Celebrity chef, restauranteur, television host, and cookbook author Jamie Oliver makes his children’s book debut with Billy and the Giant Adventure, a middle grade fantasy series opener illustrated by Mónica Armiño. After venturing into the enchanted Waterfall Woods, tween Billy and his compatriots befriend members of a Sprite civilization and learn that the Rhythm of the forest is off kilter. To restore balance, the kids must investigate a local factory that’s polluting the town’s waterways, all while navigating personal challenges surrounding bullying and managing learning disabilities. In an email conversation with PW, Oliver spoke about his pivot toward children’s fiction and how his personal experience with dyslexia informed his approach to writing Billy and the Giant Adventure using a dyslexia-friendly typeset.
Having published more than 30 cookbooks, what led you to writing a middle grade fantasy novel, your fiction debut?
When they were younger, my children, Petal and Buddy, would ask me to tell them a bedtime story from my head. So, to make sure I knew where I left off the night before (they have excellent memories—me, not so much!), I’d record the stories on a Dictaphone. That’s how I started developing the storyline for Billy and the Giant Adventure. Without Petal and Buddy, I’m not sure there would even be a book! The questions that they asked as I told them Billy’s tale helped me shape some of the storylines. They even star in the audiobook. It really has been a family affair!
Was there anything about the writing process that surprised or challenged you?
It was certainly challenging, but it was also a process that I really enjoyed. Words on a page have always felt like the enemy, so to write a novel-length book has been huge for me. Being dyslexic, I’ve had to come up with my own way of writing, which possibly isn’t the most conventional, but it’s worked. I’ve never had a problem with ideas or bringing things to life—it’s always just been getting it down onto paper.
You’ve been open about your experience with dyslexia. Why was it important for you to situate a tween with dyslexia as the hero of a big adventure?
Throughout Billy and the Giant Adventure, I wanted to show that there are many more ways of doing things than simply applying the most conventional method—there’s your way of doing things. The “Billy-Boy Way,” as I write in the novel. So, I wanted to show kids with dyslexia that they can play to their dyslexic strengths. And I hope that the “Billy-Boy Way” inspires children who struggle at school to find their own ways of doing things, like Billy has. I carefully chose the font to be easy for those with dyslexia to read, I made sure that the layout was easy to follow, and I even helped to narrate the audiobook, so that those who might not love reading can still access Billy’s story. I hope I can be proof that being dyslexic means that you can still achieve whatever you want to—you just have to believe in yourself.
There are multiple scenes throughout Billy and the Giant Adventure that heavily feature food. What role do you feel that food plays in bringing people together and in helping them navigate interpersonal challenges?
I think food can be a fantastic excuse to just get all your favorite people around a table. But it’s about more than food; it’s about making memories together. At a time when ordering food at the click of a button is so easy, there’s something very special about caring enough to spend time and effort cooking for those you love. I was never going to write a children’s book and not have food in there in some form! Not only does it bring so much joy and a smile to everyone’s faces, but getting children to connect with the food they eat—learn about where it comes from, contemplate the importance that it plays in our lives—was really important to me.
Billy and the Giant Adventure by Jamie Oliver, illus. by Mónica Armiño. Tundra, $18.99 Nov. 14 ISBN 978-1-77488-414-0