Kid Lit Talk: Michael Catchpool and Emma Proctor on 'SuperJoe Does NOT Do Cuddles'

by Lantana Publishing on September 23, 2021

It's the book birthday of SuperJoe Does NOT Do Cuddles, a hilarious and sweet story "that shows even the mightiest of superheroes sometimes need a cuddle from their mama" (Glorious Reads). We asked author Michael Catchpool and illustrator Emma Proctor to share some behind the book stories about the newest superhero on the block!

On the writing 

Emma: I hope you’re well. I thoroughly enjoyed bringing your story to life. What Illustrator wouldn’t enjoy drawing their favourite subjects - tigers, superheroes, runaway trains, raging rivers...the list is long! I have a few questions for you...

Is there a real life SuperJoe that the book is based on. Did you relate to the character of SuperJoe when you were younger?

Michael: You know, I’m tempted to say there is, ‘cause that might make an interesting story, but actually there isn’t. The only part of the book that is based on someone is the name. I have a nephew called Joe and when I needed a name for the character, I borrowed his name. I must say I didn’t ask him if I could, but I’m sure he won’t mind. He is actually 18, now, and about to go to University, so he might be too busy to worry or notice.

I think when I was a child, rather than superhero powers, I was interested in what I called my ‘inventions’. I would use cardboard boxes, lego, mecanno, bits of string and all sorts to make different devices. I once rigged up a contraption that meant that when my parents pushed the door handle down of my bedroom door, it would turn on the bedroom light and my clothes would be delivered to me on my bed whilst I lay under the covers. My clothes were folded up and placed in a biscuit tin, which came down a ramp made out of bamboo canes. It was fun, but not very practical because it meant that you couldn’t leave the room for fear of setting off the device. I also tried to make a machine that would answer any question you had . . . but only if the question could be answered ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘Don’t know’. You simply placed a marble at the top of the machine. The marble ran down some little ramps and then would drop into an egg-box. Each section of the egg-box had a piece of paper in it, and whichever section the marble landed in, that was the answer to the question. Yes, you’ve probably guessed, the pieces of paper had either ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘Don’t know’ written on them. To be honest, it didn’t prove to be a very successful ‘question answering’ machine. Thinking about it, there may well be a story somewhere in all of this, about someone and their not very good inventions.

Emma: How important do you think it is for pre-teens to still require emotional protection from their guardians despite how grown up they think they are?

Michael: I think this idea of emotional protection is important for everyone. You know, I think when we feel protected and safe that allows us to be adventurous. So, pre-teens who think they are grown-up and want to try new things and appear to be independent, can do that happily, if they, deep-down, know that they have love and protection from their guardians. Perhaps to be as adventurous as a superhero, we need to know that there is someone there for us, to provide that vital protection, whenever we need it, which might simply be summed up in a cuddle. I don’t think that need to feel that you have that emotional protection ever changes. I have two children and although they are both adults, now, I believe that they feel free and able to achieve because, deep-down, they know that, as their parents, we are there for them, looking out for them, even though from a distance.

Emma: Do you feel there are enough diverse characters in publishing today, or is there still a long way to go to achieve Lantana’s aim for all children to see themselves in the books they read?

Michael: The very simple answer is no, there is not enough diversity. As a child, the characters in the books I read looked nothing like me. And, in truth, I think, overall, that still remains the case. The‘Reflecting Realities’ survey, published in 2020, puts it all into very stark numbers, with just 7% of the children’s books published in the UK in 2017, 2018 and 2019 featuring characters from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background. I think that’s why the incredibly simple, but incredibly powerful, statement from Lantana is important: ‘Because ALL children deserve to see themselves in the books they read’.

To see someone like you, positively portrayed in a story book, is so important. As a teacher, when I read stories to my class, I was very aware that the main characters were not like some of the children I was reading the story to (or like me as the reader). When we talk to children about stories we often ask them to imagine what it would be like to be the character in the story, what it would be like to be in their shoes. What must if feel like if every time you are asked that, the character you are being asked to think about looks nothing like you? My other experience of working in schools was that, often, the only time that a character was from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background was if the story was a folk-tale from a different country; it was never simply a story about a day-to-day lived experience that all children could relate to. What I believe Lantana is doing is allowing children to see that all children experience similar feelings and emotions, hopes, fears and ambitions in every day life. One of the first things I do now, in my job, when I visit schools, is to go and look through the books that they have in their book-corners and then ask the teacher if the books they have really represent all the children in their class, in the school or in society?

