a boy washes up on a desert island, he is sure he’s on his own in the world.


But there’s someone else living there: Hom, a peace-loving creature who has lost his family, too. Alone on the island together, they learn from each other and become the best of friends. So when a rescue ship appears on the horizon, the boy has a big decision to make . . .


Opening Lines:

I’ve never told anyone about Hom.

No one knows he exists. Only me.

And you – because I trust you.


What I LOVED about this book:

Beginning with drawing the reader into a secret, the boy narrator explains that grown-ups must never know about Hom or they'd "come and catch him and take him away." Presumably to study, as an unknown, creature - peaceful or not.


After opening with a dramatic, dark scene of an ocean liner being struck by multiple bolts of lightning in a rocky, choppy sea, a page turn reveals a sunny island beach. A beach full of boat flotsam (with a faint column of smoke - far off in the distance) - I love that Paddy's illustration includes a book, toy car, and lots of planks wash up on the beach with the boy, foreshadowing some of the things that the boy and Hom create. I also love the narrator's calm, matter of fact statement "...after the shipwreck. I swam to a deserted island, far away." The reader sees Hom and a pair of parrots watching the boy arrive.

Text © Jeanne Willis, 2021. Image © Paddy Donnelly, 2021.

Initially scared of each other, the boy and Hom realize that despite their differences - Hom is hairier and runs faster, the boy taller and can create fire and tools - they are basically alike. It feels like such a spot-on "kids meet-cute." With a child-like focus on the "important" similarities - like smiles, tongues, hands, feet, and the fact that they are both alone and missing their families. I love the way the illustrations weave an impish, adventurousness throughout, even in the more serious moments as they develop empathy for each other.

Text © Jeanne Willis, 2021. Image © Paddy Donnelly, 2021.


Watching them grow into the best of friends learning from each other is deeply satisfying. The spare text and glorious illustrations make it fun to watch as Hom teaches the boy what to eat and how to find something to drink. And the boy teaches Hom how to make an axe and a go-cart. I love the island that Paddy creates from Jeanne's minimally descriptive, select words. She mentions that it's deserted, has some sort of chalky rock (cave drawings), trees (fire), and coconuts. From there, Paddy's vibrant and textural illustrations create an island I want to be stranded on. Exactly the place I imagined as a kid reading Peter Pan and Robinson Crusoe.


Their days pass, full of fun and adventures, until . . .

Text © Jeanne Willis, 2021. Image © Paddy Donnelly, 2021.


a rescue boat on the horizon forces the boy to make a decision. Does he go home? Could he leave Hom alone again? Could he be rescued without the adults seeing Hom? What should he do? The touching ending is beautifully open, involving both the passage of time and the continued collaboration with the reader to keep Hom's secret. If you've liked these illustrations, wait until you see the final four spreads!


This is a wonderful tale of friendship, compassion, and adventure. Which carries an undercurrent of our responsibility to be stewards of this precious and mysterious world. It can also be seen as a statement about society's treatment of "others," outsiders, who look different, act different, or come from someplace else? It is a stunningly sweet book which begs to be read again and leaves you with a myriad of questions and maybe some soul searching.


Resources:

- using chalk or a white crayon on a paper bag, draw a "cave wall" image or story of your family. [Extension - explore the Art Masterpiece: Black Bull at the Lascaux Caves and why people drew on cave walls.]

- make your own recycled toy go-cart (w/carboard wheels) or (lids). Or make both and see which ones goes farther.


- if you could discover a new animal or friend, what would it look like? Draw a picture or write a description of your discovery.

- if you were the boy, what would you have chosen? Why?

- what does the last page mean to you? Is the narrator talking about Hom? Or other people? Or maybe animals removed from their homes by scientists.

Decorative scroll design
Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

Decorative scroll design

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