Mary Beard’s life advice: “Take criticism, but don’t be crushed”
It’s publication day for Liz Pichon when she speaks to Saga Exceptional and, in her own words, she’s been performing “guerrilla-style book signings” across the UK.
“The excitement of seeing my book in shops never leaves me,” says the 60-year-old author from Brighton. If you’re not familiar with the name Liz Pichon, it’s guaranteed that someone in your extended household will be, as she’s been capturing the imaginations of children for more than a decade with her multi-award-winning Tom Gates book series.
With 15 million copies sold worldwide, they’ve been translated into more than 50 languages, and adapted for stage and screen. The second animated series, starring Catherine Tate, launches on Sky in January 2024 with a soundtrack composed by Pichon and her songwriter/producer husband Mark Flannery.
She sells out appearances at literary festivals, has set a (now broken) Guinness World Record (for the biggest disco dance), created a children’s version of the Bayeux Tapestry, and is in her second year of designing the T-shirts for Children In Need.
And this latest book, Five Star Stories, is book number 21 in the Tom Gates series.
With such a roster of achievements to her name, you’d be forgiven for thinking success must have come easy – and early – to Liz. But, in fact, undiagnosed dyslexia and a severe lack of self-confidence held her back from even starting to write until her mid-forties.
“I had no confidence at all,” she says. “The idea that I was going to write books? No one would believe that. Even when I started writing, some of my friends and family were a bit like: ‘You? You can’t even spell, how can you write a story?’”
Born in London, a “child of the Seventies”, Liz explains that despite her enthusiasm for learning, her academic work was “terrible”.
“When we were at school there was nothing like [a dyslexia diagnosis],” she says. “You were almost just thought of as a bit thick really.”
It was only when seeking a diagnosis for her son, now in his thirties, that the penny dropped and Liz’s dyslexia became obvious.
“We were asked if anyone had dyslexia in the family and everyone just looked at me,” she laughs. “Even now I can’t tell my left from my right.”
After studying graphic design, Liz worked at Jive Records designing album covers in the late Eighties, before creating her own range of greeting cards.
But it was while illustrating for other authors, including Julia Donaldson, that Liz was finally inspired to create her own books, with her first – Square-Eyed Pat – published in 2003.
“I was just starting to get a bit more of a voice,” she says of her mid-forties. “But when I look back, I always wrote poems and my own stories. I found a letter that I wrote to my parents when I was around 11, and it’s like reading Tom Gates. So, it was always there. It just took a while to come out.”
After finding her feet with a handful of picture books, Liz was encouraged to “age-up” her writing, and she began to work on ideas for Tom Gates.
“At the start, my stories were terrible,” she laughs, admitting that even now she suffers with self-doubt.
“It’s a bit like when you’re having building work – there is always a bit where you think: this is terrible,” she says. “Like, this is the worst book I have ever written.”
Liz reveals that before the first book of the series was published in 2011, when she was 48, she hadn’t written anything longer than 12 pages. However, the book was a hit, winning the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, the Red House Children’s Book Prize, and the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, and the rest – 21 books, TV shows – as they say, is history.
“I never take it for granted,” she explains. “I always have that feeling in the pit of my stomach that it could end tomorrow. I never feel like: ‘This is it! I can relax now.’”
Liz, who has two daughters and a son, admits she has some regrets about waiting as long as she did to launch herself into the world of children’s books.
“It’s not the end of the world,” she smiles. “But I would’ve loved to have started earlier.”
What would she say to her younger self – and to anyone who might be worried about making a change or taking a chance?
“Don’t be frightened. What’s the worst that can happen?” she says. “Don’t be worried about what other people think about you. If you make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world.
“But hey, it worked out all right!” she smiles, coming back to the present moment. “I am where I am supposed to be.”
With her enthusiasm and positivity, Liz clearly loves what she does, proudly showing one of the many clay book stands she has personally hand made to send out to the independent booksellers who have supported her.
“I’ve worked in lots of different industries but [the children’s book world] are just really lovely, passionate people,” she says. “I realise how lucky I am to basically be doing a job that I would have dreamed of when I was younger.”
Being connected to her younger self seems to be core to Liz’s work and perspective on life.
“I am literally doing all the same things that I did as a kid,” she smiles. “Writing funny stories, writing poetry, I make things.
“I’ve just managed to find a way to make a living out of it.”
Despite the “late start”, it feels like writing – and specifically children’s books – was always destined to be a huge factor in Liz’ s life. As a child, she loved libraries, where she would choose books about insects, cooking and crafting.
Pichon’s childhood passion for funny stories has translated into huge later life success
“The first time I got a library card, I was like: ‘I can pick anything!?’” she says with Matilda-esque enthusiasm.
She recalls watching Little House on the Prairie and then devouring the series of books it was based on; same with The Adventures of Asterix. Even her favourite books today are Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes and anything by Babette Cole. “Doctor Dog still makes me laugh,” she says. “I love that kind of irreverent humour.”
And her music taste is rooted in childhood, too.
“I remember watching Sesame Street when Stevie Wonder played Superstition live, which is still one of my favourite songs,” she says.
Looking forward, book 22 of Tom Gates is already cooking in Liz’s brain and ever-present notebooks. But they may take some time thanks to her recent 60th birthday.
“When I look at the cards, I still can’t equate that number with what I am,” she laughs. “But it’s lovely. I’m going to keep celebrating all year.”
Tom Gates: Five Star Stories is on sale now (Scholastic, £12.99); Dyslexia Awareness Week runs from October 2-8 – find out more here
Written by Debbie McQuoid
Debbie is a journalist with 20 years of experience, interviewing well-known names including Angelina Jolie, Michelle Williams, and Lauren Hutton. Specialising in entertainment, beauty and lifestyle, her words have appeared in Stylist, Red, Elle, Cosmopolitan and Grazia among others.