Emma: Do you have a creative space where you write your books?

MichaelI don’t have a special shed like Roald Dahl famously had. I tend to write where I can find somewhere quiet. I’m lucky that I do have a study at home which I can go to, but, in truth, I will write anywhere; in the garden, in bed, even on the beach.

Emma: Do you have a pictorial image in your head of the main characters when you are writing the book, and if so, do the illustrations match your visualisation? (let’s hope so!) 

Michael: I must say, I didn’t have a particular image in my head at all, though I guess, and this might be an odd thing to say, I probably knew what I didn’t think the characters looked like, if that makes sense. When I first saw the pictures you had drawn I had such a smile on my face, because, although I hadn’t got a specific image of SuperJoe and his adventures in my head, as soon as I saw what you had done, I just thought, ‘That’s spot on!’ It all just seemedt o work so well. And I just love the visual jokes that are there; some of them are so subtle. It took me a while to notice the S J that is part of SuperJoe’s bedframe, for instance. Just wonderful!

When I think of any of the books I have written, I can’t say I had any idea of what the characters would look like; all I can say is I have been so very lucky with the illustrators I have worked with who seem to have captured them perfectly, and given life to them. And I couldn’t imagine them looking any other way, now.

Emma: If you could give any advice to an aspiring author of children’s books what would it be?

Michael: Read! Read! Read! By reading, you get to do something that is really important as an author, you get to enjoy words.You get to experience how words and stories make you feel. As an author, you use words to engage the reader emotionally, whether it is to make them laugh or even to cry, to frighten them, to surprise them, to excite them. Reading helps you experience how authors do that. And after you have read, you need to write, write, write. It sounds obvious, but lots of people say they have ideas for stories, but they never actually write them down. Try writing things, even if it is just a line or two. I have notebooks and things saved on my computer where I have just written a line or two, no more, but it’s worth doing. Sometimes you can come back to them and find that they can be developed at a later date. And, I think the other thing is to be genuine. I think at the heart of any story is some sort of important truth. It might be something that is important to you, or something that is important to someone you know. It might be based on something that has happened to you or somethings important that you feel. I think when you are genuine that helps an author with their writing.

On the illustrations

Michael: Emma, I hope that I have managed to answer your questions. Hopefully, my answers made some sort of sense. Here are some questions I would like to ask you (and I may end up stealing/borrowing some of your question ideas).

When I was at primary school, if someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say ‘an author’ or ‘someone who films wildlife for documentaries on the telly’. What would you have said you wanted to be? Was it an illustrator?

Emma: No, my ambition growing up was to be a vet. I was pet mad when I was younger! I think when you’re a child it’s priceless to believe you can be anything you want to be. Unfortunately, as I progressed through school, I realised I wasn’t very gifted at maths so could never be a vet. As much as I promise my daughter she can be anything she wants to be – in reality I know you sometimes have to work really hard in certain areas to achieve your goals. I was always drawing as a child so it wasn’t a big compromise to become an illustrator...I just draw animals now - not fix them.

Michael: I think there are a number of children who have their hearts set on being ‘on-line influencers’ rather than vets and wildlife film camera operators, when they grow up, these days.

Is there a particular picture book that was a real favourite for you as a child?

Emma: Great question! There were MANY. My particular favourites were Richard Scarry books. There was so much going on and I loved the frenetic chaos and nonsense. I recently saw a quote from the late great Mr Scarry: “I'm not interested in creating a book that is read once and then placed on the shelf and forgotten. I am very happy when people have worn out my books, or that they're held together by Scotch tape”. This is exactly the state of the Richard Scarry books that still have pride of place on my shelves - held together by yellowing sellotape. It reminds me to go easier on my daughter when she’s creasing pages and spilling blackcurrant on some of my favourite books. I’m internally screaming at her to stop as I love buying a new book and keeping it in good condition - All the best books are 'well-thumbed', I have to remind myself to ‘be a little more Scarry!’

Emma's sellotaped Richard Scarry collection

Michael: I am in complete awe of artists. My biggest success in art was I once had a piece of art homework, I had completed, displayed on the wall in the classroom for about a week, along with about twenty other pieces from others in the class. At least, I think it was mine, I can’t say I was ever truly sure if it was mine. Apart from that, that is the height of my success in art. Was art a subject that you really enjoyed at school? I often say, ‘I just can’t draw!’ but Pablo Picasso said, ‘All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up’ – do you think that’s true?

Emma: Yes, very much so, I loved art at school. The beauty of creative design is that there are no rules, which suited me. Unlike maths, there’s no right or wrong way to do something. Children have very fertile imaginations and the trick is to continue this growing up without becoming too ‘sensible’. I have to constantly remind myself to be more imaginative and escape from ‘the norm’ when it comes to Illustrating...we are all influenced by people and things in one way or the other but originality is key!

I often have to remind myself to try new things when designing - whether it’s a new style, technique or medium - it’s important to not get stuck in a rut. I am predominantly a greetings card designer and the beauty of this specialty is that you can often start a new design or range and experiment with new palettes, techniques and characters. It suits my short attention span.

Undertaking a book illustration is quite a commitment and my intention is to give as much variety and excitement on each page as possible. Thankfully, SuperJoe’s many adventures and different scenarios made this commission highly enjoyable. A graduate friend of mine specialised in Scientific Illustration and her first job was a book on earthworms...many, many months of nothing but painting the same worm in hues of brown...my worst nightmare!!

Michael: I love your thoughts about art. I think, sometimes, in schools we can put children off because teachers have such set ideas about what the child’s finished product should look like. A subject that should be about creativity and freedom of expression can end up being very formulaic as children end up ‘doing a picture that looks like the one that was used as a demonstration at the start of the lesson.’

Building on your question about having a pictorial image in my head, what is the process you go through to create a character from the texts you receive?

 

Some fun behind the book notes from Emma

Emma: When I initially read through the editorial for a new picture book I instantly get an image in my head of a character, then I simply draw that character. Often, the narrative will be descriptive and this can influence me. Occasionally, the publisher will set some guidelines, which will be a starting point. Sometimes my character resembles someone I know without it being intentional. I think it’s quite flattering for the person when you show them.

A teacher friend recently told me that a child at her school mentioned not having an ‘inner voice/inner monologue’. I struggled to grasp this...much like visualising things in your head I also assumed everyone spoke to themselves internally...apparently not! I can’t understand what it would be like to not have this ability.

Michael: And my final question . . .

One of the things I do is to get members of my family to read my stories through and to comment on them. I must say that I find it quite a painful experience, especially when they say, ‘you need to change this’ or ‘I’m not sure about that’, but it is worth it in the end. Do you seek comments on your artwork from family members?

Emma: No, I don’t, I’m afraid...although I’m very open to feedback and don’t take anything too personally. One of the only downfalls to being self-employed is that I work on my own in my office (my dog offers very little in the way of constructive criticism!). My family and friends are too polite to be critical and always say they like everything. I rely quite solely on feedback from my publishers I’m afraid. Every day is a school day!

Michael: Thanks for your very informative and illuminating answers, Emma, and thanks for making SuperJoe such fun with your wonderful illustrations.

Thank you, Michael and Emma, for such a fun and interesting conversation!

See more from this fabulous book when you watch the super fun book trailer below!

Click HERE to buy a copy of the book and HERE to download the FREE reading guide and colouring sheet for parents and teachers!

Every print book purchase goes towards our A Book for a Book programme where we donate books to children who need them most via our amazing charity partners.

 

Michael is the author of 8 picture books including The Cloud Spinner, illustrated by Alison Jay, which received a Kirkus Star. With a PhD from Cambridge University, Michael is currently a school effectiveness advisor.

 

Emma is a UK-based illustrator with a degree in Illustration from Middlesex University. Emma has worked in-house for many high street clients including Clinton Cards, Hallmark Cards, Moonpig and Disney. Visit her website emmaproctor.co.uk or follow her on Instagram or Facebook to see more of her brilliant work.

 

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